8 months ago, I was given the chance to henna a mother’s belly. Megan was about 8 months pregnant at the time. Now that alone was something to celebrate, because on the way to becoming pregnant many negative and horrible things had happened in her life. Her previous labour was traumatic and left her disempowered and both emotionally and physically scarred, and too scared to consider having to do it all again.
But this baby boy was going to be born into a different era of his mother’s life – no more negative things. Megan had found herself in a much better place and ready to include another child in her new family.
To help celebrate Megan and her body, I was invited to henna her belly in the presence of her mom and a family friend, Sarah.
Henna can be very healing and transformative. When I work on a mother’s belly, it’s a time for her to sit and relax and be taken care of. And it might be a little scary too, because someone they just met is paying close attention to their body, and for some people that’s a little uncomfortable if they feel they have anything less than perfect on display.
But the effect of henna on people is amazing. They slow down, breathe deep, and take a moment to just be nurtured. And then this amazing thing happens.
They start to share stories. They talk about their fears for this pregnancy, their hopes, and they open up and tell the other women around them (since it’s generally a gathering of women at belly blessings) about the things in their past that they are not necessarily proud of. They may talk about mental health, postpartum depression, feeling ashamed or guilty, feeling lonely, feeling scared. We talk about scars, inability to cope and our absolute worst days of mothering.
A month later baby James was born, and this time, his birth was not spiraling wildly out of her control.
At 8 months postpartum for Megan, I was invited back again to do an ‘honoring mothers’ belly blessing for her. She warned me before pulling up her shirt, “it’s not pretty”. But what she presented me with was a perfectly beautiful tummy, and I told her so.
The design I had in mind for her mirrored the design I had drawn on her pregnant belly, connecting her body now to that body 8 months ago. I am hoping that in her mind, she can make that connection as well, and learn to not be so negative about her body and as shy with her tummy when there is clearly no reason to be. My goal as a henna artist with postpartum mothers is to beautify the part of their body that they are having the most trouble with so they can learn to see it differently, and perhaps treat themselves in a gentler way.
We had the same group of women present as we had 8 months ago – Megan’s mother and their friend Sarah and I, but with baby James on the outside instead of inside his moms body this time. The talk in the room that afternoon while I was working on Megan’s belly was all about body image. Again, we shared our stories about our bodies. Mothers’ feelings about their bodies range from feeling ugly, not sexy, undesirable, ruined, guilty and ashamed, and there was a good amount of those feelings coming up in that living room that day. All the while, I was focused on Megan’s tummy, working inches away and getting intimately into her personal space in the way that only a select few people would normally be. It takes a very brave person to make themselves vulnerable like that.
Unfortunately for some moms, it’s sometimes debilitatingly difficult to just lift your shirt in public. For some moms, baring their body in the presence of me, a stranger, and their family and friends is enough to start to make a change in their minds. To let me in that close to a part of their body that they are hyper-sensitive about is a big step. And the nature of henna means that after my design is finished; it needs to take time to dry. So before they know it, mom is walking around with her shirt hiked up and everyone is admiring her and calling her beautiful. Now she’s feeling more comfortable with herself – another step forward.
To all mothers in the world that suffer from negative body image issues – change the script in your head that dictates how you treat yourself, how you talk to yourself, what you fixate on about your body. Realize that you are very likely that only one who thinks that way. Keep stepping slowly forward.