“To her belongs all that is beautiful, even the very word beauty itself…she is a doll…I’m sick of the masquerade.” – Germaine Greer
Time to address the elephant in the room (oh the irony) and talk about the thing every expectant mother is worried about, every medical professional (or my Great Aunt) loves to remind us about and every other person seems just cant help themselves from bringing up. *cue appropriately gloomy theme music* Lets talk about pregnancy and body image.
To be honest, it’s got to the stage where I feel a sense of duty to write about this, as what I have experienced thus far as a pregnant woman has disgusted me. Needless to say this has been pretty unhelpful with my history and in truth has required a number of interventions from my husband and parents to keep me level and on track. I don’t want nor intend for these blogs to become one angry rant after another, but sometimes, just sometimes it’s necessary. And on this topic I am angry. Very angry.
People really do seem to love talking about body weight in pregnancy, whether it be discussing what exactly you’re eating, the change in your shape and size, how your appearance strikes them overall (i.e. “you look tired/different/glowing/blooming/swollen” etc) or what you’re going to do to ‘shift the baby weight’ once pregnancy is over. I subscribed to a number of apps and blogs when I fell pregnant and one by one have deleted them due to the daily reminders not to over eat, that eating for two is a myth and about the dangers of gaining “too much” weight.
Recently my husband and I began NCT (National Childbirth Trust) classes and met other expectant parents for the first time. When myself and other mothers were asked about the pros and cons of pregnancy, guess what was top of the list? I looked around and saw a very real pain, massively exacerbated by what others say. A number of pregnant women have told me, without prompt, that they are “big” and that they’ve put on a lot of weight, as if to say “I know I’m big, so please don’t tell me any more that I am” and clearly they’ve been hurting about this, when in my eyes there is nothing ‘big’ or wrong with them whatsoever. But clearly so many of us are in a lot of pain about this.
When I suffered with morning sickness (for 20 solid weeks. It all changes in the second trimester? Bullshit!), the key thing that alleviated nausea and prevented vomiting (ironically) was eating, which meant eating a larger quantity and more often than I have been used to. I learnt very quickly what my body was telling me and how I had to respond. Never before have I truly done this. Anorexia taught me to ignore my body’s signals completely and if anything, not eating would calm me down, but also deplete my mental faculties, slow my responses and dull my senses. In pregnancy this is the last thing I want or would ever consider doing to myself or to our child.
Beyond 20 weeks the nausea subsided and inevitably I was left with the panic and guilt about how my body has changed as a result of the increase in calories and our growing baby. But my appetite would rise up as if from nowhere, powerful and aggressive, that if I didn’t satiate it immediately I’d be punished with faintness and retching. I hit a period of what’s become popularly labelled as ‘the baby blues’, but perhaps more appropriate is prenatal depression. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone, feeling too ashamed and embarrassed of how I look and what I need to do to sustain myself through this pregnancy. I felt alone and, if I’m honest, judged and under a lot of pressure. The tiredness, feeling inept, change in lifestyle, relationships, priorities, assumptions made about my future and changes to my body image all became very overwhelming. My reflection (in every sense) was alien to me and I felt completely torn, by overwhelming pride of my protruding tummy and disgust with the engorgement of every limb.
I really want to document this pregnancy in photographic form but vanity (and shame) frequently prevents me from allowing any pictures to be taken of me. A classic victim of the selfie generation, I will photograph myself because I can manipulate my posture to make me appear more ‘acceptable’ (in my eyes). When I post a picture on instagram it is a conscious act of self-love, love for our child and a middle finger in the face of every negative influence on me. It’s an act of defiance but it comes from a place of insecurity, not confidence.
I’m conscious as I’m writing this that my It’s Rude To Stare blog said the exact opposite! I was feeling proud and confident and working hard at changing my attitude. So what the hell happened?!
Firstly, I hit my third trimester and BAM, it all changed again. No sooner had I begun saying enthusiastically “I feel great!” when baba had another growth spurt, walking turned to waddling, stairs became insanely difficult to conquer, getting comfortable sitting or lying down is impossible and choosing clothes is restricted to what fits (about 4 items of clothing now).
I also had someone say something very flippant and, dare I say cruel (albeit unintentionally), and it tripped a switch…
Being thin is genuinely no longer important to me and my every thought isn’t consumed with what calories I’m consuming, whether people are going to see me eat and how I’m going to punish myself tomorrow. I tend not to ask others opinions on what clothes look best on me because their answer is always, inevitably, the opposite of what I feel most comfortable in and I’d rather feel comfortable than look good in others eyes. What is important to me is how I feel about myself and being able to carry on with life as a decent and kind human being.
It therefore SUCKS on the highest level to be perpetually bombarded with this massive agenda of weight and body image in pregnancy. Having people ask me about what I am eating, the constant commentary on how I look and the advertisements on social media, displaying perfectly slim and sculpted physiques at the peak of pregnancy, glowing, trendy, gorgeous models of motherhood, so far from my own reality, has worn me down. I had managed to filter out unrealistic body images and people who need to reference their own body image frequently from my social media feeds prior to pregnancy. I’d even managed to minimise conversations about dieting and food and I couldn’t have told you the last time someone commented on how I look, only on something I’d done, said or achieved. But now it’s all back to haunt me, with a vengeance.
Here are some examples of the bullshit I have uninvitedly received these last 6 months:
– Whilst staring continually at my tummy, sometimes scanning up and down – “Wow! Wow! You’re really pregnant aren’t you?!”
