Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Body Image, Pregnancy, and BMI

All this has been milling around in my head (and my drafts section) for months now. It took reading Lauren from Hobo Mama's post last week on feeling fat during pregnancy to get everything stirred up enough to hopefully make some sense:

I agree with Paige of Baby Dust Diaries, that we should celebrate our largeness when we're pregnant. We should be not only allowed, but praised and revered for looking "...ample, bounteous, abundant, and ripe.... overflowing with life!" Unlike Paige, however, I do not comment on how huge other women look when they're pregnant, even though I wholeheartedly agree that the pregnant body is incredibly amazingly beautiful and womanly.

I don't comment on other people's bodies because sometimes when people did that to me when I was pregnant, it hurt my feelings. I really tried to take the comments from my friends and family members about my size in a positive light; I did. But when someone was talking about how big I was with concern in their face and voice, I felt like shouting, "I'm PREGNANT for goodness sake! Let me be really big and gloriously ROUND without guilt or shame for once in my life!" Then, when the receptionist at my chiropractor's office told me one day (at about six months pregnant) that I looked chubby, I wanted to cry. That's never a nice thing to say to a person; I don't care how much you appreciate the pregnant form. I think it's risky to tell someone they're "huge!" because even if you mean it in a nice way, someone else saying those same words might not share your good intentions.

Those times when people commented in a not-totally-nice way, and that day I was called chubby, I felt a bad way. So when I read Lauren's post last week about feeling fat, all those feelings started flooding back to me. I totally understand feeling like maybe I don't look like one of those beautiful pregnant people. I gained weight in my whole body when I was pregnant (not just my belly) even though I was eating healthily (albeit, a lot). I was also doing yoga and water aerobics four times per week until I had to go on bed rest after I went into preterm labor.

When I gain weight, I gain it in my belly, hips, butt, and thighs. There is so much emphasis in the media put on having flat abs, that my belly has always been a source of self-consciousness. Watching my belly grow during pregnancy was a transformative experience for me. It was no less than life-changing. I couldn't suck it in anymore; I couldn't hide it. At first I was panicking, feeling hyper-aware and worried whenever I went out, thinking people were looking at me and thinking bad things about me. Somewhere along the way, that changed. It brought people so much joy to see me in all my pregnant glory—big, round belly sticking out there with an energetic baby wiggling inside. At the same time, I was feeling full of life and loving energy and excitement for the future. For maybe the first time, I was proud of my body. I haven't been able to look at myself the same way since. It's been liberating.

We all know it's ridiculous to compare ourselves to celebrity moms. They give birth and then show up two weeks later on the cover of a magazine, airbrushed and glowing, thin and hot as ever. We know it's not reasonable to expect ourselves to "bounce back" from pregnancy in a matter of weeks to regain a teenager's figure—and yet—there's still a pressure in our society to achieve that. There's a huge stigma attached to being fat, whether or not you just gave birth to a baby. God forbid your body never looks the same afterward. You're ruined.

I'm coming up on the socially acceptable time frame for losing the baby weight ("Nine months on and nine months off!") and I'm not even close to my pre-pregnancy weight. There are many factors affecting my weight, some of which include: breastfeeding hormones, sleep deprivation, the stress of caring for a child who until just recently was spending many hours a day screaming. Even though I've resumed my cycle (I experienced less than half of the 14.6 month average for lactational amenorrhea) Daniel is still almost entirely breastfed, so my body is still sustaining life for another human.

I've found that my appetite is even greater since I've been breastfeeding than it ever was when I was pregnant. (This makes sense, since it expends about 500 extra calories per day to breastfeed, versus 300 calories per day sustaining a pregnancy.) My appetite is starting to be not as big some days, but other days, I am hungry all the time. The fact is, in spite of the extra calories expended through nursing our babies, many breastfeeding mothers don't start to lose their pregnancy weight until their babies start solid foods. Some don't lose pregnancy weight until their babies wean completely. Some women will even gain weight while breastfeeding. Since my plan is to allow Daniel to wean at his own pace, I'm not going to push the weight loss thing.

I've been actively trying not to think about my weight since Daniel was born because, frankly, our little family has been in survival mode for much of these past seven months. I should be "allowed" as much time as my body needs to get to a weight that is normal for me. If I never get back into my favorite jeans, I'm totally OK with that. I can find a new favorite pair of jeans.

