The One Body Image Struggle I Never Expected to Have During Pregnancy – and How I’ve Coped With It

The One Body Image Struggle I Never Expected to Have During Pregnancy – and How I’ve Coped With It

Body Image and Pregnancy, Part 2

 

“Oh my gosh, you’re due in March?! But you’re so TINY!”

“You haven’t put on any weight since your last appointment; I really would like you to put on a few more pounds” (~doctor)

“Your breasts are so large!”

“You’ve hidden your pregnancy so well—You can barely tell!” (PS: I’m not ‘trying’ to hide anything)

 

These are all comments I have heard in the past few weeks. How is one supposed to respond? Ummm…thanks? Are any of these familiar to you? Or perhaps the analysis of your belly sounded a bit different than what I am experiencing.

No matter who you are, when you’re pregnant people can’t help but make comments of some form about your body, shape and size and overall how you look. These comments, while well-intentioned, most likely will have an evaluative or comparative piece to them—large, small, healthy, unhealthy, looking great, looking fat. They can leave an impact.

In my previous post about body image and pregnancy, I discussed the various ways our bodies grow and change during this special time in life, much out of our own control, and with the potential to cause discomfort and body image struggles.

Today I want to shine a light on the impact of external sources on how we feel about our bodies

 

during pregnancy, whether those are comments by others, things you read, the shape of another pregnant woman’s body, or expectations placed upon you.

While I felt I was well-prepared to face my own potential body image struggle during my pregnancy, the one I am actually experiencing is much different than I would have imagined.

When my doctor advised me to put on weight, I had a mixture of reactions. One was shock: “Wow, I’ve never been told that before. I am more accustomed to hearing from the voice in my head that I need to lose weight, not gain it.” A second was “But how can I eat more? I am trying my best to get a good, healthy assortment of foods.”

Yet another was a deep sense of failure. Was I failing my baby by not being able to gain weight like I ‘should’ in pregnancy? Was she healthy and happy in there? There were no indicators that she wasn’t, but I still worried.

This one comment from my doctor sent me on a rollercoaster of anxiety, fear, worry, and ultimately acceptance.

The voice that I ultimately chose to listen to: I’m doing the best I can. Which is amazing.

Then, a few days ago someone told me how shocked they were to learn I was only a little over a month away from my due date. I was just that tiny. I’m not that tiny. I’m an 8.5 month pregnant lady. But again, that comment triggered a deeper fear that there’s something wrong with me. There is something deficient about my body…it is failing somehow.

Body Image During Pregnancy

I work with my clients every day to address these types of fears, helping them to recognize that they are not based in truth, but at the time they can seem incredibly real.

Our thoughts can run rampant if we don’t become mindful of them and the effect they can have on our deeper selves. When you are in a vulnerable time of your life, whether it is during pregnancy, during early stages of a relationship, or after a big move to a new city, words are powerful.   They can have the fortitude to change your whole day. Which words do you want to internalize and truly listen to?

As a pregnancy develops and women’s bodies grow in such amazing and unprecedented ways, the comparison monster can easily rear its ugly head. Pictures posted on social media, seeing a woman walking down the street; we can’t help but compare our bodies to others’ — how ‘should’ we be looking, feeling, changing? Take a moment and think back to the last time you compared yourself in some way to another person. How did it feel?

Whether it’s thinking that your belly is ‘too large’ or ‘too small’, or tasting any other flavor of the not-good-enough-potion, most pregnant women have gone through some version of their own journey with accepting their changing bodies. How we look can seem to be first and foremost in other people’s minds, sometimes even before how you are feeling or how healthy your pregnancy is. It’s tough to not let that seep in.  How do we cope?

Remember, every woman’s body is different. We are built differently, and we will experience changes to our bodies differently. There is no “right way” or “wrong way”. There’s just YOUR way. And you’re doing great.

