Monday, June 30, 2014

Pregnancy Belly Casting: What it is and Why it’s Deliciously Therapeutic - by Melissa Lang Lytle

This post needs very little introduction. I'm Facebook friends with Melissa, but we've never met in person. She posted her GORGEOUS belly casts and I immediately asked her if she'd write a guest post. Oh my word! So glad I did! Not only is this incredibly informative, it is truly inspiring. Enjoy.

I can remember the first time I saw a pregnant belly cast.  I was in my midwife's home office for my monthly prenatal. While waiting for her to return with a warm cup of tea, I gazed at her artwork, bookcases, and all the beautiful trimmings of her empowering space.  My eyes followed the wall up to where her own belly casts hung right above her door. How did I not notice these before? She had two beautifully painted, full pregnant belly, Venus-like molds hanging ever so delicately in her entryway.

"Is that you? I asked. "Is that what your belly actually looked like?" As I looked down at my own belly, I wondered, would I remember what I looked like pregnant? "Oh you should totally do one!" she exclaimed and bounced up to grab me some plaster tape and belly casting directions. "Make it fun or create a belly cast date night!" she said as if this was just a normal thing to do. "Oh and seriously, be liberal with that coconut oil, glob it on", she said with a wink.

I left that night thinking about all the things one might think having never seen a belly cast before and now, here I was, driving home with the materials to make one. Making a cast of my breasts and belly felt a bit, uncovered and well, revealing. Who would see this? What the heck would I do with it? Where would I put it? Is this just another one of those crunchy-granola pregnancy things? (I had just barely learned about consuming my own placenta and those who make art of said organ!)  I decided why not- worst case I’d make one and store it in a closet.

It's safe to say that after casting my belly with my first born son, I was totally hooked (I immersed myself into the world of birth work too, but that's a whole other story). I looked forward to making my belly casts at the end of my next two pregnancies. Creating my belly casts helped me encapsulate all that I was anticipating and feeling for 38 weeks into a tangible piece of molded plaster. Weird, I know, but making a cast toward the end of pregnancy helped me know that I would meet my baby soon. Looking at my casts as they dried and hardened, I was simply awestruck at what my body actually looked like. Pregnancy is full of vulnerability and feelings that are unique to women carrying their babies inside their bodies. I found when making my casts that they somehow helped me identify a moment in time upon which I can look back and remember it all. A cast of a big pregnant belly has a way of conveying that. At the very least I could physically see the sheer size of my breasts and belly and their unique shapes. Each one of my belly casts is different, my belly size, my baby's position when casting my belly, etc. I think anytime we, as women, can connect to the journey of pregnancy and becoming a mother, it’s a worthwhile exercise. Here's my two cents on why making your own belly cast is worthwhile.

So what the heck is a belly cast?

A pregnancy belly cast is a plaster cast made of an expecting woman's pregnant form. You can buy a belly cast kit or just simple plaster casting tape.  
(I think out of pocket for supplies range from $15-$35). 

The plaster used for belly casts is basically the same material used for setting bone casts. To prepare the materials for my cast I took some measurements of the various sizes around my body: breasts, chest, belly, hips etc. I then cut the tape into different lengths (some kits have the tape pre-cut).  

Before I started any actual placement of tape, I took coconut oil and very liberally applied it to the areas of my body where the cast would lay on my skin.  This is so important because when it’s time to take the cast off, you do not want it sticking to your body or hair (warning, those little hairs do stick to the plaster tape)! Ouch! Then, I wet the strips in warm water, using a long, flat container (I used a rectangle deep roasting pan) to get the plaster nice and saturated. I like to get the strips wet enough so they make a paste and the wetter they are it's easier to place them on my body. My husband actually did the tape placement for me as he was a stickler for attention to detail. You will need to smooth them out (warning to the ticklish type). With each strip we laid, we made sure to overlap each previous strip by 1/2" to 1". 

As far as what the actual "mold" or cast would ultimately look like finished, I preferred to be naked but some choose to wear a bra or bandeaux top to cover the breast or nipple definition. For more modest women, I’ve seen casts almost look like a dress! It really depends on how you want your belly cast to look. You can layer the casting tape as thick as you like, but I just layered 2-3 strips on top of each other. Once the tape has hardened minimally into a cast (10 minutes or so), you can gently remove it and place it somewhere to dry. The final drying time depends on how humid the air is, but it usually takes at least a few days to fully harden. 

Once it's fully dry, you can decide whether to trim or sand it and eventually even decorate it. With my casts, I chose not to sand them down, as I wanted mine to have a texture of the rugged tape as I prefer texture. Some prefer their casts to be soft and smooth, and honestly, both ways look beautiful. I’ve seen some amazing casts that have heart-shaped necklines, straps, and some even shaped almost into a statue like a bust. The creative possibilities really are endless. And you don't have to do it all yourself! If you know someone creative or want to hire someone to help make your cast or decorate it for you, go for it! My midwife had a friend paint hers. Again, this is where your own creativity comes in, and if you don't feel up to the task of painting or gluing, find someone who can do it for you.  Go with what makes you feel good.

When in my pregnancy should I make one? 

