Oh pregnancy. Just saying the word aloud to a dozen people will illicit a dozen different responses. A little bit of excitement, a little bit of “Been there done that!” and probably even a couple of “Not you too! What is in the water?!” It’s to be expected I guess, but still, the reactions of those around you to the big news actually has the power to shape your outlook on pregnancy as a whole. And OH BOY, it goes well beyond just those initial reactions. So choose your company wisely, folks.
But that’s not really the point of this post at all, it’s just a preamble. It’s just me taking the time to point out just how much our family, friends, and society influence how we think and feel about ourselves.
Particularly when it comes to body image.
I’ve been carrying this baby for 29 weeks. It’s been exciting and nauseating and beautiful and profound and quite literally – heavy.
I knew it would be. Pregnancy = weight gain. Pregnancy = body changes. It’s not just biology, it’s logic. It’s a fact. Growing a human means actually doing a little bit of growing. Or perhaps even (GOD FORBID) a lot of growing.
I definitely don’t feel qualified to talk about body image or pregnancy with any authority, because I’m in it. And I haven’t figured it out. I have by no means come to a place of peace and acceptance. I don’t look in the mirror and think, “Oh the wonder of my glorious, growing body. I am strong. I am beautiful. I AM WOMAN.”
But I want to.
The last couple weeks have felt, physically, the hardest. I went from feeling energized and capable and even a tiny bit pretty, to feeling achy and wobbly and insecure, seemingly overnight.
To me, the toughest part of pregnancy body image hasn’t been the weight gain (I stopped hopping on the scale months ago), or the puffy fingers, or the dry skin. The hardest part is looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person looking back at you. It’s startling, unnerving, and at a certain point, it’s downright scary.
Because simply put, nothing is more terrifying that not feeling (or looking) like yourself.
I think that for me, a lot of it has to do with fitness. I had beautiful, unrealistic visions of myself running all the way through my pregnancy. I would remain totally energized and svelte for 40 full weeks! My diet would be perfection (because who would dare to crave Dr. Pepper and drive-thru tacos while growing a tiny perfect human?!) I would run a turkey trot on Thanksgiving morning! I would be at prenatal yoga every day! My life would remain entirely uninterrupted. I would be ME.
Only glowing, with a teeny tiny baby bump.
Of course, that is reality for plenty of women. But needless to say, it hasn’t been for me. I’m sure plenty of it is due to laziness and selfishness. It was a long hot summer, and when I wasn’t busy vomiting or napping, I sure as hell didn’t want to be running in 103 degree weather. And yoga memberships? They’re expensive. And sitting on my floor to follow along with free prenatal YouTube workout videos? Well, my floor is covered in dog hair, because I don’t have the energy to vacuum anymore. And drive-thru tacos? OH MY GOD I LOVE THEM.
And sure enough, somewhere around the 3rd trimester, it’s started to take it’s toll. Sure my new double chin might be because of the baby, or it might be because of the Nutella filled croissants I had to have a 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. Or more likely, as I suspect, it might be a delightful combination of the two. But truthfully – does it really matter?
Society says yes. Yes, it really does matter. Not only does it matter – it is everything.
I choose to believe that most people mean well. Mom’s health really is important. That is undisputed. Encouraging proper diet and exercise during pregnancy is absolutely vital. But now try telling that to the girl who is 9 weeks pregnant and unable to keep down anything but plain bagels and ginger ale. Harp on her health! While she’s holding back her hair for the 4th time this morning, be sure to emphasize that every time she eats a gluten laden fully refined carb she is doing IRREPARABLE DAMAGE TO HER BABY.
Really. Try it. And tell me how that works out for you.
And then there’s the other end of the spectrum. The camp that says, do whatever the hell you want – YOU’RE PREGNANT! When the reality is that you’re no more of a special flower than any other woman walking around out there with a reproductive system. But this camp gives you a pass! Do what you want. You had sex that one time – so you’ve earned it.
Oh man, I’m fired up now.
I don’t like the idea of giving women “passes.” I don’t like the idea of giving any fully grown human being a “pass” that says, “It’s okay that you’re doing something I typically find abhorrent because you’re working hard and you deserve to be rewarded, you poor thing you.” This is America. You can do what you want out here, and you shouldn’t need society’s completely made up stamp of approval regarding the state of your body, whether pregnant or not.
