Body Image As a Mom

Mom Body Image | CorporetteMomsKate and I were discussing the troubling issue of body image as a mom — even if you get back to your old “size,” what do you do when you just feel different in your skin, or when you feel like your shape has fundamentally changed? Kate generously offered to share her thoughts in more detail… —Kat

New mothers are given two choices for looking at and thinking about their post-baby bodies. These general messages are:

Message #1: “If Kate Middleton can do it, so can you!”
Come on, it’s time to lose that baby weight! Look, these skinny celebrities did it — you can too! Don’t worry, breastfeeding will make the weight just FALL OFF. This mom isn’t even a celebrity and it wasn’t a problem for HER. In her words, “What’s your excuse?”

Message #2: “Hey, you went through pregnancy and childbirth! Be proud of your body — it’s amazing!” 
Sure, it looks a bit different now, but it created a new life! Maybe you even breastfeed your baby — you produced milk that kept a little human being ALIVE! Celebrate and love your body, stretchmarks tiger stripes and all!

Clearly, the first message isn’t helpful — that’s not to say that moms can’t go back to their pre-baby weight (or even to a number on the scale that’s even lower), but for moms who are struggling with their weight or coming to realize that their bodies may never look exactly as they once did, it’s discouraging.

The second message can be beneficial for many women, and this positive outlook is reinforced by photos of real (i.e., everyday, non-celebrity) mothers on sites like The Shape of a Mother and The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project, and A Beautiful Body Project‘s book The Bodies of Mothers (“powerful stories and truthful unaltered images of mothers”), as well as Instagram photos labeled #takebackpostpartum. (By the way, it’s probably best to consider all of that NSFW.) You can buy t-shirts proclaiming, “I make milk. What’s your superpower?” There are images in our Facebook feeds that explain, “How to get a bikini body: Put a bikini on your body.”

But what if neither of these approaches appeal to you, or your experience simply doesn’t fit that dichotomy? Some examples:

  • Maybe you lost the baby weight quickly (perhaps through breastfeeding and/or because your baby wanted to be held all the time, which makes it kind of tough to eat an actual meal — ask me how I know!) but you’re still unhappy with your body shape, or loose skin, or stretchmarks, or the way your pre-pregnancy clothes fit you now.
  • Maybe you lost the baby weight but then ended up putting it back on because no one in your family has time to cook real food anymore, or you’ve fallen into the habit of eating leftover tidbits on your kids’ plates, or the stress of being a working mom sends you straight to the fridge for some temporary relief, or you let your gym membership lapse because you can’t seem to fit workouts into your schedule.
  • Maybe the main reason you want to lose the baby weight is that you don’t really have the money and/or the time to replace the majority of your pre-baby wardrobe — and anyway, you really like those clothes.
  • Maybe you aren’t trying to look exactly like you did in your pre-baby days, but you want to get in better shape to feel healthier and more energetic, or because of a family history of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or other diseases.
  • Maybe calling stretchmarks “tiger stripes” makes you roll your eyes.
  • Maybe you’ve harbored negative thoughts about your body even before you had kids, and your current feelings are nothing new.
  • Maybe you couldn’t care less about your weight right now because you’re preoccupied with serious problems like diastasis recti, postpartum depression, sexual difficulties, or childbirth injuries/pelvic floor problems.
  • Maybe you’re happy with your post-baby body no matter what it looks like.
  • Maybe you know that the healthier way of looking at your new body is to accept message #2 — but after being bombarded with message #1, it’s seeped into your brain alongside all of the other media messages telling women to be thinner, sexier, prettier, etc. (in contrast to the “dad bod” silliness earlier this year — here’s The Daily Show’s take).
  • Maybe you feel like a bad feminist for thinking about this in the first place; some women’s thoughts on that can be found here, here, and here.

How do you feel about your body after having kids? Do you feel that there’s too much pressure for moms to not actually look like they were pregnant for nine months? Have your feelings changed over the months/years? For those who are new moms: how important to you is it to return to your pre-baby weight? 

(Pictured at top: 1957 Illustrated Diet Pill Ad, Antobese Tablets, originally uploaded to Flickr by Classic Film.) 

