I was 8-months pregnant, holding a pair of size 0 jeans and doing math: If I could lose one-and-a-half pounds a week for 20 weeks after I give birth, I could be back to my pre-pregnancy weight (although not even that was my “goal” weight overall) by spring, and maybe by summer I could be back in those jeans. Except, by then, I would have a baby and my life would no longer be going exactly as I planned., but that's not what I was thinking at the moment I was looking at those tiny jeans. In that moment, my pregnancy wasn't about my baby, or my family, or my relationship, or any other part of my life — it was about me and my body, and needing to quickly develop a plan that made the changes overtaking my body feel less terrifying.
For women who have lived with body image issues, pregnancy can be an incredibly hard time. For me, someone who went on her first diet at age eight (though it only lasted about two hours, the desire to lose weight and the dissatisfaction with my body was so real), pregnancy clashed with every feeling I had about my body up to that point. I was a chubby kid who got chubbier in college, lost weight via mostly unhealthy behavior, battled binge eating, was a compulsive exerciser and couldn’t just enjoy food without doing calculations in my head to determine how long it would take to kickbox it off.
Weight gain during pregnancy is natural and necessary. But when you’ve worked your adult life to lose weight or at least avoid gaining it, a “healthy” pregnancy can put put you in a panic. I hated the weigh-ins at my check-up. I was “gaining well” but all I could think was that it was that many more pounds I’d have to lose after my baby was born. That’s how screwed up a body image issue can make you. Witnessing the expansion of my body through pregnancy was not comfortable, especially during the first four months when I seemed to be gaining weight but not my belly wasn't "showing" yet. Finally, by the time I was in my sixth month and looked undeniably pregnant, I started to turn a corner: This was how I looked because I was going to be someone’s mother. Gaining this weight was the best thing I could do for my baby right now. And wasn’t that more important than tracking the girth of my thighs?
I’m grateful that pregnancy lasts nine months; It took me that long to even begin to find peace and purpose in my body. And in a way, going through the physical changes of pregnancy quieted the body image police in my head. But before I was able to see the light of being heavy, I discovered many reasons why pregnancy is the hardest time for body image.
Your Relationship With Food Totally Changes
Maybe it gets better and you work really hard to eat nutritiously and avoid all the things they say you shouldn’t eat when you’re pregnant. But maybe you go overboard scrutinizing your daily caloric intake, counting, measuring, tracking, worrying. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I was able to recognize, and properly react to, my body’s hunger cues. I had spent so long in a cycle of overeating and over-exercising, that I actually didn’t understand the role food was supposed to play in my life. I had abused it to make me feel calm or safe or loved. I didn’t use it to nourish and strengthen my body.
Becoming pregnant caused both negative and positive changes with my relationship to food. On the negative side, I slipped back into obsessive tracking behavior, like I did in my teens when I was trying to lose weight. Only this time, I was desperate to make sure I didn’t overeat or undereat, for the health of my baby. Luckily, I had a chill OB/GYN who assured me that everything in moderation (except for raw fish and unpasteurized cheese) was pretty much fine. So on a positive note, pregnancy forced me to be a sensible eater, listening to my body (and my baby, when she demanded Mallomars) and eating accordingly.
The Phrase “Eating For Two” Makes You Especially Crazy
I’ve always been self-conscious by the amount of food I’ve eaten in public. As a private binge-eater, I would keep modest portions when dining with friends and boyfriends, only to fill in the gaps (and then some) by myself over a container of cold pasta. When I became pregnant, both times, my starting weight was in the “normal” range for my height. People would encourage me to load up on seconds and be shameless about heaping food on my plate. For decades, I had fought to appear casual around food, not wanting it so badly, and now every meal threatened to be an eating contest to the amusement of well-meaning company. “Eating for two” is not only a serious mindf*ck for those of us dealing with disordered eating, but an it’s unhealthy, outdated maxim.
You Literally Can’t Find A Thing To Wear
Hating how I looked in pre-pregnancy clothes led to more of the same when it came time to make the leap into maternity wear. Not wanting to drop much money on a new — and hopefully temporary — wardrobe, I only bought a few key pieces to get me through the second, third (and fourth!) semesters, and keep me decently dressed for my office job. While empire waists show off a growing belly, that only works for women who are psyched to show off that body part. As someone who instinctively sucked in her stomach, it was a giant struggle to present what I thought were the worst parts of me — boobs, butt, belly — in clothes that accentuated them. But as my pregnancy advanced, and I grew and grew, that struggle slowly diminished. There was no hiding I was pregnant. I could finally, and with pride, unhook that waistband and use my protruding gut to guilt guys into giving me seats on the subway (which was only somewhat effective).
You Feel Your Appearance Is Under Even More Scrutiny
Women continue to be shamed, publicly and often, for the amount of weight they gain during pregnancy. The medical community advises that women who are in a “healthy weight range” gain between 25 and 35 pounds. It’s understandable why there are guidelines in terms of weight gain, but what if our doctors and midwives put away the scales? For those of us who so easily get fixated on a number — who feel defined by our weight — pregnancy exacerbates this anxiety. Can’t we focus on quality, and not quantity? Instead of providing us with weight limits, how about we focus on the nutritional value of what we’re feeding ourselves, and in turn, our future kids?
You Have A Hard Time Accepting Your Morphing Body
Pregnancy can be salt in the wound that is negative body image. If we never liked our size before we got knocked up, it can be extremely difficult to embrace the changes over those nine months. For me, I discovered a coping mechanism in knowing I had given up ownership of my body to the sole purpose of nurturing a growing fetus. I may not have liked that my thighs and face widened out along with my belly, but it was for a purpose. That shift in perspective helped me from directing hurtful thoughts at myself, seeing myself as grotesque. (To be fair, some women might find themselves even more uncomfortable because of that thought.) And as I continued through a (thankfully) uneventful pregnancy, I came to feel that my body was finally reaching its potential. All these years I had been fighting to stuff it into tiny sizes, but I’ve never been more proud of my body than when it grew two healthy humans and successfully delivered them into my life.
Images: Kelly Hunter/Flickr; Giphy(4); Pexels