And regardless of which end of the spectrum you fall, the ugly truth remains – it’s all about your body, and no culture is as hard on women as ours.
This was true well before you conceived that little miracle, but it’s even truer now. Because you’re either too thin, and should you really be exercising so much?! Or you’ve taken that pregnancy pass too far, and you’re now in “danger” of giving birth to a 12 pound baby.
Then, once the baby has arrived, the real work begins. It’s time to get that pre-baby body back you sore, exhausted, new mama! Don’t worry, society is especially generous here. You’ve got SIX WHOLE WEEKS of lazying around before you have to hop back into your pre-baby routine. In that 6 weeks, you’ve had plenty of time to master nursing, sleeping in 45 minute intervals, diaper changes, and feeling sexy again. Isn’t maternity leave luxurious?
Are you overwhelmed yet? I am. I am exhausted just thinking about it.
People mean really well here too. They say sweet things like, “Don’t worry, you’ll bounce right back!” and “That baby weight will just melt right off!” And even though I get where they are coming from and secretly hope that they are right, the bottom line is that if my body doesn’t bounce back the way that all the well meaning people swear it will – that needs to be okay too.
If after carrying this baby and raising him, I’ll never be the same emotionally, why should I physically? If life moves forward, why should my desire be for the “old” version of myself?
And where did this idea even come from? Society? Is it intrinsic? Is it in the way we were raised? Is it in the way we mirror ourselves after our mothers and sisters? Is it a combination of all of the above?
“On the one hand, culture secretly (though not so quietly sometimes) mandates that women work their hardest to look as though their bodies are as slight as a whisper, taking up little to no space, while simultaneously exuding sexiness and a little bit of sass. The ever-changing prenatal body is creating, carrying, and nurturing new life and with that comes a robustness that potentially stirs unresolved issues, handed down from culture, family, and shaky self-esteem.” (Source)
What’s even more upsetting than all of the body image talk is how little we emphasize the importance of mental or emotional health during pregnancy. It’s all but entirely ignored. We’re so focused on how physical health affects the tiny inhabitant of our ever expanding uterus that we’ve completely neglected our mental health. We’ve neglected the role that emotional stress and anxiety play on a growing and developing baby before he even enters the world. But really, what does it matter when you look so damn good in a bikini?
I see a lot of blog posts and articles about how to talk to pregnant women RE: their physical appearance. Most of them are hilarious, and filled with examples of things that no human should say to anyone EVER, but I feel like they miss the mark. Instead of treating pregnant women with kindness (because they are fragile, hormonal, butterflies on the brink of a near emotional meltdown at any given moment so WATCH OUT WORLD), what if we treated everyone with kindness? What if instead of reducing the soul of a living, breathing human being to a number on a scale, we looked a little deeper?
It’s a revolutionary idea, y’all.
I think a lot of times pregnant women hear, “You’re beautiful because you’re growing a baby!” And while it’s sweet, I hope to God it’s not true. Because if so, what about when I’m done growing that baby? What about when he’s outside of my body, and I’m saggy and exhausted and unrecognizable? Will I still be beautiful then once my mission is complete?
Instead of telling pregnant women or new moms that they look great, what if we ask how they are feeling? What if we encourage them to ask themselves – How do I feel about myself today? And maybe more importantly – What have I done that I can be proud of today? Maybe I chose a banana instead of a snickers. Maybe I logged off Instagram and counted baby kicks like blessings. Maybe I tore up the “Before Baby To-Do List” and relaxed a little instead. Maybe I went on a date with my husband and we ate french fries and milkshakes and laughed harder than we have in weeks. Those all feel like little victories to me.
The further along I get in this pregnancy, the more I realize that when the focus shifts from body to mind, something crazy happens. Perspective is gained. Not every time, but enough times to make a difference.
Because the bottom line is that while I’m terrified of gaining another pound, it’s hard to care when he kicks me. My back might be aching and I might have to pee every 15 minutes, but I CAN’T be upset when I feel him moving around inside of me. It’s impossible.
So I focus on that. I focus on him. The growing little boy that I’m doing this for. He won’t come out of the womb caring that my arms have tripled in size. He won’t enter the world cringing at my puffy fingers or my double chin. He won’t care about the dimples on my thighs, or my lack of ability to run a 5k. Precious newborn babies are infinitely more forgiving than our society.
And thank God for that.