"If this is your first pregnancy, you may be especially bothered by changes in your body image,” said the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, published in 2011. It went on to clarify, “Simply put, you may feel fat and unattractive."
The truth is, feeling “fat and unattractive” was not on my mind at that particular moment. I had dragged myself back to bed from my usual post at the foot of the toilet, a place on the tile that I had grown intimately acquainted with in the last several weeks, and really, I just wanted to read about what was going on inside me. Apparently, there is a baby in there. You know, a tiny, tiny human who will one day in the near future stretch my poor, unsuspecting vagina around its shockingly large head, burst into the world, and change my life forever. I will go from being this regular person who sometimes grabs dinner with a friend on very short notice to being a mother. The mother of a real, living, developing, complicated person. It’s too enormous to comprehend. And in the meantime, I feel like total crap. Am I normal? Is everything going OK? Does my baby have a face yet? Those were my more pressing concerns.
In defense of the Mayo Clinic Guide, the book is actually full of helpful info, and at least the section that covers body image acknowledges that some women may feel nice, or proud, and that body image issues can be blamed on our culture’s obsession with thinness. But a little later in the book, without any such disclaimers, in a brief section on shopping for new pregnancy clothes, I ran into this statement: “Think vertical. As you widen, look for clothes with vertical rather than horizontal lines to make you look slimmer. Dark colored clothes also tend to be more slimming.”
And I felt kind of weird about that.
Because it wasn’t just the Mayo Clinic Guide—most of the pregnancy books I read offered helpful tips on how to avoid feeling like a gigantic ugly fat cow while pregnant. You know, with slightly different wording. Many of the books explicitly assumed that I would feel bad instead of good about the changes in my body, particularly surrounding the inevitable and completely healthy weight gain that accompanies pregnancy.
Websites cried, “DEBUNKING PREGNANCY MYTHS: Eating for two is NOT acceptable. There is NO excuse for packing on more lbs than you absolutely have to!!” Regulate your diet, warned books and pamphlets and messageboards. Of course, they giggled, you can enjoy a little ice cream now and then, but don’t use pregnancy as an excuse to eat like a pig!
But more than that, within the first few weeks of my pregnancy, as I eagerly consumed all of the information I could find about my new situation, the resources were all telling me about how I might lose the weight afterward. How I could reclaim my slender body just three months after giving birth. I quickly learned that I shouldn’t imagine that I won’t be able to immediately dive back into my exercise regimen after welcoming a newborn into the world. Women get right back on the treadmill, because as long as you make it a priority, you’re going to be just fine.
By which they mean, you’re going to be thin.
There are a few things that bother me about all this. For one, I actually am not thinking about how terrible I might look. For two, why is looking terrible almost always synonymous with gaining weight? Why do “fat and unattractive” fit automatically into the same breath? And thirdly, even if one is very afraid of weight gain, pregnancy is totally different from “getting fat.” It’s all about growing a baby. Which, you know, should be fairly obvious. The weight gain is good! It means things are going according to schedule. When women lose weight in pregnancy (when they weren’t very heavy to begin with), it’s considered a problem. Doctors are on the case, investigating. When women lose lots of weight in pregnancy, it often means something is going seriously wrong.
I have spent a lot of my life caring about the way I look. Not because I am fashion-obsessed or concerned with being extremely beautiful or spend hours pouring over my face in the mirror. It’s just there, this quiet anxiety, in the background as I’m studying, working, falling in love, making friends, interacting with strangers. I’ve learned, as a girl and now as a woman, that how I look at matters. It’s hard to live in this world without learning how much importance women’s appearances are lent. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is, and the way our self-esteem, confidence, and even our happiness is shaped is often inextricably caught up in a tangled web of beauty expectations and fears.
But getting pregnant is the beginning of a crazy, careening, transformative journey, and for me, it flung up big existential questions right and left. What do I want out of life? What do I have to offer a child? What kind of parent will I be? Am I ready? What makes life meaningful? How will this impact my relationship with my husband? How is life so friggin’ fast? And yeah, OK, I even started thinking a little more about my own death. Being thrust into the middle of the circle of life can do that to a person.
Basically, being pregnant has made me think a lot less about how I look, and the little, if pressing and sometimes even incredibly painful, things that have nagged at the back of my mind for so long. This just seems bigger, somehow. And bigger is sometimes better.
Which is not at all to say that pregnant women shouldn’t feel bad about the way they look because they should stop being so superficial and focus on the miracle of life. God no. Women sometimes feel bad about the way they look because we’ve all learned how intensely important it is to look a certain way ALL THE TIME. That is the problem.
And I really, really hope that problem won’t get in my way, as my belly gets bigger.
When I hit twelve weeks, I hauled myself through a haze of morning sickness to the nearest clothing store. I wanted to buy myself a present, to celebrate. I wandered around, touching billowing tunics and loose sweaters. And then I spotted a slinky peach-colored dress. Long-sleeved but obviously clingy. It was made out of a soft, stretchy fabric that felt welcoming under my fingers.
A salesman appeared. “Oh honey,” he said, surveying me in my enormous gray sweater, sweatpants, and knit hat over my greasy hair, “That is a very unforgiving dress. You can’t gain an ounce in it.”
And something came over me. I swept it off the rack. “Well,” I said, “I’m about to gain at least thirty, so I think I should give it a try.”
He stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“I’m pregnant,” I clarified.
“Oh,” he said feebly, but didn’t add anything. So I went off to the dressing room and tried it on. It showed off every bump. My newly swollen breasts, now about a size larger than “miniscule,” looked positively victorious in it. My belly was clearly visible, bloated and at the beginning of a baby bump. It was clear that the dress would stretch to allow for my upcoming growth, and as it stretched, it would become even more scandalous and skin-tight. I smiled at my reflection. I decided in that moment that I was going to show my body off. No vertical stripes for me. This belly is worth celebrating. It’s not just a miracle of evolution and biology and all that. It’s a body image triumph too. And I won’t let any pregnancy book tell me different.