 

 

Here are three methods that I have chosen to help me cope. I hope they can also help you or someone you know:

  1. Remember that size does not equal health – of you, or of your baby.
  2. Set strong boundaries with external influences – put down the pregnancy books, sign off social media, and reconnect with yourself in a way that feels refreshing and genuine.
  3. Keep the end goal in sight – your baby. Pregnancy is a unique and magical time of a woman’s life and while it is uncomfortable in many ways, it is all for a very good reason. Try to picture gazing at your little one and in that moment nothing else will matter.

Share your tips! Have you been pregnant or are you pregnant and can relate to this? Share in the comments below ways that helped you cope.  Connecting together and supporting one another can make a huge difference in mental and physical health!


The Sweet Potato Battle: The Vulnerability of Pregnancy, Taking Up Space, and Being a ‘Good Enough’ Parent

Today I am so honored to share with you a guest post by my friend and colleague Ann Stoneson of Labyrinth Healing.  Ann is a therapist in Austin, Texas who helps people pleasers find their voice and empower themselves.  Ann, who is a brilliant writer and also a new mother, graciously offered to write a post for my blog this month exploring her experience with pregnancy, overcoming people-pleasing and showing up for herself.  The experience of pregnancy forces you to take up more space, which for many of us can bring up uncomfortable and conflictual emotions and feelings.  I am personally grateful to Ann for this post as I navigate my own pregnancy and impending motherhood, my own body image and my role as a therapist.

Please enjoy!  And if you find this compelling please leave a comment and share with your peers.

P.S.: Check back in January for my own guest post for Ann’s blog about the challenges and joys of navigating body image during pregnancy.

 

The Sweet Potato Battle: The Vulnerability of Pregnancy, Taking Up Space, and Feeding Your True Hunger

By Ann Stoneson, MS, LPC-S

 

I’m rather embarrassed.

I sit down to write this post for Kate, knowing her practice centers around helping people building healthy relationships with food, and I draw a blank. Have I done this before?

After taking a quick, sheepish inventory of my blog, the verdict comes in.

I am a therapist and I have blogged weekly for three years trying to help women and people-pleasers yet I have written precisely one post about struggles with food.

One. Just one. (And you can read it here, if you like.)

Wow. Really? That’s one heck of a blind spot.

And, in the few posts I’ve written that mention eating at all, like finding Buddha at the breakfast table and the hour long lunch break, don’t get into the often complicated relationship we have with food.

So this is new territory for me.

I’ll do what I usually do with that stuff, which is to pull a handful experiences forward from my life and talk about them. Here we go.

My confession

Yes. I admit it.

I’m a very good chameleon.

I can blend in pleasingly with almost any crowd or situation. But I’m most at home making myself useful to others—listening, helping out, tidying up.

I’m the person at the party who circulates through the house, gathering up empty cups and bottle caps, presiding over the snack table like I was sworn into office for the job.

Of course, some of that has to do with being an introvert and finding refuge in solitary tasks when I’m in a sea of people at a party. But a lot of it also has to do with wanting, no, needing to be helpful to others.

It has to do with being a people pleaser. A chameleon. You obligingly change your shade, your shape, to suit the wishes and needs of those around you.

Being a people-pleaser

I carried on for years doing this. Dissolving myself into situations like tea into water.

You couldn’t even see me. I hid behind the role of helper. I went straight from college to graduate school to become a helper. And then I became a therapist, which is about as professional a helper as you can get.

Now, I preside over counseling sessions rather than snack tables, but the gig is similar.

What can I get you?

How can I help?

Do you need some more water?

Except I got pregnant.

And suddenly, I was the one who needed water, a pee break every hour, and there were even those last minute cancellations when the morning sickness just wouldn’t go away.

Suddenly, I had needs I couldn’t ignore, and I had to practice what I preach, balancing my needs and the needs of my clients during the tender, swollen, confusing months of pregnancy.

Pregnancy introduced a whole new way of chameleoning—perhaps the first true and honest way of changing my shape to suit someone else. And as with any transformation, it had its beautiful and its awkward moments.

