(Disclaimer: This was written pre-pandemic as I chronicled my pregnancy.)
I really hated my pregnant body the first time around.
I had never romanticized pregnancy. In fact, I had never given it much thought. It just felt mostly like a means to an end.
I did, however, expect my body to take pregnancy well. Having been a yoga teacher and a generally fit and healthy person, I expected for all that to basically remain and for the pregnancy to disrupt me as little as possible.
I wasn’t consciously aware of feeling this way. That would be crazy - obviously my body was going to change. It was just a latent, deeply rooted assumption I carried with me.
My belly started to grow and I felt resentful. When I would take belly photos to send to my loved ones, I would take at least a dozen, trying to find the most flattering position where I looked as thin and un-pregnant as possible. Ideally a position that would make it look like my belly was much smaller than it should be at X Weeks along. I relished in responses like, “Look at that tiny bump!”
I tried to hide my belly throughout the entire pregnancy. I wore baggy T-shirts when I was teaching. I felt ashamed that I was getting bigger, despite logically understanding that a pregnant woman’s body gets bigger. The rest of my body did not change in any extreme way. People would tell me that you couldn't tell I was pregnant from behind. But all I could see were that my arms were no longer as streamlined as I wanted them to be and I generally felt like I was padded all over with a layer of pregnancy blubber. I also just felt very uncomfortable for my entire pregnancy. I didn’t feel pregnant; I felt like I had always eaten too much.
In reality, I gained about 28 pounds. Considering that the baby weighed 8.5 pounds at birth plus the weight of the placenta and everything else, this was not an excessive amount of weight to gain. Logically, I understood this. But I had never weighed so much in my entire life and it terrified me.
As much as I hated my pregnant body, I was not prepared for how much worse I would feel about my postpartum body. Gone was the rotund, obviously growing-a-child belly, replaced by a lumpy mess of skin topped off with an unexpected c-section scar. I fell to the bathroom floor the first time I saw my reflection in the mirror once I came home from the hospital.
I had purchased postpartum belly bands in preparation as I had read that they could help everything shrink back down. I thought I would wear them as soon as the baby was out. I never once used them because I was in so much pain from the c-section. I later found out that although the outer scar never got infected, I was not healing particularly well underneath the skin. I had not been informed to do gentle massage around the scar to prevent adhesions and scar tissue, so my lower abdomen was rife with these hard, painful knots. I think certain women heal better than others; it’s probably just how our bodies respond to trauma.
I had never felt more ashamed of my body. I felt wobbly and enormous. For two years I talked endlessly about how I still had to lose those “last 10 pounds.” I didn’t even know if that was true as I never weighed myself. At a certain point I realized it was ridiculous to blame my child who was now two years old for my horrible body. I proceeded to go through my cycles of dieting and over-exercising, though I never realized that that was what I was doing. In my mind, I was simply “eating clean” and working out consistently.
A few months ago, I was talking to a friend who is a spin teacher turned nutritionist. She is in recovery from an eating disorder and something she said to me flicked on that aha moment lightbulb. Her experience and her way of thinking felt incredibly familiar.
At my friend's suggestion, I went to an eating disorder support group and talked to an eating disorder therapist. I was eventually diagnosed with Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, Orothexia Disorder, and Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This has been such a surprising revelation to me that I have kind of pushed it down and away. I feel like a fraud, trying to claim an eating disorder when I am clearly not skeletally thin. I've never been hospitalized for anorexia and I have never been bulimic. I tried to talk to a friend about it once, but when she responded with confusion, “Wait, so, you should weigh MORE?”, which I took to mean I already weighed too much, I immediately felt embarrassed and played it off. I am bigger than this particular friend who basically has the body of a supermodel...how could I possibly be the one to have an eating disorder?
This confused and invalidating thinking is all part of the disorders. What I did not know before is that eating disorders are mental illnesses.
I am still trying to accept all of this. I am just barely at the starting line of understanding and healing. But I do know that awareness is a huge first step.
My rejection of the way pregnancy changed my body was most definitely affected by my lifelong body dysmorphia and also by the fact that I wasn't thinking how temporary pregnancy is. These forty weeks are long, but they are just one chapter in the greater story of my life. Logically, I understood that my body would fluctuate and that it would not be pregnant forever. But while I was in it, it felt like this was how my body was going to get stuck. Even as I lost the baby weight, I couldn't see that I had.
My body did mostly return to how it was pre-pregnancy, evidenced by the fact that I was able to wear my old clothes again. My body dysmorphia continued though; I could not see myself clearly. I don't know if I ever have. When I look back at photos from the first few years of Ryker's life, I am filled with confusion. I don’t look as enormous as I had felt at the time.
Being pregnant again now, I have a much better understanding of how temporary my pregnant body is. I know that it will not be stuck forever in an ever-expanding state. Although I am only 7 weeks at this point and shouldn’t be “showing” yet, my belly is already different. I think it’s probably from a combination of allowing myself to eat more carbs to curb nausea as well as retaining more fluid. I am trying not to beat myself up over it. I am focusing on the privilege of growing a human. I will be grateful for the baby’s and my health.
Ryker gave me the greatest gift in being born as my first child. His arrival was a portal to healing the lifelong pain and trauma I had buried as a daughter of mental illness. What initially looked like misfortune - a traumatic birth followed by postpartum depression - was actually a call to deeper self-knowledge, acceptance, wisdom, and Truth. I genuinely feel that the terrible start I had to motherhood was a blessing.
Likewise, I can’t help but wonder if this new baby brings with him/her another opportunity to go deeper into healing. I entered this pregnancy with an acknowledgement of my eating disorder and body dysmorphia and how I have allowed myself to be unconsciously controlled by these mental illnesses. I am curious how I can make different choices from here on out, inspired by the life my body is creating.
Where I would normally control my eating - let’s be honest: where I would normally DIET - skipping meals and banning many food groups, right now I choose listening to my body and honoring my current cravings and aversions. I choose providing sustenance and nutrition to my body over my fears and vanity. I choose to allow myself to be soothed by a bowl of soupy udon noodles, something I have not allowed myself to eat freely in decades. Instead of immediately feeding my critical voice as I notice my growing belly, I choose to think, “I hope s/he is cozy in there!"
None of this is easy for me. It requires a very concerted effort. But I am doing it.
I may never be that glowing pregnant woman who highlights her magnificent bump for the world to see (I have to interject an update from 2022: Have you guys seen the stunningly beautiful and confident pregnant Rihanna?!) and I’m okay with that. If I can rescript my own inner voice to be one of acceptance and kindness, I consider that to be wonderful growth (pun intended).