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Comments

  1. Philanthropy Girl says:

    So here’s the brutal truth. I hate my pp body. So. Much. I have diastasis, chronic fatigue and an estrogen imbalance. I never lost all my baby weight. In fact, I gained it all back plus some. I’ve been on Shakeology and cut sugar and carbs for the past three months, but I’m too tired to exercise much more than “chase busy toddler” for the few hours I see him in a day. I’m on hormones and vitamins and supplements, and I’m still struggling to get my weight to budge or my energy to improve.

    And I hate it. I hate how tired I am. I hate how misshapen I look. I hate how my clothes fit. I don’t mind the stretch marks so much, but that diastasis pooch is awful. I have a supportive spouse and friends who fall into the “your body is amazing,” camp, but a lot of pressure from my mom and sister to follow the “If Kate Middleton can do it” mantra. I feel like I’m surrounded by the “Kate Middleton” types in my community, who instantly bounce back to their supermodel shapes and it just makes me hate my body even more for being a “failure” in this area. I feel like my body did this amazing thing in growing a person, but then totally let me down on letting *me* be a person.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become way more concerned with being healthy than being thin or beautiful. If I could feel healthy again, I think I’d be less concerned with a poochy tummy and wide hips.

    • Oh man. I’m sorry you feel this way. I recognize so much of myself in this. I hated my pp body. I was so disgusted with it that I couldn’t even look at my full body in the mirror when I got out of the shower. I also had (have) an amazingly supportive husband and friends that always told me that they thought I looked wonderful…but I felt gross, heavy, tired, and unhealthy.

      It took until my youngest was 1.5 years old before we had enough of a “routine” down that I started waking up earlier to work out in the mornings. I was so tired. So tired. But I made myself do it for a week. And within that week, I felt so much better about my body. I felt like I was doing something to make myself healthier.

      You’re not alone. I know there’s a huge body acceptance movement, but that just made me feel worse when I hated my body. Eventually, you’ll get things evened out and you’ll be able to make time and make yourself a priority.

      • Philanthropy Girl says:

        Thanks, JJ.

        I couldn’t agree more that sometimes the body acceptance thing is hard, because then not only do I hate my body, but I feel guilty for feeling that way! It’s like I can’t win.

  2. Anon in NYC says:

    Oh man. So timely for me and such a loaded issue. I am definitely susceptible to the first message, a lot more so than the second. I don’t compare myself to supermodels and most celebrities because they just seem so far removed from “real life,” but Kate Middleton and my friends who look like they swallowed a tennis ball during pregnancy? Sure.

    I gained more than recommended during pregnancy, mostly due to poor eating (all the pizza!) and am still above my pre-pregnancy weight because I haven’t cleaned up my eating habits and haven’t yet built back a regular exercise routine. Pre-baby, I ate more healthily and regularly worked out, and loved how I felt (healthy, energized, etc.) so I doubly feel like a failure. I’m finding myself in this cycle where I’m mad at myself for not doing more, but then I’m too lazy/busy/focused on other things to put in the effort, and then my pre-baby clothes don’t fit. Rinse and repeat. Sigh. I sometimes wish magic wands were real.

  3. For about the first year post-partum I felt blissfully free from all judgments about my body. I could see that things looked different, but it didn’t preoccupy me. I had a new baby, breastfeeding, and all the challenges that go with going back to work to think about. After that year, once I stopped nursing, I could feel myself getting back on the bod-shaming train a little bit. I don’t expect to look like I did before, but overall I feel less toned and less strong than ever. I have the same problem with food and exercise as others: little time and lots of guilt. Still navigating this, but definitely making an effort to stay more in the “my body is amazing” camp than the Middleton camp. It’s hard!

  4. Navy Attorney says:

    And, bouncing back from the first is easier than the subsequent children. So your current decisions all feel like failures.

  5. I gained 50 pounds each pregnancy (on my 5’1″ frame) even with fairly strict eating and exercise habits. It took me 9 months to lose that each time, but the shape of my body is different. Now I have a lump of dough where my six pack used to be, wide hips, and saggy boobs. That second to last bullet is me: I know I should feel proud of everything I did and am, but I hate my body because it didn’t pull a Kate.
    I struggle putting on clothes every morning, because my body isn’t what it used to be. I loved my waist, now I don’t have one. I loved sleeveless tops, now my upper arms flap. I loved my high heels, now I can’t wear them.
    I worry about the message this is sending my daughters. I wonder if I’ll ever find clothes that flatter me now and make me feel pretty. I worry people at work, at home, in life are judging me for gaining too much and not bouncing back.