I went to have a physical when Daniel was about five months old, when we were deep in the throes of day after day of crying (and not knowing about his sensory issues yet). My new physician told me that I really needed to lose the baby weight as quickly as I can. According to my BMI, I was obese. I'm not going to go into how much crap the BMI metric is (but you should definitely watch this BMI project slide show, if you haven't seen it already). What I will say is: it was hard to hear from my doctor that it was high time I lose some baby weight, especially when I felt like we were barely out of the newborn, he-needs-me-every-second-of-every-day phase with Daniel at that point. I understand the potential health benefits of weighing less. But I refuse to let the obese label get me down.

I truly believe that it's wrong that our society has accepted that "thin = good" and "fat = bad." The "obese" label carries with it so much more weight (forgive the pun) than just a number on a BMI chart. I don't agree with any of that; it's not just, right, or fair. But I'm not immune to it. I grew up hearing other women discuss their body woes with each other and watched them scrutinize themselves in the mirror. I spent my teenage years reading teen girl magazines and comparing my pimply, flat-chested self to the perfectly airbrushed models in the pages. Then I felt the results of those things and also saw them affecting my peers, in the form of wildly distorted body image, low self-esteem, and disordered eating.

I can't look in the mirror and say mean things to myself anymore, because my body has done great things. Very recently, I made an entire human being with this body, and then gave birth to him at home after a very long labor. I did that. With this body. This amazing, beautiful, capable body. "Obese" or not, I'm worthy of love and respect. I'm beautiful inside and out. My body rocks.

Unlike in years past, now I'm able to rail against what I've been taught through observation of other women and the media's definition of beauty. At this point in my life, I can do that, but I'm not perfect at it all the time. 

I still have trouble, like Lauren has written about also, with maintaining an exercise routine while still retaining a positive body image. I am spending time on fitness activities regularly right now, for many reasons. I'm doing it because I want to. Mostly I'm doing it so I can feel more comfortable in my body, so it can feel like it belongs to me again. I'm trying very hard to just enjoy moving and using my body, and to not let it morph into that familiar downward spiral from my teenage years of constant self-judgment about my body and character. It doesn't matter if I lose weight, I'm already doing a good thing for myself by being more active.

I can't always be the perfect role model for positive body image. What I can do, though, is to try very hard to always tell pregnant women that they look beautiful. To never hold back a compliment for a fellow mama (or anyone!) when I feel inspired to give one. I can decide to never scrutinize myself in the mirror—whether or not my child is watching—and I can refuse to entertain conversations with other women about how much our bodies disappoint us. I can surround myself and my home with a variety of images of what beauty looks like: different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and genders. I can resist the urge to jokingly (and passive-aggressively, let's be honest) say, "I hate you" when another woman loses weight faster/fits into her regular jeans sooner/is a smaller size than I am, and instead tell her genuinely, "Congratulations! I'm happy for you."

I really think we need to be the change on this one. We get to show our kids what it means to be happy with our bodies. (We also get to show them what real women look like.) We get to demonstrate the beauty of variety, of non-homogeneity. We get to choose to have positive interactions with other women about body image, instead of perpetuating thinly-veiled self-hate as a regular topic of conversation.

We can do this. I'm ready to start anew today. (And again tomorrow, and then the next day.)

Are you with me?


  1. Love this post!

    I have recently begun weight watchers because my sugar addiction and sedentary lifestyle has made me "obese" according to BMI. Of course, in my prime teenage dancing days I was still always considered "overweight" due to both genetics and the fact I had a lot of muscle. I have fortunately never really had bad body image, so honestly I think that's part of why I gained so much. Because also I have not had the greatest relationship to food and tend to emotionally eat. But in the past, it really didn't bother me that much that I was curvier than other girls (most of the time) and I was comfortable in my body, so I didn't try to confront it.

    I'm naturally curvy so I'm not even worried about losing my boobs and butt as I lose weight, because I've always had them. My main goal is to start eating healthier and exercising more, just to be a healthier person. And part of that, would be nice to go back down a size and fit into everything that has been too tight for about a year and a half...

    So yay for good body image! And yay for being healthy!

    And you're gorgeous!

