When I first became pregnant, I knew it right away, before a test could have told me so. I had a feeling inside my body; I called it a “light I could feel.” I suddenly knew that my body was a vehicle for something bigger than I had tried to use it for in the past, bigger than my mind, my will, my intention, or my image of aesthetically appealing.
As immediately as I realized the power of my body to engage in creation, and the intense feeling of meaningfulness, I began to fear the changes my body would go through. Feeling sick, dizzy, and tired was a daily call to the job I had to do in nourishing myself in order to be healthy rather than thin or fit or sexually attractive—which had previously been my holy grail. If I didn’t eat on time, sleep enough, sit down enough, or stay warm or cool enough, I would feel horrible and sick, unable to do all the goal-driven things I had going on in my life. I started to listen to my body instead of yelling at it or punishing it with deprivation, extreme goals, or neglect. After becoming pregnant, it just wasn’t possible, as there were always immediate, negative consequences. My perfectionist, competitive, Type-A personality was about to undergo a huge transition.
Having had an earlier history of combined eating disorders and poor body image, I knew it was important to focus on what my body could do, and how it could feel, rather than how it looked. I also knew I needed to embrace the beauty of my growing belly, and to feel blessed with the gift that was about to emerge in my life. I was already studying in graduate school to be a therapist, so I had all the tricks and techniques to change my thinking, manage my feelings, and navigate through this new stage in my life, though it was somewhat unexpected. I believed I was up to the challenge, that I would ace it, albeit with a great deal of effort. That was, until my gorgeous, sexy, fitness instructor friend invited me and my partner over for a drink, which of course, I couldn’t have. That night, I recall that she seemed energized, jovial, and friendly. This was not unusual, as it was her culture and that of my partner to be this way and I loved them both for it. However, I recall that I wasn’t feeling it, didn’t feel at ease, or like I fit in as usual. I was sizing her up, thinking she looked thinner and was maybe acting a bit too sexy … maybe.
Shaking off the thoughts, I decided to tell her I was pregnant, knowing she would be thrilled for me. Indeed she was. Then she touched my belly, as we were always affectionate, and said, “I guess it’s gonna be a while before that thing is flat again … if ever!” And with a huge, seemingly innocent smile, she danced off to get something from the kitchen. I remember my face heating up, my heart beating hard and my ego dropping to the floor, crashing into a tiny, invisible mess only I could see. My partner and my friend continued to have a wonderful time, listening to salsa music, talking, and drinking wine, as I sipped my water. It was as though nothing unusual had happened. I, however, was in another world. It was the first moment I recall feeling that my body was no longer mine and unpleasantly, horribly, out of control. I was silently panicking, a ball of fear, anger, and jealousy. I wasn’t even in the room with them. Call it hormones, but I didn’t like my friend anymore, though her remarks and my competitiveness did reemerge to motivate me to stay in good shape.
I didn’t gain much weight, and remained fit and active, so I wasn’t really showing until I was almost five months pregnant. In this way, I got to temporarily avoid what most pregnant women experience: regular and intrusive comments about their bodies. There was an awkward time for a few weeks where my belly was enlarged and elongated, so I looked like I had gained weight in all the wrong places, but didn’t quite look pregnant yet. I remember many weeping, frustrated episodes of trying to find something to wear that I felt good in. As I was a grad student, money was tight, but I quickly learned how to buy stretchy clothing with loose-fitting tops to get through that stage. I felt a short-lived relief once I started being unable to hide it.
Then it started. Everyone and their uncle felt the need to say something to me at the market, in lines, at the gym. Mostly remarking about how I looked, some sharing unpleasant stories about themselves or others who were pregnant, and all of them with unsolicited advice. I got a lot of dirty looks at the gym. I began to wonder how anyone gets through it unscathed, what with the emphasis on the appearance of the body, intrusive remarks, and lack of respect for boundaries—all contributing factors in the development of disordered eating and body image. Comments came from every direction. As an outgoing person, I didn’t so much mind people talking about my body, or even some strangers touching my belly, though I know many women are horrified by this experience and I agree we have a right to our bodies. I actually started to enjoy the attention. At this point, I turned inward and decided that … yes … forgive me … I wanted to control this experience. So I thought about how I could own it.
Looking at my skills instead of my weaknesses, I tapped into my ability to manage things, to take responsibility, to focus on goals, and decided I was going to have a great pregnancy. I stopped asking people for advice and started expressing confidence in my knowledge in order to discourage unwanted horror stories about other peoples’ experiences. It’s amazing how you can attract positive encouragement and support when you stop expressing negativity and fear. I started dressing in a way that made me feel confident, walking proudly, working out, taking yoga classes, and socializing as much as possible.
People began to celebrate with me. I took all my supplements and tea, ate healthy food, but also ate junk whenever I really wanted it, so I wouldn’t feel any deprivation and compensatory need to overeat. Not surprisingly, I began to feel happy and flattered by remarks from friends and strangers, though they were still excessive and at times unwanted. Weight did not pile on as I had feared. Despite my panic and shallow obsession with appearance, I was not punished with stretch marks or a saggy waist, but instead I was able to wear a bikini two weeks after my healthy, gorgeous baby was born.
Of course, everyone’s pregnancies, labor, and delivery/recovery are different. Perhaps I was lucky, or perhaps it was the fact I was very fit before and afterward. But this story is about body image, and mine hit rock bottom—but I dove down, picked it up, cleaned it off, and turned it into a touchstone.
Looking back, I never felt more beautiful than when I was pregnant. I subsequently was twice more. Though, postpartum, I went through some pretty low body image/self-esteem, I took charge of feeling better by working out, eating healthy, and employing a good dose of patience and mindfulness, and I got through it. Whenever I look in the mirror and a negative thought comes to my head, I recall how beautiful I felt with a giant, bulging waist, and I let go of criticism, choosing instead to celebrate what I—and my body—can do.
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