Is this a beautiful shape? I could post this on Facebook and get the usual slew of obligatory compliments: "You look fantastic!" "Sooo beautiful!" "What a stunning bump!" And so on.
Except I'm not pregnant. This isn't the elegant curve of a baby bump, it's the indistinguishable curve of endometriosis. It really is indistinguishable: when my endo's bad, I look so convincingly pregnant that I'm offered seats on buses, told off for drinking by strangers, congratulated by acquaintances. To add to the versimilitude, I often protect my stomach from painful knocks with a hand, exactly the sheltering gesture of a pregnant woman. Except I'm not pregnant.
It's also slack muscles, by this stage. Three months of not being able to use my stomach muscles for anything, even kettle-lifting, else the inflammation gets worse, and of course the muscles are now slack. Some of it is weight gain, too: again, three months of enforced inactivity, you're going to gain a bit of weight. But usually, when I gain weight, I don't look pregnant - I just look like I've gained weight. I know this, and still, when I look in the mirror, all I can see is fat.
I believe so strongly in fighting for a positive body-image, against the tide of thinspiration and photoshopping and all the rest. In the sea of beauty = worth, skinny = good, I cling to life rafts. To this extraordinary, healing article by a physiotherapist on what people really look like. To this Dove ad about Photoshopping faces. To this video about photoshopping a model's body. I limit my exposure to the poisons: I don't buy women's magazines, watch commercial TV, or live in a city with intensive billboards - the less advertising I see, the better my body image. I rant about it, unpacking and unpicking the cultural assumptions from the fabric of my mind, to try keep it from taking hold. I joke about it: when I'm confronted with an array of women's magazines at the supermarket checkout, offering your best ever body! and the perfect bikini body! I mentally translate "body" as "corpse". Suddenly there's a thriving, colourful industry of corpse collectors, instead of seven shelves full of triggers to feel shit about myself.
But with endo, it's so much harder - and harder still when I can't even take refuge in rejoicing at what my body can do, my own pleasure in its strength as I walk or paint walls.
It might seem strange, in the face of severe pain and wheelchairs and daily dependence, even needing help with dressing, to talk about body image. (Another of the double-standard double-whammies: women are valued by their beauty, but God forbid we actually care about it ourselves. Vanity! Women fussing over their appearance! So shallow! Etc etc etc.) But even holding firm to all my knowledge and all my feminism, some days I look in the mirror and I want to cry. I fill with self-loathing, because I'm fat and that's my fault. So I couldn't exercise - well, why did I still eat?! I try to get dressed, discarding dress after dress that won't fit, fighting back tears, and start the day feeling sick.
We don't talk about this much in endo, at least not publicly, but I've spoken to other women with endo who also weep over that suitcase of clothes. We swap tips on dress-cuts - babydoll's a winner because it doesn't constrict that oh-so-tender swollen stomach... but also because it hides it. Mostly because it hides it.
I don't want to give in to the self-loathing. As I start the slow progress of recoveirng my mobility, strength, and independence, I don't want to castigate myself for looking fat. But yes, I care how I look. From my abruptly limited wardrobe, I have three dresses that fit me and in which I feel comfortable - only one in which I feel comfortable about how I look. That's not the dress in the photo; it doesn't show my stomach and that's the point, but I can't wear the same dress every day.
I bought the dress in the photo nine months ago, for this summer, when I was well and my body looked rather different inside it. I put it on this morning, looked in the mirror, my face fell, and my eyes filled with tears. I look pregnant, I thought miserably.
And then I thought: I look pregnant. Women look beautiful, pregnant. Pregnancy is a beautiful shape. This is the same shape. Is this a beautiful shape?
No moral here and no conclusion. I can't magically strip the mesh of all society's enculturated views from my brain, however hard I try to fight them. Just a talisman to hold onto.