I was not familiar with any history behind the #healthybellyselfie movement on Instagram when I was invited to share a photo of my own bare stomach after pregnancy.
I quickly learned that this movement was started by mykindoflife.com as an opportunity for people to share their real bodies of all colors, stages of life, shapes, and sizes without retouching and explain what makes their bellies healthy. It is a movement intended to spread healthy body images across the Internet.
Kristen Hedges of happysleepyfolks.com invited me to join in on the movement, and I was eager to do so.
This is the caption that I posted with my photo:
“Look down at yourself. Look at your feet. Webs of tiny bones, rivers of blue veins. Look at your strong legs. Muscles, bumps, scars. Look at the way that your knees poke out. Touch the loose skin that puckers around them. Run your hands over your waist. Feel your tummy. Tug on your sagging belly button. Feel the ripples of stretched skin. Read your moles and freckles like brail. Imagine the love stories folded into your wrinkles and dark circles and imperfections. Feel your abdomen, your ribs, feel your beating heart, your lungs. Everything is circulating and functioning. You are warm and soft and hard and real. You are an organic machine.
"You are amazing. You are a living and breathing miracle. You could stop working at any moment and this could all be over. So why look at the woman next to you and wonder why your stomach doesn’t look like hers? I’m sorry, sister, but if nobody has filled you in yet I hate to break it to you and tell you that this is your skin. This is your one body in this life. Augment it with plastic surgery, paint it with a tan, conceal it with makeup. You are not beautiful until you say that you are beautiful. And if the woman next to you is beautiful then you should feel comforted in knowing that we are all one and the same.
"The woman next to you reflects your own beauty. If she is beautiful then we are all beautiful. And if you are vulnerable on the inside, then so is she. We are all beautiful and vulnerable. So, own your skin. Your body is a miracle. A fucking miracle. We are blessed every day that we breathe. Every day that our eyes can look out of our window. Every day that we can taste food. Every day that our mind can conjure up a thought. Every day that our tongue can articulate an idea. Every day that we can hug a loved one. Every day that we breathe we are beautiful.”
This morning, I was nestled in bed with my daughter, nursing her as my eyes adjusted to the stripes of light filtering through the blinds. I opened my email on my iPhone, as per usual.
In almost a year of blogging and sharing myself with the world, I received hate mail for the very first time for the photo that I posted. Here it is:
“A skinny 20-something white girl with a feed full of selfies, with a flat belly and nary a visible stretch mark, is inspiring in a postpartum celebration movement for posting a nude photo of her magazine-resemblant body? Either I'm unusual for being unmoved or I'm not a sycophant. This post feels disingenuous to me, an excuse to further display herself when a feed full of displaying herself isn't enough to feed whatever drives her to display herself. Surely you understand that many women have one baby and do not turn out as well as you did. (I did after four babies, so this comment isn't informed by jealousy.) And that plenty of them would look at this photo and compare themselves and feel sad. If you want to show your body, show it unabashedly!
"But if you tie it to a movement meant to create solidarity amongst battered bodies by postpartum women, women struggling to feel at peace with the aftermath of a pregnancy, you're risking doing the opposite and that just doesn't seem kind; it seems selfish. The text accompanying it doesn't save it because it makes no sense to say that because one woman is beautiful, all women are. This is nonsensical rubbish, condescending, even. I predict that in 15 years, hopefully less, you will feel embarrassed about this post. Have you ever seen Miss Representation? What would happen if you posted no selfies (with baby or without) for six months? Does that feel hard? If so, why? Do you depend on your looks too much for feelings of self-worth?
"The world needs more representations of beauty of brown women, older women, fat women. Not more of what we are all TS we need look like. On the one hand, of course you are worthy of self-celebration and -appreciation and -visibility. But, on the other hand, we white pretty and thin women should consider taking up less space and using our platforms to celebrate other kinds of beauty and also NO physical beauty! You have talent. Relying so much on your appearance takes away from your talent AND your appearance.
"–An annoyed but also maternal-feeling older feminist reader.”
I typed out a reply. Not angry, but trying to level with the woman who wrote this email to me. I presented myself as a human, gave her some background into my life, and I questioned her authority in making these comments about me.
My email was meek and laden with typos. It was early, my daughter was waking beside me, and I was hurt. In my past year of blogging I have received many emails from strangers, but they have all been humbling, loving, and very supportive. This email made me feel hollow. It made me feel like I have failed my audience. It made me question everything.
I reread the email and my response. I deleted the thread. I threw my phone in exasperation. Blood rushed into my ears. I never meant to misrepresent myself on social media. I was raised in a family of empowered, strong, intellectual women who emphasize knowledge above beauty in every aspect. Writing is so sacred to me because it implores a reality free of visual stimuli.
To answer the woman who wrote me this email, yes, I have watched Miss Representation. It made me angry. Specifically, I resonated with the voice of a teary young girl who noted that she was always criticized for being skinny. She was called anorexic. She felt that she had to eat hamburgers and gain weight to appease the voices telling her that her body was all wrong.
That girl's voice struck a chord with me. My body is not magazine-perfect. Since puberty, I have struggled with feeling that my body permanently resembles that of a 12-year-old boy. I never had curves. Only skin and bones. No matter what I ate or how I exercised. This is my body. This is my skin.
Shamelessly, I shared my skin on Instagram yesterday. I exposed my moles, my scars, my imperfections. Then I was told by a stranger that, from her point of view, my lack of imperfection made me inauthentic and disingenuous.
My online presence emerged as a way for me to share my story and my writing. I hoped that at least one person would find comfort and familiarity in my words, and to my surprise more than one person did.
For the first time in my life, I found a community that did not care what I looked like. I did not seek approval upon the basis of beauty. I felt authentic and real in my sharing. I was vulnerable and makeup-free. I saw stretch marks as a thing of beauty. I saw women celebrating their new bodies after motherhood regardless of how they looked.
I am proud of my new mother’s body. My body that produced a human being. My body that is different than it ever has been. My body that weighs more than it ever has. My breasts that are streaked with stretch marks and full of the milk that sustains my baby. My hips that are not toned but soft. The C-section scar above my pubic bone. Every little mark on my body tells a story.
But, while I was reading this email I did not feel comfortable or accepted or beautiful. I felt flawed and phony. I felt shame and anxiety. I considered deleting every selfie from my Instagram feed. I considered taking on an oath to not look in the mirror or apply makeup.
But I refuse to be embarrassed of myself. This is the healthiest I have ever been. The strongest I have ever been. The proudest I have ever been of my body.
I am a single mother to a daughter and I am only too aware of the weight that this carries. I hold my head high. I tell myself that I am worthy and beautiful. I am a feminist.