A reader who asked to remain anonymous e-mailed me this question:
I’d love to see you or a contributor write a post about body image during pregnancy. I ask this question from a deeply personal place. I am average height and somewhere between a size 14-18, often spanning straight sizes and plus sizes. I was pregnant for 11 weeks prior to a very recent miscarriage, and struggled with body image (even more than usual) during that time. I didn’t get to the point where my body physically changed, but the anticipation of it terrified me.
While I am sadly no longer pregnant, I do hope to be again in the near future and would love some insight on this, or suggestions on positive resources. I found some of the biggest struggles to be looking for larger sized fashionable clothes in maternity wear, and also the comparison between myself and smaller friends who were pregnant.
So first, a moment to acknowledge that miscarriages are incredibly common, unspeakably tragic, and a topic that remains frustratingly taboo. I am sure that many of you have survived miscarriages yourselves, and that your heart breaks for this lovely reader just as mine did.
The resources I typically send to women who have questions about pregnancy and STYLE are below. Although they focus on fashion, discussions of body image are extremely common in all of these posts and blogs:
- Dressing the Body in Flux - not about the fluctuations of pregnancy, per se, but still somewhat relevant. See comments, too.
- Pregnancy Chic – a guest post is from Allie of Wardrobe Oxygen, whose daughter is much older now, but she offers some GREAT tips. (Her own maternity series is here.)
- Neither of these blogs is active right now, but both do a stellar job of showcasing maternity style and some post-partum:
- Narrowly Tailored
I have never been pregnant myself, so I am woefully ill-equipped to tackle this topic. I called in Laura Rademacher, who worked on the now-defunct Strong, Sexy & Stylish podcast with me, and who is a dedicated mother, gifted marriage and family therapist, fierce feminist, and all-around amazing human being. Here are her thoughts.
* * * * *
On Bellies, Babies and Boundaries
I get asked about my pregnancy all the time. 99.9% of that time I am not pregnant. There is just something about the way my body is shaped that makes people think I might be. They love to ask when I am due or if it is my “first” or just, “Are you pregnant?” This used to make me feel bad about myself. Especially the more awkward occasions, like when a server kept hovering around my table making odd comments implying I was pregnant (which I ignored) until she flat out asked and I had to say, “Nope. Not pregnant.” At that point she squeeled in embarrassment and ran into the kitchen where she hid until I left. Because apparently I was the one who embarrassed her. Or the women who asked and when I told her “no” handed me her business card and said, “Then you need to call me. I’m a nutritionist.”
It doesn’t help that I happen to love certain clothing styles that can accentuate my high waist like babydoll type dresses. I know they are more likely to make me look pregnant but damn, I do love them. I often find myself faced with the choice of wearing an outfit I love and taking extra risk that I will be faced with expectant questions or dressing in something I like less for a slightly smaller chance of avoiding the assumed-pregnancy chit-chat. I have one dress that has hung forlornly in my closet for years. I loved it when I first got it but every time I wore it I got the question. At this point it is retired because wearing it is an exhausting experience.
When I was actually pregnant I was very excited to wear whatever I wanted. I didn’t care whether an outfit emphasized my mid-section because I could say, “Why, yes, I am pregnant!” During my pregnancy I felt pretty happy with my appearance until the last two months of hot, hot summer when I felt physically uncomfortable with how big I had gotten. The real body image challenge for me was postpartum; realizing I had to continue wearing maternity clothes because nothing else fit, struggling to put together a work wardrobe on a budget that spanned the three possible sizes I may or may not be at any given moment, finding that my milk came in unevenly and avoiding anything zip- or button-up since it would visibly pull to one side or I would have to stuff my bra to even myself out. Man, what a pain. The sleep deprivation didn’t help my attitude about it either. Neither did continuing to field questions about when I was due and getting to respond, “Six months ago.” Pregnant appearance was fun for me while I was actually pregnant. Once my daughter was born I was really ready to go back to my old, only mildly pregnant-looking figure.
