How pregnancy changes your body image

<i></i>

"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."

Oh.

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.

18 comments

  • I now feel the best about my body after having a baby. My whole view just shifted when I carried and gave birth to a child. I realised this is what my body is for- living life, not sitting there looking pretty. I was amazed at how strong I was and how my body knew what to do instinctively. I used to worry about little things, not obsessively but I would lament a slight belly bulge or wobbly arm, now I don't give those things a second thought. I loved my big belly and can't wait to be pregnant again.

    Commenter
    Dasher
    Date and time
    February 04, 2013, 8:24AM
    • Congrats Kate! Exciting times!! I personally love a good, proud belly bump. You can't hide it anyway, so why would you want to? Embrace it!

      Commenter
      om
      Date and time
      February 04, 2013, 8:27AM
      • I LOVED being pregnant. I put on about 20kgs for each pregnancy, and I never felt better. I loved that massive, round belly. Growing another human is such a special and fleeting moment in life. However, it was the year or so *after* my second was born that I didn't love my body so much.

        Commenter
        RF
        Location
        Blue Mountains
        Date and time
        February 04, 2013, 8:45AM
        • Firstly, Mazel Tov on your pregnancy :)

          Secondly, THANK YOU for writing this because this is exacty how I felt when I got pregnant. Unforrtunately I didn't gain more than 6 kilos (severe morning sickness right up to labour) and felt extremely ripped off for not having a baby bump LOL

          I hope you have an easy pregnancy and that you have a wonderfully healthy baby :)

          Commenter
          Dhammachick
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 04, 2013, 9:03AM
          • I find it pretty disturbing that in books about pregnancy they are giving advice about looking good and keeping the weight down.

            In my humble man opinion wouldn't it be more positive to focus on giving mothers to be useful advice on more important things rather than vertical stripes over horizontal?

            Seems crazy to me that these books which probably many first time mothers will turn to for advice are perpetuating the situation of pressure to look good during pregnancy instead of focussing on the key message: its about the baby.

            Good on you Kate and good luck with your new addition to the family.

            Commenter
            Adrian
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            February 04, 2013, 9:41AM
            • Congratulations, Kate! Not just on the pregnancy, but on having the courage to throw out your concerns over this nonsensical body-shaming at what should be a time of celebration.

              Eat the damn cake, and the damn ice cream, and whatever you bloody well feel like and can keep down for more than an hour :) And wear whatever makes you feel happy.

              Busybodies will inevitably try to police your diet, your choices, your body in general, and I hope you give them a resounding "Bugger off and mind your own business! I'm creating a baby, here!"

              Commenter
              Red Pony
              Date and time
              February 04, 2013, 9:54AM
              • the thing about (mass) media studies is that it takes two to tango. if mass media seems to be leading you astray do you demand the beast changes into a version that is paletable to you (and hence use its powers of influence) or do you look elsewhere?

                Commenter
                confused
                Date and time
                February 04, 2013, 10:05AM
                • I agree that pregnant women shouldn't be ashamed of their growing body and advice on how to hide the bump is silly, but not all the advice you criticize is bad.

                  It is a medical fact that you don't have to eat for two and overeating can increase the chances of gestational diabetes- a condition which can have serious consequences for both mother and baby. Given that an increasing number of women are overweight prior to pregnancy (and therefore already at risk from gestational diabetes) dietary advice during pregnancy is important and shouldn't be dismissed as just another example of how women are pressured to look slim all the time.

                  Commenter
                  Judy
                  Date and time
                  February 04, 2013, 10:31AM
                  • +1 great comment Judy

                    Commenter
                    sara (17 weeks)
                    Location
                    sydney
                    Date and time
                    February 04, 2013, 10:49AM
                  • I guess the danger is in how the advice is presented, and which aspects are emphasised.

                    It used to be a matter of course to accept that women would be hungrier during pregnancy, may have weird appetites for unusual foods, and should basically just listen to their bodies and eat what they feel like. Now, on top of all the enormous restrictions (no sushi! no coffee! no cold chicken! no custard! no sprouts! no soft cheese! no ham! no alcohol! no prawns! no deep-sea fish! nothing high fat! no complex carbs, they'll make your baby obese!) women are being given the notion that it it is self indulgent and wrong to eat what you feel like, or splash out on a few extra calories here and there even though they are at a nutritionally and emotionally demanding point in their lives. Though it's presented at times as being about health, it's more often due to appearance, with women exhorted to not "let themselves go" by gaining a few kilos, because it's all-important to be a yummy mummy, back in her skinny jeans at 8 weeks after birth.

                    Having worked in antenatal care, most of the women I saw who took these messages most to heart were the slim and healthy ones. They denied themselves almost everything they felt like eating during pregnancy, and often ended up feeling unhappy, guilty and martyred.

                    Commenter
                    Red Pony
                    Date and time
                    February 04, 2013, 11:17AM

                More comments

                Comments are now closed