Pregnancy, like any other developmental life phase, can throw you for a loop. Whether you’re intensely private about your planned bump or spamming your friends’ Instagram feeds with your happy accident, there comes a point where you have to face what’s happening to your body.
Like most women I know, I’ve had my body issue challenges. Growing up, I was healthy but not fit, intelligent but not graceful, more interested in expanding my vocabulary than in trimming my waistline. Mostly I avoided thinking about how I looked. That changed when I clicked with yoga in college. I went from feeling meh about my body to really positive about it. Exercise became a small handful of control in a crazy world.
Then came pregnancy. Though my body was doing exactly what it was supposed to do, I felt betrayed. Pregnancy is the opposite of control — at best, it’s organized chaos. When we’re made vulnerable by a new cocktail of hormones and a body that doesn’t function the way it used to, old questions of self-worth can come bubbling to the surface, along with a host of new concerns.
Images of perfect pregnancy are everywhere on social media — friends, strangers, celebrities. Everything looks easier through a Juno filter. Even the posts of brave women posing in postpartum diapers and confessing that perfection is only filter-deep have a perfectionism to them. It was hard not to compare myself to them: My glow was not as glowy, my pain was not as deep.
My lowest moment came during my six-month checkup, right after a stomach-first month in the South celebrating my wedding and honeymoon. I was blissed out and finally feeling confident. I knew I’d gained weight at a less than ideal rate, but I was devastated at the way the OB clicked her tongue and said, “Twelve pounds in five weeks. That’s no good.” She said it under her breath to her computer, no comment or follow up, just judgment. Shock silenced me, but I rage-wept about it for weeks.
I started policing how much I ate, each bite accompanying a nagging voice in my head: Are you hungry, or are you eating your feelings? I would make bargains with myself — instead of another dish of yogurt, how about a 30-second plank? Twenty minutes of yoga instead of another cookie?
Inevitably I would break those bargains and eat the yogurt and the cookie and the ice cream and the potato salad by the half pound. Usually, these binges were accompanied by a self-pity sesh on Facebook or Instagram, scrolling past adventures I was missing out on being had by bodies that weren’t burdened by an abdominal submarine. Then to my phone for a selfie to post: “I don’t understand this body shape #watermelon.” Self-deprecating, filtered, a cute half-truth.
I did look like I had a watermelon smuggled under my shirt. Most people couldn’t tell from behind that I was pregnant. A full schedule and an electric undercurrent of anxiety kept me on the go every day of the week, and in retrospect I can see that my body was urging me to gulp enough calories to make sure I didn’t collapse. And yeah, I killed it with some of those selfies — I had that glow going! It perfectly masked the buzzing distress I felt underneath. Looking at my selfies made it okay to not look in the mirror.
“There’s no place for perfectionism in pregnancy,” says Adrienne Ressler, LMSW, CEDS, F.iaedp, Vice President of Professional Development at The Renfrew Center Foundation, which specializes in eating disorder treatment. “Advertising and social media depicting gorgeous and shapely models who have had two days of morning sickness are unrealistic and damaging.”
We all know the message: Body image is a journey, and it can take years to get there! If you’re on that journey, you also know there are ample traps along the way to self-acceptance. Eating disorders and self harm can steal years of our lives. Even after we’ve healed, triggers still loom. When we can’t live up to what we see modeled on our news feeds, it leaves us feeling isolated and depressed, vulnerable to old coping mechanisms — and new ones.
Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, Program Director at The Motherhood Center of New York, says that one of the key things they do with women who come to them with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders is to put them in peer support and group interactions. “They give each other permission to feel that [way] right now,” she says. Women learn to grieve the person they were before motherhood and celebrate the creation of a new life.
Paige’s prescription for connection is the closest thing I can think of for a magical solution to this. It’s the salve we put on the wounds others make, whether it’s our OBs or a stranger in the supermarket who demands to know “how come you’re so pregnant but you don’t have no ass?”
It was real people who got me through: Sarah marveling over brunch that I was making fingernails while we were eating. Carmen, as she changed her son’s poopy diaper in the middle of Central Park, admonishing me to “just eat the damn cookie.” Allison and Angela, ever the scientists, asking the gross questions about current bodily goings on and supplying the reasons behind why those things were happening.
Those real-life connections grounded me, and the conversations helped me make sense of the chaos. It wasn’t control — but then again, with a new baby on the way, control would soon be a thing of the past. Instead, it helped me accept that this strangeness was part of the bigger picture, the huge change that comes with giving birth and entering parenthood. The connection reminded me to turn away from the glossy perfectionism of Instagram selfies and look into my own face in the mirror.
Did pregnancy mess with your body image? Tell us how you dealt with it @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)