  6. Beenet says:

    That bullet point list really hits the nail on the head for me. 12 weeks post partum and about to go back to work, neither my pregnancy clothes nor prior clothes reflect this body with it’s odd and unfamiliar shape. Hard to find the resources to address the issue but it is bothering me and I’m relieved I’m not the only one.

  7. I tried composing some kind of consistent narrative but all I can come up with is some vignettes / observations.

    Whenever we say someone looks ‘like a mom,’ it’s never a compliment. We say it when we mean, ‘she is asexual. She is someone whose identity has been absorbed or erased by virtue of giving birth / adopting another human being.’

    I loved my pregnant body. I found it very freeing to eat whatever I craved, to exercise at my own pace, and to meet the moving target of dressing appropriately for an absurd shape. I also enjoyed having a few months break from worrying about straying too far to either end of the frumpy/sexy continuum.

    I miss having huge boobs. I don’t know what that says about me.

    • Anonymous says:

      I could have written this post. I feel EXACTLY the same. I miss the huge b00bs, I loved my pregnant body, I am working hard to get back to the mindset I had when I was pregnant, that my body is incredible and I should move/eat at my own pace and responsive to my own needs.

  8. NewMomAnon says:

    I didn’t even realize how much I needed my body to be “ideal” before I had a baby – I always thought I had a positive body image. Once I had a baby I realized that it was only positive because I was always watching and in control of my inputs and exercise. In retrospect, I think I’ve had an eating disorder most of my life.

    Then hormones and fatigue and distraction came into play and I couldn’t control everything so tightly…it’s been a sh*t show. I dread getting dressed; nothing looks the way I want it to look, the trends that I want to wear just look droopy and sad. And to top it all off, I don’t know what size I wear anymore so I can’t order online, but I don’t have the time (or mental strength) to lock myself in a fitting room for hours. And I had a life-saving surgery 9 months postpartum that left me with a huge scar up my belly, flanked by staple marks on either side that won’t go away….and my kiddo of course loves to play with it. And loves slapping my jiggly thighs to see them bounce. I wish I could just laugh at it and celebrate that she is seeing a “real” body, but I die inside a little each time it happens.

    On the other hand, I’ve become more humble about judging other women’s bodies that differ from the “ideal.” I used to be a snob about people who were overweight or dressed in clothes that I didn’t find “flattering.” I don’t do that as much now, and notice when I do have mean thoughts. I just hope that figuring this out about myself now will help me talk about it more with my daughter, so I don’t pass on the family legacy of body shaming.

  9. Do not be like me.

    I had my 2nd baby 13 weeks ago. I got a fitness tracker, and 2 weeks after C-section I was READY to GO on losing the weight. Started running after 4 weeks…and never took a day off exercising. 12 weeks after baby I’m down 19 lbs., but now I can’t work out at all because of overuse injuries in my knees/shins. I really wish I had calmed down and taken more days off because this injury really hurts. :-(

    • It’s so hard to hold back and take it slow when you want to exercise! I did a bunch of high-impact stuff at 3 months pp, screwed up my joints something awful (whether due to relaxin, which stays for 6 months, or just muscle weakness/imbalance, I’ll never know) and at 8 months still have residual issues that prevent me from running and jumping. So hard!!

  10. this is great, really helpful to read and think about what others are feeling. You’re not alone – me too and three and four to all of those! I am not a Kate, if anything I’m a Queen Mum, but I like who said it above that looking “like a mom” does not do much to make me feel sexy or professional. It’s enough to get through the day with a 6-month-old and his older brother. As a feminist I know that body image SHOULDN’T matter, as ME, it does, to me. Can’t imagine what moms of girls go through, trying to set good examples for them… I think we’re all screwed by nature and gravity and even the skinny-minnies probably feel the eyes of the world upon them (heck, I didn’t want to be the Duchess of Cambridge when she left the hospital 10 hours after giving birth to a paparazzi photo shoot!)

