Pregnancy is a time of enormous change – and for the majority of us, change is pretty hard to handle. The changes our bodies go through during pregnancy are intense. Most of these changes aren’t particularly pleasant on a physical level, but emotionally and psychologically, it’s even harder for some pregnant women.
There is so much pressure to look a certain way when pregnant. Don’t gain too much weight – be all “bump”, no weight on your butt or thighs! BUT… don’t have a bump TOO small because that means you’ll have a small baby, and that’s not healthy either. Right? Gosh, the expectations! This is societal, diet-culture pressure. It sucks, sure, but to some extent, we can block it out or ignore it (if we feel able).
Where the biggest problem lies is in the medical and obstetrics world. Weight-neutral healthcare is NOT something we see much of in general health administration, let alone in pregnancy. For those women who are living in a larger body, pregnancy is even harder. They’re bombarded with “information” and guilt over their weight, and their BMI. For those women undergoing any form of fertility treatment, the focus on weight loss and BMI targets is intensified – so much so, that many fertility clinics will deny fertility treatment until a certain BMI has been reached. This is an appalling matter for another blog post at another time, but suffice to say, the fertility and obstetrics worlds are miles behind in the weight-neutral and Health at Every Size (HAES) research.
With all of this pressure to look a certain way and gain only the *perfect* amount of weight in pregnancy comes a whole host of do’s and don’ts:
- Do continue to exercise as much as you can
- Don’t do anything too strenuous though…
- Don’t eat a plethora of foods you might find enjoyable
- Do watch your diet – but don’t actively “diet”
- Do be sure to weigh yourself regularly so that you can keep track of your weight gain
Confusing much? Pressure, confusion, responsibility – whatever you want to call it, pregnancy can be an absolute nightmare when it comes to body image and weight. This is further magnified if you have come from a history of disordered eating or eating disorders. Pregnancy can be the ULTIMATE trigger to developing food fears, exercise obsession, calorie/macro counting, obsessive weighing, guilt and shame. This is not good when what you SHOULD be focusing on is the miracle of life and keeping stress levels to a minimum…
I’ve always considered my body image to be pretty stable – I live with thin privilege and my weight has fluctuated very little throughout my life. Being a certain size and needing to look a certain way has never really been THAT high on my agenda (unlike my health obsession which I have spoken about in previous blogs HERE and HERE ). I gained the *perfect* amount of weight in my first pregnancy and had very few complications or hiccups. This pregnancy has been a little different though. Second time around my belly popped early – and everyone was very forthcoming in their comments about it too. If anyone ever feels they have a green light to comment on your body size and shape, pregnancy is the time! My obstetrician was closely monitoring my weight by the time the second trimester hit, just to “make sure” I didn’t gain weight too quickly – apparently. I had one weigh-in where I’d supposedly gained 3kgs in 4 weeks and she was NOT happy. I got the lecture about not gaining too quickly, and I suddenly felt the guilt and shame come flooding in. Had I not been exercising enough? I had a significant bleed at 13 weeks which meant I was not allowed to exercise for 6 weeks – so had I just become lazy? Was I eating too much sugar? Had I gone overboard on the carbs? And THEN… the gestational diabetes diagnosis came… No wonder I took it so badly. I was pretty convinced that I’d somehow caused my GDM by gaining too much weight too quickly and not exercising enough. I was asked to get back on the scales again during my next obstetrician appointment, but this time, I had LOST weight. Funny how the conversation suddenly changed – I was given the lecture about NOT letting myself lose weight now that I had a diagnosis of GDM. I was instructed to be very careful not to restrict carbs too much, and to ensure I had adequate calorie intake. I was reminded about how “petite” I am, and how I am unlikely to have a “big baby” (all scans to date had shown the baby was on the smaller side, and my previous pregnancy was always muddied with concerns of a small baby). I was so baffled. My weight and the way I looked was an issue no matter what – too big, too small, I wasn’t right. I did my research into GDM and weight. I read all the weight-neutral articles out there on GDM and its management. And I went armed to my next obstetrician appointment with all of the data, and told her to lay off making comments about my weight (and even weighing me) because it was triggering my old health-obsessive behaviours. It worked. She listened, she understood, I felt heard. I was happier. We have to be our own advocates – we have to speak up. My doctor thanked me for my honesty, saying that she can only treat me completely when she knows exactly what I am thinking and feeling. She’s a great obstetrician who genuinely cares for her patients – but she, like so many others in the medical profession – are living and working in a weight-focused paradigm. They have weight bias. They are fat phobic. It is up to US, the patients, to call them out on this.
Another strategy I used to help me through the body image slumps was to buy some REALLY nice maternity clothes. With my first pregnancy I didn’t bother to invest much in maternity wear. It’s crazy expensive after all! But this time around, my body image took knock after knock, and I knew I needed to do something. I spent hours on Pinterest looking at maternity fashion and deciding which looks I liked and wanted to replicate. And I invested in my mental health by buying some clothes which flattered my bump, and made me feel confident (and proud) to be pregnant. No more hiding under baggy shirts and dresses. This is the last time I will have a pregnant belly, so I have chosen to embrace it. This took some time and I was super self-conscious at first, but now I am much happier to have my belly on display.
This pregnancy has been hard. I’ve had a few blips in the road, I’ve struggled with pregnancy fatigue and caring for a toddler at the same time, and my anxiety has been through the roof. But I’ve made it to 34 weeks, and I must say that now the least of my worries is how I look. I am so blessed to feel my little girl’s movements every day in my belly. I am lucky to be able to afford the nice maternity clothes which lifted my spirits when I needed them most. And I am fortunate to be able to eat and exercise in a way which I enjoy and keeps me (and my baby) healthy and happy. I made the decision not to compare my pregnancy body with anyone else, and this has been hard. The models on maternity wear sites alone are enough to tip most women over the edge! The lack of diversity in fashion advertising and availability is also another issue for another time… But, I knew that for me, I had to find a way to go within and focus on the pregnancy process rather than the effects it was having on my body. I stopped weighing myself. I stopped taking weekly “growth progress” photos. I hid all of the photos of my last pregnancy so I wouldn’t keep comparing how I looked differently (bigger) this time around. I began to meditate and reflect on my belly and my body with deep breathing and empowering podcasts (check out my favourite, “Belly Love” with Rachel W Cole, available on your Podcast provider). These were strategies that helped me, but we all have our own journey to walk and navigate, so I invite you to explore what helps and works for you. I know that the postpartum period is the hardest when it comes to body image. I know I will have some really bad body image days. This is normal, and in many ways it is welcomed. We can’t grow and evolve if we aren’t challenged. So I say bring on the flabby tummy, the bigger thighs and the (much) larger butt! I will work my way through the postpartum changes and find ways to embrace my new normal. I will continue to fight diet culture and fat phobia, and most importantly, I will continue to advocate for those women who don’t have the thin privilege which I have – this is where the real change needs to start, and it needs to start now.