The vulnerability of pregnancy

Being pregnant was one of the biggest practices in authenticity and vulnerability I’ve ever

 

experienced. Because I couldn’t hide it.

Because I couldn’t suck in my stomach or hold my breath through it.

I had to take up more space—in every sense of the word—and I was doing my best to be at peace with this.

Being a walking billboard for impending motherhood had its challenges. I got a lot of comments and well-wishes and advice from people I didn’t know. I got asked about my weight gain.

Two weeks shy of my due date, while sitting alone and eating a barbeque sandwich on my lunch break, an elderly woman sidled by my table and asked, “Are you sure you’re going to have time to finish that?”

I remember looking blankly at her, not understanding what the hell she was saying and thinking to myself, “I have another hour before my next appointment, what is she talking about?”

Then she gestured to my stomach and asked, “You look like you’re about to pop. When are you due?”

If this had been the first stranger’s inquiry about my belly’s impending deadline, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. But I was getting inquiries every day, every time I left the house, in my final months of pregnancy. And a part of me was getting tired of all that visibility, particularly as I was feeling anxious about the birthing process and mostly just wanted to be left alone to my thoughts.

My husband joked that I should have thrown my sandwich into the ceiling fan in a panic, dropped to all fours, and then begin moaning as though I was in active labor.

I sort of wish I had, but I wanted to finish the sandwich.

Living life a second time

As a therapist, I’ve talked before with clients who had intrusive parents. Parents who wanted to live vicariously through their kids. Parents who couldn’t step back and give their children some room to breathe, to fumble about, to make mistakes.

This living through your kids phenomenon was often talked about with a tone of condemnation among therapists.

When I consider the notion now, the first thing I think of is how much more compassion and understanding I have for all parents—my own and everyone else’s. Being a parent calls down all sorts of humility on you.

The second thing I think is that raising a child is a chance to live life twice—but hopefully more as an observer and maybe sometimes a co-pilot, nothing more.

The sweet potato battle

A month ago, I sat down with my son to try and feed him his first solid foods. Initially, he didn’t seem too keen on anything I offered.

I remember looking anxiously at the packaging, which told me to use within 24 hours of opening and then discard.

I remember trying to steer sloppy spoonfuls of pureed sweet potato into his mouth when he wasn’t keen on eating.

Fortunately, I caught myself doing this early.

And each time I sit down with him, I try to be mindful and patient when feeding him. I try not to get locked in sweet potato battles. I try to hold things lightly.

As a first-time, sleep-deprived parent, I manage to do this maybe half of the time.

Healing our relationship with food

American culture has a pretty confused, complicated relationship with food, eating, and dieting.

So, with that force as a backdrop, I want to help my son cultivate a thoughtful, loving relationship with food.

I don’t want him to feel like he has to be a member of the “clean plate club” because I’m anxious about wasted food. I want him to learn to listen to his body and its cues.

Sure, there will be times when he doesn’t want what’s on offer, and he eats it anyway, or makes himself a snack when he’s old enough to do so, or maybe goes hungry for a while.

But this will be his choice.

Even now, a baby without words to speak, he has a will and he has preferences. And food is one of his earliest ways to express these.

Our relationship with food is lifelong. Whatever lessons we may have absorbed before this point, there is always opportunity to learn, to grow, to try something new.

Final thoughts

As I work to teach my son to have a healthy, loving relationship with food, I see opportunities to heal my own relationship with it, too.

It’s hit or miss some days, sure.

I’m sure we’ll get into power struggles at times, my own anxieties rising like a tide as I try to get him to do it my way.

I try to cast forgiveness and patience forward to where my future self is waiting, mired in frustration and tears.

As I’ve said before to my clients who struggle in their relationship with food, it is the one “substance” you can’t cut out of your life and live.

A recovering alcoholic can quit the bar scene, hard though it may be. But a person struggling to make peace with her food has to grapple with that relationship every day.