  11. I wasn’t thin before I got pregnant, but I was mostly okay with how I looked. While a size 10-12, my stomach was flat, and I had a fair amount of muscle. I thankfully lost about 18 pounds before I got pregnant. Now, 11 months post partum, I hate my body. Hate, hate, hate it. I hit my pre-pregnancy weight at 6 months pp, and now I’m gradually regaining…I’m approximately 8 pounds over at this point. And nothing has changed. My eating habits are the same, and I’m still exclusively pumping. It’s so incredibly frustrating. My stomach is so soft with a noticeable layer of fat, which I’ve never had before. I don’t know how to dress myself, and I feel frumpy all of the time. I also lost my waist, which is really strange. In the past, even with weight fluctuations, my shape generally stayed the same, and I had a nice curve to my waist. Now it’s gone. The flatness between my ribs (my upper abdomen) is also gone. I have no idea why that area sticks out…it almost feels like my organs that were smashed up there during pregnancy never migrated back to their homes. Anyone else?

    I’m planning to wean from the pump in two weeks, after my daughter’s first birthday. Right now, I simply can’t make time for the gym with the pumping and with spending at least a little time with the baby after work. I’m hoping my gym habits will return when I finally have some extra time in the evenings.

    Ugh.

  12. My kids are 10 and 5, and I still haven’t adjusted to my pp body! Before kids I was a straight 14/16 with a defined waist and solid, smooth curves. I’ve never been thin or small. I always gained weight pp due to colicky babies driving me to comfort food…then sleepless nights where I’d grab a bottle for the baby and a handful of peanut butter cups for myself. I ballooned up to PAST my 9 month pregnant weight by age 2 with each of my kids. It wasn’t pretty.

    I’m back to my starting weight now but my body is not what it was. My smooth curves were replaced with lumps, rolls, dimples and saggy skin. Maybe it’s age? Maybe I lost muscle and have a higher percentage of fat? I miss my small waist, firm arms, and smooth back!

  13. Scandia says:

    Before I had my first child, I was skinny, 103 Pounds.
    In my first pregnacy, the first five weeks I gained two Pounds a week. Then it slowed Down.
    After weening I was 114 Pounds.

    The next two pregnacies I had a normal gain and after weening was back at 114.

    So while I felt ok with being skinny at 103 before I became pregnant, I think these five Pounds were natures way of saying: Body-if-you-want-to-have-kids-this-is-too-skinny.

  14. Scandia says:

    I meant these 11 Pounds, sorry

  15. Andrea says:

    The pressure to be a MILF is ridiculous. The pressure to be hot after a 12 week maternity leave is also ridiculous. I have a 3 year old and 20 month old. Yes, my body has changed, but I have an immense amount of respect for it now, and the things that it’s done (creating life! sustaining life! giving me my amazing children!). Looking at it this way has helped me come to terms with the changed shape, wider hips, expanded rib cage that never went back to normal, etc. I think the key is to cutting yourself some slack. While breastfeeding it’s really hard to find the time to fit in a workout, not to mention working out when you’re sleep-deprived is NO FUN. When my 3 year old was 6 months old I had a moment of being horrified by my body and started working out hardcore. I ended up destroying my knees and right elbow in the process, probably due to poor weightlifting form (I was in great shape though). Then I got pregnant and stopped working out, thanks to morning sickness, fatigue, etc. When my 18 month old turned one year, I had that moment again. I was sitting at work and grossed out that I had let it go this long. But I couldn’t jump back into working out, thanks to the way I had mistreated my body. I had to start slow with physical therapy to get my tennis elbow and knees in check, which took months. I stuck to it and am mostly back to normal and sticking to a regular pre-work morning routine (ugh waking up at 520AM SUCKS, but it’s the only way). Be patient with yourself. And if working out matters to you, you have to fight to make it a priority every single day. No one should be comparing themselves to Kate btw – stop torturing yourselves! Best wishes and safe travels to everyone reading. And most importantly, take care of yourself.

    • Lawyer mom of three says:

      Amen to all of this. I also gave myself a stress fracture overdoing the post-pregnancy workouts. I weigh 15 pounds more now than I did before I started having kids. I think I always will. And you know what – I think that’s actually healthy and appropriate for my age and stage in life. And it sure as heck beats the constant self-loathing (and actually injury!) it would require to get back to where I was and stay there. Look around at real women your age with jobs and kids – it’s all good. They look better than you think you do. Which means YOU look better than you think you do.