Here’s the thing about all the people who ask if I am pregnant; they are so well intentioned. People see someone they think is having a baby and their thought process is likely something like, “Oh, how wonderful! They must be filled with joy. I want to share that good feeling!” They just want to smile and send you blessings in whatever form; feel some vicarious happiness in their day. The problem is that they are asking questions about subjects that are often very personal and private. For part of the time that I was mistaken for pregnant I was actually having fertility issues. What a bitter time that was, wishing for pregnancy and being told I looked pregnant but knowing I was not. For me, this part of the journey was over relatively quickly but for many people it lasts much longer. Some people experience miscarriages and appear still pregnant or postpartum. These people often find themselves navigating questions from strangers that touch directly on their grief. Some people find themselves pregnant unexpectedly, in less than ideal circumstances or have mixed feelings about having a child. They might not want to join in a love-fest with a stranger who thinks this baby will be the cutest little bundle of joy that stranger will never have to care for or support financially.
With these thoughts in mind, here is my survival guide for awkward questions or sad body feelings before, during, or after pregnancy:
Be kind to yourself.
Really. Don’t beat yourself up over other people’s comments. If your body isn’t making you happy in this moment feel free to make positive changes but do so with a kind and supportive attitude to yourself. Negative self-talk doesn’t help anyone meet goals or feel happier in their own skin.
Realize the body is always changing and what you dislike may well be temporary.
If you are pregnant and hating it, more changes are coming that you may like better! If you are postpartum and wondering when your body will change know that it likely will be different three months from now and different again three months after that. Change doesn’t always get us to our exact ideal but small, slow changes make a big difference over time.
Set boundaries around your body and personal information!
If you don’t want people touching your pregnant belly, let them know that is not OK with you. When people ask if you are pregnant and you don’t want to talk about your recent miscarriage it is absolutely your right to shut the conversation down. This often takes practice since social conditioning encourages us to “be nice” to others. Remember, you can always set boundaries in a “nice” way if niceness is important to you. Pick a response you like and practice saying it before you are in the actual situation. See if any of these work for you:
- “Thanks for your curiosity. I prefer to keep that information private.”
- “I appreciate your concern but that’s not something I want to talk about. How about the weather this month, huh?!?”
- “Please don’t touch my body. I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
- “I know I look really great right now but try to keep your hands off, OK?”
Grief is real and totally valid.
It can be good to grieve over changes to your body, the way it is perceived, or what you would have wished it would do. However, if you start to feel stuck in your grief or it significantly affects your functioning, go talk with a professional you trust about ways to honor your grief and start to feel better.
When you don’t feel happy with how your body looks, can you feel happy with what your body is able to do?
If you are pregnant are you drawing inspiration from the knowledge that your body is creating a whole person right now? If you are facing fertility issues can you appreciate the distance you can run, the fun you have dancing, or your contagious smile? If you are postpartum are you proud of the milk you may be producing, the sleep you are forgoing, the comfort your hugs offer to your child? While postpartum I comforted myself with the thought that my body was working hard. I decided I had a “working body” and told myself I had plenty of time to get back to something I enjoyed more as a “looking body.” In fact, it made me realize that for me the two concepts are intertwined. Now my concept of my good “looking body” is based a lot more on how much I am using my “working body” for things I enjoy.
Best wishes to all of you: non-pregnant pregnant looking people, for-real pregnant people, people wishing for pregnancy, people dealing with a pregnancy they aren’t pleased about, people who just miscarried and all the rest of you in your unique situations. I promise I’ll never ask you the question when I see you in the grocery store. I’ll just smile and if you are wearing a babydoll dress I’ll give you a compliment on your fabulous taste in clothing.
Laura Rademacher, MA, LAMFT is a sex and relationship therapist in Minneapolis, MN. For more information about her therapy or education work you can find her at skyhilltherapy.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image courtesy blmurch.