I had a fairly fast and furious labour and delivery 4 weeks ago today. I was absolutely delighted at the birth of our baby, but in terms of my body-image, I felt very cut, torn, bruised, battered, and ugly. I told my partner that my lower parts looked like a baboon’s bum that had been savaged by poachers, and I stand by that observation.
However, if you had asked me 4 weeks ago how my body was feeling and how my body image was doing, I’d have given you a very different answer to the one I’d give you right now, and probably to the one I’d give you tomorrow, and the one I’d give next week. The answer will depend…
I’ve had a lot of time to think about my body in a different way, so thought I’d capture how I’ve found mindfulness useful over that period in particular. I’m hoping this could be of wider application whatever experience or relationship people have with their body image. I’m also hoping it doesn’t just come across as the 4am ramblings of someone who is slightly sleep-deprived.
So what is mindfulness and how can practising it help with how we feel about our bodies?
Mindfulness means deliberately paying attention to the present, non-judgmentally. Or, put even more simply, noticing each moment with kindness.
Mindfulness practice can help us to:
- notice thoughts we have about the body. If we notice the thoughts as thoughts, we open up the option of questioning or challenging them. Or we can notice the impact of those thoughts on our mood. For example, if I notice me telling myself ‘my body is completely ruined’ from giving birth, I can question whether that is true. There are definitely parts of my body which are in recovery and healing right now. There are also parts of my body which are functioning perfectly fine. That gives me a very different frame of reference to being ‘completely ruined’.
- notice storylines and the mind’s ability to rewind or fast forward.
Fast forwarding to the future isn’t always helpful - in relation to the body and many other things. Neither is dwelling in the past, and focussing on how our body was last week. If I lie in bed focussing on my body after birth I could find myself thinking that ‘I’ll never get better’ or my body will ‘never feel the same again’. The process of recovery and how we relate to our bodies generally isn’t linear - but it also isn’t static, stuck in the past or part of an imagined future that hasn’t actually happened yet.
- listen to the messages our body is giving us, which in turn impacts how we relate to it. My body’s fairly loud message to me over the past few weeks has been that it needs to rest. I’ve tried to honour that, put my feet up and not feel guilty about it. Rest is necessary for a good recovery and to help reduce some of the pain I’m experiencing. When I view it that way it is a necessity rather than a luxury.
- realise that each moment is different - our bodies change, develop and are constantly shifting. So too can our perceptions of it. So recognising this and letting go of the idea that we need to get our bodies back to a particular ‘state’ can be helpful. Our bodies are never in the same ‘state’ for very long!
- be kind to ourselves and remember we are human. Whatever history or experience we have with our bodies, we may well have highs and lows - that is human, understandable, and not uncommon. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve cried with pain, I’ve winced when I’ve noticed stretch-marks in places where I thought I’d avoided them, I’ve prodded my stomach and wondered why it wasn’t going down in size, and I’ve felt anxious that I might rip my stitches apart if I laugh or sneeze too forcefully. What I would have done in the past would have been to berate myself for these feelings, telling myself to stop being silly and get it together, and adding an extra layer of judgement onto something that is already quite challenging. By being slightly kinder to myself and not judging too much (well not all the time, anyway), the process of recovery has felt slightly easier than it otherwise might have done.
So those are my initial observations - but like I said, ask me in a week’s time and the answer might be quite different:).
In the meantime, here is a short practice you can try if you want to begin checking in with your body right now:
- Start in a comfortable position - lying down, standing, sitting - whatever works for you.
- If you can, try to reduce distractions, by turning off your mobile for example, or switching it to silent.
- Notice any expectations you might have about this practice, and as best you can just let those expectations go. There is no right or wrong way of doing this practice, and no particular ‘goal’ for you to reach or tick off.
- When you feel ready, bring your awareness to the sensations of breathing in your body, noticing each in breath, and each out breath. There is no need to control or manipulate the breath; just notice how it is for you right now. You can bring your awareness back to the breath whenever you need to.
- Then, if it feels comfortable, gently bring your awareness and attention to your body - maybe scanning slowly from the feet, all the way up to the crown of your head. What sensations can you notice in your body right now, if any? What messages is it giving you? Try not to think too hard about your body, but just notice any sensations as they arrive.
- Notice if you start to get caught up in any storylines about your body as you are scanning - remember that is perfectly normal, but as best you can try to bring your awareness and attention back to what is going on in your body right now.
- When you are ready, gently return your attention back to your in-breath and your out-breath.
- In your own time, end the practice and see if you can keep checking in with your body in this way throughout the course of your day.
For more 4 am thoughts, follow me on twitter at @calmcitymum