I hope a peaceful relationship with food is a gift I can offer my son.

As a therapist, I’m keenly aware of the cost of parental failings.

I try not to let this awareness fuel my anxiety.

I try to embrace the concept of the good enough mother that Winnicott, a famous analyst, often spoke of.

So, whether you’re a parent or not,

whether you have a peaceful or precarious relationship with food,

whatever the shape of your sweet potato battles,

know that you’re not alone with it.

 

Stonebraker headshotAbout the Author: Ann Stoneson is a counselor in Austin, Texas who helps folks quit people-pleasing.  She writes weekly for her own practice blog at Labyrinth Healing, as well as at her latest project, counselinginterns.com, a resource site for counseling students and interns.


Loving the shape of a mother: the beauty of a postpartum body and the struggles it can spark

Women in today’s society are sent message after message about how they should look.  What generous gifts these messages are!  According to Western society, women “should” be not too tall, have tanned, unblemished skin or perfectly alabaster skin, shiny modern hair, and of course, you can never be skinny enough.  When a woman becomes pregnant, an event that is the most natural and beautiful process a woman can embody, the messages she is sent about her looks are intensified:  you can’t gain more than xxx amount of weight!  You must wear pregnancy-flattering clothes!  You must not ‘let yourself go’ (my favorite)!  When is a woman just allowed to be?  Allowed to experience the magic of another person growing inside of her without being told she needs to “do this and be that” for the whole nine months?  There also appear to be rules that change when a woman gets pregnant — I have had several pregnant friends lament about the way complete strangers come up to them and put their hands on their belly.  Would anyone do that to you if you weren’t pregnant?

I was recently introduced to the site The Shape of a Mother, which is an inspirational, and amazingly real forum where new mothers “of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret. So we can finally see what women really look like sans airbrushes and plastic surgery. I think it would be nothing short of amazing if a few of our hearts are healed, or if we begin to cherish our new bodies which have done so much for the human race. What if the next generation grows up knowing how normal our bodies are?”.  The intent of this site’s creator is to throw away the shame that be felt when a new mother is not comfortable in her new body — often due to the influence of society’s messages.  When actresses and celebrities are “losing the baby weight” within a few weeks of having a child, it’s difficult to not feel insecure about your own post-baby body.  But this is not Hollywood, and this site is a safe place for women of all backgrounds to share their stories.

The site is filled with photos of “real bodies”, adjusting to life after giving birth.  These pictures might shed light on parts of the body that would normally be hidden by clothes out of shame or embarrassment.  Here, they are proudly expressed, openly celebrated, and joyfully worshipped.  Women of all ages share their stories — not only of body insecurities and observations, but of what their pregnancy and birth experience was like.  Women share photos of their children, their bodies, their families.  They emphasize what is most important to them: health, family, love.  Some share about wanting to hide their post-pregnancy belly or stretch marks, and with encouragement from other new moms, these women find support for being thankful for the gifts they have received from their experience.

One new mom shares: “The only message I have from this post is to love your body, not matter what size and shape.I realized how much time I wasted on wishing I was thinner. Because when I look back, I dont think about how much I hated the way I looked, I think about how my daughter has grown and how smart she has become and how beautiful she is growing up to be. Be your own kind of beautiful, because we are all beautiful!”

The Shape of a Mother is a light amidst a swirling and menacing hurricane.  The honesty shared here is hard to find; society doesn’t talk much about the reality of accepting a post-baby body.  I am inspired by these women and know that this website is a wonderful resource for women who are thinking about getting pregnant, who are pregnant, or who are adjusting to life as a new mother.


Drunkorexia, pregorexia — the rise of new “rexias” in the eating disorder epidemic

Today is the start of “Fat Talk Free Week”, which is a national campaign that visits college campuses, does presentations, and encourages women and men to eliminate conversations that reinforce the thin ideal and that contribute to dissatisfaction in one’s body.  October 18-25, 2010 is a week set aside for motivating positive body image and educating the country about the dangers of disordered eating and negative body image.  I am doing my part to spread the word about the beauty and vitality of our healthy bodies, and encourage you to do so too!

