Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Body Image & Pregnancy

     Today I want to touch on body image, our culture’s perceptions of ideal body shape, and the way these things change with pregnancy.  First, let me lay out some basic concepts about this sometimes sensitive subject.  There are and likely always will be various body types: naturally slender people (like me), and naturally curvier people, and people who will stay the same weight regardless of what they do, and people whose weight fluctuates and must be controlled.  Everyone has their natural body type and typical weight range, which may or may not be easily changed.  There is no such thing as ‘the perfect body’, only the ideal for that particular culture and time, and sometimes only the ideal to a particular person.  All people should be concerned about their health and fitness first and foremost, far above body shape or looks.

     This experience of being pregnant has been interesting in about a million ways, but one of the most fascinating things for me was how my body changed.  I loved taking biweekly “belly pictures” and often couldn’t help but stare at my changing body in the mirror.  It was amazing to me that my uterus and skin could stretch to accommodate a growing baby, that my internal organs moved aside to make room, and that my bust grew to prepare to feed this new life.  Not only was this physical process fascinating to me, but it was also interesting how other people reacted to and commented on my body changes.

     I have observed that most women who become pregnant enjoy feeling “able to relax” about their bodies and don’t feel pressure to “suck it in” because it’s understood that pregnancy necessitates a certain amount of weight gain and body shape changes, which are necessary for fetal growth.  I found that nonpregnant people make comments about pregnant (and post-partum) womens’ bodies all the time.  It struck me as odd that, just like people feel comfortable touching a pregnant woman’s belly when they would never do such a thing to any other woman or person, people feel that it is acceptable to make comments about a pregnant woman’s body and the changes happening.  As a disclaimer, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to join a pregnant woman in a conversation about the changes she is experiencing when she initiates it or invites commentary.  Less acceptable, though, are the uninvited comments, especially from people who do not know the pregnant woman well.  At times, these comments are downright inappropriate.

     While I was pregnant, I found myself in many conversations about my body, both with people I knew well and people I barely knew.  I don’t know if it was because I stayed slender and then was “all baby” or what, but these conversations seemed to happen every single time it came up that I was pregnant.  One of the comments I received the most (every day for several months, it seemed) was “you don’t look pregnant” and similarly, “you’re so tiny!”  Although it was always clear that the speaker believed this to be a positive comment or even a complement (and I therefore never took offense), I never understood how this was seen as a positive.  In my mind, if we were having a conversation about my pregnancy, especially before it became obvious to everyone that I was pregnant, then I was clearly excited about it, and it seemed likely I would want or at least not mind if it was noticeable to other people.  As I reached the point where I felt I had a noticeable baby bump and I was still hearing “you don’t look pregnant”, I became confused.  I genuinely did not know how I was supposed to take this comment, because the speaker (if it was someone I knew) could see that I didn’t look like my typical nonpregnant self, so it seemed to me as if what they were really saying was essentially, “you just look a little chubby”.

     What I realized was that any comments about another person’s body have potential to cause damage, EVEN when you think you’re saying something positive.  Once, I was chatting with two granddaughters of a patient (who had been there awhile, so I knew them a bit), and one of them said to her sister, “don’t you want to look like that when you’re 5 months pregnant?!”  She was expressing envy for my body, so clearly she thought it was a positive comment, and yet it didn’t feel that way to me.  In my mind, I really wanted to respond that envy for my slender size while pregnant tells me you don’t have any real understanding of how pregnancy is supposed to work.  You’re not supposed to stay the same size or weight!  That is NOT something to wish for; in fact, it can be a legitimate health concern.  At the time, I was very concerned about my difficulties gaining an appropriate amount of weight for my own health and to make sure the baby grew to an appropriate size.  Telling me how small I was only amplified them, and at the same time made me feel unable to share those concerns. 

     I came to the conclusion that all uninvited comments about another person’s body should be very carefully considered, and most should not be verbalized at all.  Even if someone asks you about their body, consider avoiding saying anything about their physical appearance at all!  If someone is asking if you’ve noticed their weight loss, congratulate them on their hard work or improved health.  Chances are good that any other comments have potential to be taken the wrong way, or act as confirmation to the person’s own insecurities.  If someone points out their pregnancy bump, don’t say how big or small they are, maybe just be excited about this stage in their pregnancy (as in, are you feeling the baby move? How are you feeling?).  “You look great” is just about the only thing I would ever recommend saying to someone about their body.  

     We have to realize that comments about bodies don’t start with our words.  They start as perspectives on body shape, image, self-esteem, and personal worth.  These are shaped by media, culture, family background, personal insecurities, and one’s own understanding of the basis of personal worth.  Those are what we need to examine before we perpetuate a misunderstanding of natural physical processes, or promote an unrealistic ideal. 

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