  16. mapchick says:

    I had completely unrealistic expectations for myself after my second child. I gained 45 pounds while pregnant with my first and that weight was all over. I was that marshmallow pregnant lady and I felt ugly the whole time. For me though this was apparently a blessing because the weight came off quickly and I looked pretty much the same as before the pregnancy. He was a great baby so I was sleeping well, things were good at work, we were in a rhythm and I was able to actually get to 10 pounds under my pre-pregnancy weight. Then life got stressful. I gained back the extra 10. I got pregnant with number two expecting the same results. It is true that you carry every baby differently. My second baby caused me to gain the same amount of weight as the first but I was mostly belly. I loved it because I was that adorable “all-belly” pregnant lady. Little did I know that for me, that would only make matters harder, later. After he was born the weight didn’t come of nearly as fast as I was expecting given my first experience. On top of that I have like no chest left and a thicker waist than before. Previously I was always smaller in the waist and my hips/rear were always the problem area. Now it is everything from the waist down and with a tiny chest I find I am terribly pear shaped. I also have mild diastasis recti which just makes my stomach look terribly weird when I lay down flat on my back. My second is now 14 months and life is crazy and stressful. I don’t have a lot of time for exercise and I use food to cope with my stress at work. I have yet to actually lose all the baby weight and the media does not help me feel any better about it.

  17. Spirograph says:

    I also tried and failed to write a cohesive narrative, but this is what I’ve learned about myself and my body post-pregnancy.

    I loved having pregnancy as an excuse to indulge in food that I wouldn’t normally eat in such quantities and to ease off in my workout if I had a down energy day, but I hated feeling big and weird-shaped, and not being able to find flattering clothes. I am very lucky that reasonable efforts at a healthy(ish) diet and exercise (both of which I enjoy for their own sake) keep me close to my ideal shape. The fact that I was never really down on myself about my body prior to pregnancy was not because I have such a great positive self-image, it’s because my body shape wasn’t ever a big challenge for me.

    Even though I’m back to my pre-pregnancy weight, my stomach is squishy, my butt is droopy, and my br**sts look deflated. And stretch marks. In clothes, with the right undergarments, I feel like I look good… but even then I know what I look like underneath, and it bothers me. Not because I feel like I need to look good for anyone else, just because I’m vain. Also, my inability to stick to a consistent schedule means that I can’t DO things I used to be able to (most noticeable in things that require activity-specific strength like yoga and rock climbing), which is incredibly frustrating.

    I’m glad that it helps many women, but I can’t get behind the idea that my body is amazing because it created a couple children. That’s not amazing, that’s biology. Objectively, yes, I know pregnancy is a slog and changes the shape of some things… maybe irreversibly. But I feel like, “OK body, you did that, nice job, but that doesn’t mean you get to sit around and pat yourself on the back forever. Step it up.” For me (and I recognize this as somewhat disordered thinking), my shape = me in the same way that some of my favorite hobbies = me. Two kids under three means my finite time and money resources don’t allow me to keep doing all the hobbies I used to do pre-kids, so I kind of latch on to body as a way to hold on to myself as an individual, and not just a role as mom/wife/employee.

  18. anne-on says:

    I gained very little weight until the end with my pregnancy due to horrible hyperemesis gravidum. When I did gain weight, it was only in my belly, again due to all the throwing up all the time. Pro – I lost almost all of the weight immediately because I basically only gained enough for the baby/placenta (yes, they are resilient little parasites as my doctor jokingly said after I had a 8lb 2oz baby). Unfortunately, that meant I was left with lots of sagging skin in my tummy, and deflated boobs after I weaned. I did go to a plastic surgeon, who agreed that I did have loose skin, but not enough to be able to do a tummy tuck. Ironically, being slightly heavier looks a bit better since it smooths out the dimply loose skin. Sigh.
    I’ve focused on working out more now that my son is older and on a schedule. I will never again have a flat tummy, but I’m strong enough to run (a first for me!) carry my son and chase after him and my crazy puppy. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that I couldn’t get my nice flat stomach back, but I’ve just accepted that its not going to happen.