– “Look at how big you’ve got! BUT you seem upbeat and positive?” – Note the inference “getting ‘big’ is a bad thing, but its admirable how you’re coping with this awful thing.
– When holding a friend’s baby – “We need better pictures of you than the other night, they were horrid. You didn’t look your best.” – Tell me, what IS my ‘best’ exactly?!
– “You must be just eating and eating and eating, right?!” – Sometimes, because I am GROWING A HUMAN!
– “Breastfeeding is a great way to lose your baby weight after birth.” – No words.
– “You must struggle finding stuff to wear, you’re so big now.” – Thank you so much for reminding me.
– “Are you going to give birth, like, imminently?!” – I HAVE 3 MONTHS TO GO!!!
– and just yesterday “Are you having twins?!”
Now, I admit that I am perhaps more sensitive to these comments than most. I also accept that I am likely to misinterpret their meaning. However, I do not understand why
A) people think it’s appropriate to comment openly about appearance or eating habits and
B) why this would remotely interest me or carry any importance.
What’s the expectation? For me to think “Oh, phew, ‘such and such’ said I’ll lose all this weight if I breastfeed. Everything will be alright!” What if I can’t or choose not to breast feed (heaven forbid!)? Time to hit the gym, right? Or “Shit, ‘so and so’ thinks I’m really big. I better start watching what I’m eating.” As if I haven’t got enough to do or think about with growing this child, battling tiredness and depression, trying to continue with a relatively ‘normal’ social life and emotionally supporting the ones I love.
The tripping point recently was the comment about how “horrid” I looked in some photos. What broke me was that in my mind, I looked alright. It was a painful reminder that how I look matters to people – it shouldn’t, it absolutely shouldn’t, but it does. Image is so deeply engrained into our social make-up. We are obsessed by what it means to look ‘good’. Appearance is tied into achievement. So, if I gain minimal weight during this pregnancy (too late!) and remain an acceptable image for people to look at, then I have achieved something. *HUGE SIGH*
In my booking appointment with my midwife at 8 weeks pregnant I had to revisit the gory details of my eating disorder and talk about what continues to be unhelpful. They weighed me at that appointment, kept the figure from me and haven’t weighed me or discussed my weight since. I’ll have to face this at some point I’m sure, but we’ve agreed for me not to look at the scales and them only to tell me if they have concerns. All of this is so helpful and makes me feel like an actual human being, worthy and valuable, whose feelings matter.
For the record, I don’t plan on weighing myself at all this pregnancy, after the birth or thereafter. I don’t plan on dieting to ‘lose my baby weight’ (shock horror). That’s dangerous territory for me and not as straightforward as I’d like it to be. I also don’t see why I need to change my body back to pre-baby – this body has had enough punishment for one lifetime. I’m 34, I’m not supposed to have the body of a 24 year old any more. I trust myself to listen to my body and what it needs, I know what helps me to feel better, I know what makes me feel shit, I know what I like wearing and I know what trends float my boat. I know my husband fancies me and I actually quite like myself. All of this would be a lot easier if people just stopped interfering and feeling like they need to pass comment on how I look, all – the – god – damn – time.
Rarely do I hear how well I have managed this pregnancy, asked about what I am doing at work, asked about our baby, what I know about them and how they are progressing, asked about my family, asked about James, told I am interesting or important. Just “You LOOK…”
We have a few large social occasions coming up, ordinarily things I would look forward to these days. But I find myself wrecked with worry about facing people and what they’ll have to say about how I look as well as getting a lot of attention I am uncomfortable with. As well as photographs, sticking out like the ‘elephant in the room’, feeling isolated by not drinking (you’d be surprised at how unpleasant this can be), physically getting through these hot days, feeling like our child is going to pull an ‘Alien’ gimmick any moment (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll get the reference).
I often find myself crippled (I’ve used that adjective once before in relation to this issue, as it fits the bill) by anxiety, despite some of the lovely affirmations I get as well. It’s not that I am ungrateful, but sometimes even being told I look ‘beautiful’ is difficult, simply because it draws my attention to how I look. I rarely feel physically beautiful, nor ‘beautiful’ by the definition that society has given to it.
I do know that I can’t do any of this alone. I can work on my own attitude and fundamentally I know that it is my relationship with myself that matters. But others can help with that too. We can all help one another with this, by thinking before we speak, judging not on appearance but on character, or not judging full stop, challenging our own obsessions with image and asking ourselves ‘does it really matter?’.
Whilst writing this, I am reading an(other) extraordinary book that was gifted to me called ‘The Beauty Myth’ (see quotations dispersed amongst this blog). I sense this is becoming a trend, where I am in the middle of writing, reading a certain book, which inspires me to write more . There is so much I am reaping from this book that it demands further focus. Even within the first chapter there are some poignant thoughts in relation to this topic. For example, Wolf writes that,
“There is no legitimate historical or biological justification for the beauty myth; what it is doing to women today is a result of nothing more exalted than the need of today’s power structure, economy and culture to mount a counteroffensive against women.”
I have to admit, it’s a difficult concept to grasp, that we have created this whole idea of what is ‘beautiful’ ourselves, that the images of ‘perfection’ we compare ourselves to are products of the demand of industry and that we all need to fight to destroy this ideology. “…the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control…” When I see a picture of a woman that typical would be called ‘beautiful’, I stop and ask myself why, what is it that makes her so and is that important? So many of us call ourselves feminists, yet we still allow the myth of beauty to rule our worlds.
To close, for the record…