Newspapers, magazines, and internet blogs are bringing focus to this topic in some of their writings this week.  As I was reading an article in the Denver Post this morning about a shocking new eating disorder called “drunkorexia”, it struck me how many different kinds of eating disorders are in development and how there are many diverging opinions about the “trendiness” of these “rexias”.  I wanted to learn more, so I looked online for what people are saying about the “rexia” trend.  The two most talked-about types are “drunkorexia”, which is a sensational term for when (most commonly) college aged women limit their food intake and “drink” their calories instead.  This often involves binge drinking on an empty stomach, which causes ulcers, black-outs, and the lack of nutrients can lead to serious medical concerns.  On the other extreme, the Denver Post article talks about students binge-drinking and then consuming massive amounts of “drunk food” such as hamburgers, pizza, and ice cream and then throwing them up later after feeling guilty.

I had heard of drunkorexia before, but pregorexia is a relatively new term which refers to behaviors that seriously concern me as a mental health professional, as a woman, and as a potential future mother.  Pregorexia refers to women who limit or carefully count their food intake, sometimes significantly, during pregnancy so as to not gain very much weight.  Blogs call this “the pregnant woman’s eating disorder”, and a “buzz word” for this type of eating disorder that some believe is inspired by looking at celebrities who remain slim during pregnancy and then lose the baby weight within a matter of weeks after birth.  When I think about this, it is just another version of the same issue that plagues all women and men with eating disorders: comparing themselves to others and feeling inferior.  It scares me to think of the effect this might have on the child growing inside of the mother and it saddens me that women feel that they cannot embrace one of the most natural and beautiful parts of human life: growing a child and giving birth.

Negative messages are sent to pregnant women through the media every day.  A psychology blog explores how women are told that having a c-section can lead to faster weight loss after birth because their metabolism is increased as their body tries to repair itself from the surgery (and the liquid diet the doctor puts women on after a c-section can “help you lose pounds very quickly”).  These messages are unhealthy, as they insinuate that a pregnant woman’s body is not beautiful (unless it’s thin!), that weight loss is the most important thing to focus on after giving birth, and that every woman must be perfect when navigating life transitions.

It makes me wonder in a sort of which came first – the chicken or the egg type way:  do women who are susceptible to eating disorders get triggered by substance use or changes in their body, such as pregnancy?  Are these new “rexias” part of an already-developed eating disorder that presents itself and gets tangled with life transitions?  What is the link between entering a new phase of life (starting college or starting a family) and coping mechanisms like eating disorders and substance abuse?  Much research has been done about ways of coping as life throws us new curves and paths as it tends to do.  I think that the different facets that eating disorders have found all point to the same underlying issues: needing a sense of control, feeling “not good enough”, and desiring a release of anxiety and tension.

The last blog that I found about this topic is one written by those who have (or currently are) suffered from an eating disorder so it can be very real, sometimes triggering, but incredibly insightful.  An author who wrote about “the rise of the rexics” feels that the many new variations on anorexia (including “brideorexia”) makes fun of or minimizes the seriousness of anorexia.  The author argues that the cutesy terms are meaningless and that we need to get down to the real problem: that a bride has anorexia, or a pregnant woman has anorexia.  In order to validate those who suffer, no matter what their circumstances, it must be heard that the psychological, cognitive, and physical devastation is the same for all and that every form of disordered eating needs to be treated with the same amount of care and seriousness.  The consequences of eating disorders affect not only the person exhibiting behaviors, but also affect their family members, their friends, their community, and their children.

So, in honor of Fat Talk Free Week and in honor of our beautiful, natural selves, please be aware of the messages that we send through our actions and words and notice when you are conforming to the thin ideal.  We all deserve to feel happy and accepted just the way that we are!