  19. I missed this thread yesterday but boy do I relate. I try to be more in camp 2 but there is an underlying pull towards camp 1. Im 6 months postpartum. Still up 8-10 lb which I think is going to stay until weaning. I was one of those people who looked like they swallowed a basketball while pregnant and, shockingly, got no stretch marks. I should be thrilled right? But then I turn sideways in the mirror and my butt is pancake flat and I have a bizarre lump of lower back fat that sticks put almost as much as my butt. Wtf? I can fit into most of my pre-pregnancy pants, but I stuff my belly fat in and I often unbutton them when I sit down at my desk. My thighs aren’t much bigger but what was firm is now all jiggle. Many people probably think I’m in the Kate Middleton group but they don’t see me naked…. I want to not care (yay camp 2!) but I do and then I feel guilty for caring. I started a weightlifting routine recently and I’m starting to see some tone return to my arms, doing wonders for my self esteem.

  20. I developed thyroid problems postpartum (not uncommon, but underdiagnosed), which caused me to lose weight. By four months pp, I was terrifyingly skinny, and desperate not to lose any more weight. I ended up stopping pumping (which was actually a relief) in order to try to conserve some calories for myself, and started anti-anxiety meds to try to get some appetite back.

    I found the conversations about postpartum bodies and breastfeeding completely failed me. I did a lot of research on how many extra calories a day I needed to eat because I was breastfeeding–all the sources said an extra 500 calories, but if you looked at the fine print, that was 500 extra calories IF you want to lose a pound a week. I could never find a number for maintaining weight. And then how to respond to everyone telling me I looked fantastic? I particularly wanted to strangle the nurse telling me how wonderful and amazing my weight lose was, because she knew why I was in the office and what was wrong. It was not wonderful and amazing, it was stressful, scary, and if it continued my health would be endangered.

    Anyway, I know this isn’t the most common postpartum issue, but from conversations I’ve had, it is far from rare. It’s just that women who struggle with keeping weight on postpartum have no place and way to discuss this problem–if we dare to bring it up, we’re immediately shut down with “Oh, I wish I had that problem!” No, you don’t, it’s a PROBLEM, and we don’t wish for problems.

  21. I was lucky enough to drop below my pp weight without really trying after kid #1 and to maintain pretty easily until pregnant with #2. I even got back to the same weight, although with more effort after #2. But then I suddenly gained about 8 lbs this past September without changing diet or exercise in noticeable ways. Turning 38 seemed to suddenly end my grace period of pretty easy return on exercise. I’ve found it much harder to exert more discipline about food and drink (mostly desserts and wine) since that’s by far my primary indulgence/treat as a parent of two young kids.

    Overall I’m extremely lucky to be able to run and to be in a pretty good place on this front, but the combination of late 30s and a second kid are brutal. The other thing I found is that running is so much easier, faster, and more fun back at 132 vs. 140. So even though I’m ambivalently okay with the higher weight, I feel like I need to get rid of it and regain the good running place I was in quick before age makes this battle even harder. My bottom line is that I want to be at a weight that lets me do things I enjoy at a level I enjoy so that I get the positive feedback loop. I also really love my daughters seeing me run road races, which aren’t going to happen until I’m fitter again.

  22. DELAINA says:

    I’ve figured out how to feel good about my body when I’m naked… sounds odd- but for the most part when I’m naked the parts that I don’t like are non existent ( back roll beneath my bra, love handles, front butt ect) but when I put on clothes those things are created! that just isn’t fair. I can live with (and even be almost proud of) the stretch marks and sagging breasts but when I put on clothes everything goes downhill in a hurry.

  23. Natasha says:

    I have never been skinny, I was even a slightly overweight kid despite being very active. I got into obese territory in my 20s. Then, due to fertility issues, I started getting serious about losing weight. Eating healthier, cutting out drinking, etc, worked, and I was losing a bit and got pregnant. Post-partum, the weight just fell off, due to continuing watching what I ate a bit and breastfeeding. So I’m one of the few “lucky” people that got skinnier naturally after kids due to breastfeeding and just forgetting to eat a lot being so busy. 9 months PP with baby #2, I am a similar weight to before I got pregnant and feel pretty good being just under borderline overweight, which feels skinny for me compared to my past weight. I am scared what will happen after this kid weans, though!

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