Most of the time, pregnant women make their belly cast between 36-40+ weeks. I have a few friends who made them while in early labor (it can be a wonderful distraction)! Some women make multiple belly casts to capture the miraculous changes in their bodies throughout their entire pregnancy. When choosing what to cast, it's really up to you. You can cast your entire torso (neck and shoulders all the way down to parts of your upper thigh) or keep it simple and only do your belly.  The actual making of a cast is a bit messy, but otherwise pretty simple. My midwife included a basic plaster casting tape instruction when giving me the tape, but belly cast kits with step by step directions are available too (not to mention videos on YouTube). Ideally I would suggest someone to help you, but surely it's not rocket science and you could do it solo with the help of a mirror. When casting my bellies, my husband (and kiddos with my last cast) helped me and we made it a family affair. Again, make it your own. Here are a few ideas you could try:

- blessing-way cast party with your girlfriends or doula
- date night (or early labor) with your partner
- use a belly cast professional (yes there are women who offer this service and will make, finish, and even decorate it for you with your help or suggestions)
- involve your kiddos so they can connect with your pregnancy and the new baby

If you create the intention, the making of your cast will be more special. At the very least, you are being creative in the moment even if it only sits in your closet or you decide not to keep it.

Why make a belly cast?

There are many different reasons women choose to preserve the memory of their pregnancy. This is a short time in our life and with so many physical changes, it's fun to document. Pictures and video are often popular and easy, but more women are choosing to celebrate their pregnant bodies. Painted belly art, henna belly art, and blessing-ways instead of baby showers are becoming more mainstream (I mean this is Banned From Baby Showers, right?). I've also seen some really cool apps that document body changes by taking a picture each week so that you can create a modern time-lapse movie set to music (so fun, I wish I had done this). I think making a pregnancy belly cast is a really special way to commemorate your body and just like snowflakes, no two are alike!

What do I do with it?

Put it anywhere, literally! My casts hang on my bedroom wall, and my boys love to point out which belly cast is theirs and we talk about how they were once small enough to fit into my belly. Seeing them for us is a way of celebrating our family. Again, this is totally up to you. Display them by hanging them in your living room, bedroom, or your baby's nursery. I've seen those who cast only their belly and use it as a decorative bowl. Use the belly cast as a prop and place your baby inside for some adorable newborn pictures! Of course, it's perfectly fine to store your belly casts in your closet, basement, or attic too; not everyone feels the need to show them off.  Like a baby book or keepsake, you may want to save it for your children or bring it out at special times like their birth day or when you are reminiscing about being pregnant. Keep your belly cast as is, or enjoy the process of decorating with paint, glue, or any artsy thing you can think of (again, anything goes!) Some decorate the belly cast with a theme for the baby or simply channel what I call “creative nesting” which is using the energy of this pregnancy to find what moves you. 

You can always decorate your belly casts after the baby arrives too. You may find that having time to think about it and meet your baby first will help you feel inspired. Having someone help you if decorating feels too overwhelming is wonderful too (we all have those friends who are crafty and pin on Pinterest daily)!  I know I was crazy nervous when I painted my first cast, but like a blank canvas or white walls, you can always repaint or touch it up if you mess up or change your mind. Also, there are women who offer services that will help you restore your belly cast by strengthening it on the underside and will help you add hooks or grommets to hang it.

So if art is therapy, and belly casts are art, then making a belly cast is therapeutic!

As a labor and birth doula, and an advocate of women-centered birth, I can't convey enough that connecting to this special time in pregnancy is important. Many feelings come up with carrying your baby that impact your experience from conception to birth to postpartum. I find that creating and using art as a process is an incredible way to connect to you, your baby, as well as your journey together. Sometimes there are complications in pregnancy or birth or maybe your birth was vastly different than you had imagined. Feelings aren’t always verbalized right away and often the act of creating something physical that you can look at later can be incredibly rewarding. Making and decorating my belly casts really helped me connect to how I was feeling at that moment and I worked through my reservations and feelings about my pregnancy and upcoming labor. My third son is a rainbow baby (a baby after a loss/miscarriage) so I wanted his cast to be decorated in a rainbow theme. I literally used tissue paper and Hodgepodge to create a colorful palette. My choice of decorating wasn’t fancy (really just what I had on hand) but I’ve seen mosaics, lace, and jewels used with great results. Cutting and laying each colored tissue took time and truly helped me focus on my feelings. I call it creative nesting (better than cleaning, right?). When it comes to belly casts, I often hear women say they don’t feel artsy or creative enough. Simply not true! This is your pregnancy, your body. Just making a cast and nothing else will still be a work of art!
Your body is miraculous. Taking the time to experience making a belly cast is a fantastic way to create a beautiful heirloom to pass onto your child or simply keep as a token just for yourself to remember the power and shape of your pregnant body. I love belly casts! I look at images of them all the time, appreciating that each are so different and special. I love to see how women choose to shape them, the various shapes of their bellies, and how they decorate them (or not). I recommend researching some of the fabulous ideas you could do with yours. The art of casting your pregnant belly is fun and I highly recommend the experience to all pregnant women. Creating one not only makes the pregnancy journey more fun, but a great way to preserve that awesome belly shape forever!
This post is dedicated to my amazing midwife, Andrea Meyer LM, CPM
Melissa Lang Lytle