  2. Great Post! I was shocked when the pounds just didn't melt like butter when I started to BF. It was, I must admit, one of the big personal reasons for breastfeeding. Obviously I wanted to keep Maggie healthy and happy but personally I wanted to lose the weight and save the money. She turned six months on Sunday and I have not lost a pound since the initial 25lbs post baby. I have even tried to lose weight via Weight Watchers and as soon as I even think about watching my intake my boobies start to dry up. I am not going to sacrifice Maggie's nutrition for my hubris so instead I am just surrendering to right now and remembering that it is just for now.

  3. @Naomi: I'm glad you liked the post. And thank you for the compliment! I've always admired how confident and comfortable you are in your body. It makes you that much more beautiful. =)

    @Melissa: Thank you! The more women I talk to, the more I hear that not losing weight from breastfeeding is a very common experience. I notice a drop in my supply when I don't eat enough too, so I totally understand where you're coming from.

  4. It's funny ... when I look in the mirror, I think "I'm no longer as big as a house! I can see my feet!" so I feel thin. I'm comparing myself to my pregnant self, because in an odd way, I don't even remember what my prepregnant self looked like. I kinda wish I'd taken some pictures.

    It occurs to me that in traditional cultures, you could tell the young women from the mothers by their bodies. Young women had smaller, pert breasts while the mothers' were droopier. Young women had more of an hourglass shape while mothers were shaped more like pears. But this wouldn't be considered a BAD thing, just another sign of what you are. So when I see my stretch marks in the mirror, or I realize that my low-rise jeans may just have to be replaced by "mom jeans" (my lovely hips seem to have utterly disappeared when my pelvis reshaped), I try to remember that. My body isn't SUPPOSED to look like it did before, because I am not what I was before. I'm a MOM now, I'm supposed to look different!

    At least, that's what I tell myself.

  5. Hi Amy! I'm a new reader to your blog, and I've really enjoyed most of your posts. But I must say, I loved this one!! Being pregnant truly proved to me once and for all how "off" many people's perception of body image, weight gain, and what is "good" and "bad" really is. Weight has never been much of an issue for me - I'm one of those annoying people who have always been very thin. But it became a VERY touchy subject for me while I was pregnant, in a completely different way than what you discussed here: I had a hard time gaining the appropriate amount of weight, and people didn't understand why that was an issue, or a bad thing. I would talk about it and get comments like, "Oh, well that's probably better than gaining too much" or "At least you'll bounce back quickly once the baby is born!" They didn't understand the constant stress it was, going to the doctor and being weighed and gaining only incremental amounts, the constant worry that it was affecting the baby or limiting his development. Instead, it was cause for compliment and/or envy!! It was so frustrating, not to mention disordered: we are so programmed to think weight gain is bad that we don't even see it as a good thing when it is healthy and necessary!

    I also really appreciate your comment about not telling someone you hate them when they are smaller than you...I've been on the receiving end and it hurts. Especially because a lot of the time, I kind of get the underlying sense that they mean it.

    In my books, women are heros for growing babies and bringing them into this world. We definitely need to support each other and be sensitive to each other's struggles, emotions and experiences. Thank you for such a great post!!

  6. Thank you for this. I have been brewing my own post on this topic... I think I'll go and actually write it now.

  7. My thoughts (since my first long comment was deleted - oh frustrating computer!!)
    - When pregnant I vowed that I would tell other pregnant women that they looked great, because I always appreciated when someone said that to me (and didn't so much like being told how big I was).
    - My weight never "fell right off" when BFing, heck, I've been BFing for 15 months now and no magic fat-melting here!!
    - Though back at my prepreg. weight, I'm still considered on the "high end" of "normal," if not "overweight" (such silly labels and divisions!) All this even though I'm so much more healthy now than I was prepreg!!
    - I wrote about how exercise has helped me integrate my many roles since having Ella in the most recent CarNatPar (and I was never an athlete in my life). If you're interested, you can find it here: (I don't mean for this to be annoying advertising, I really do think it connects with your post.)
    - Thank you thank you thank you for this post. I think you wrote the often silent reality of women, versus what we are told we should do/look like.

  8. Very good post! I lost weight to try and help me get pregnant the first time, and I was so happy when I got pregnant that I didn't care at all when I immediately lost all the hard-won tone in my stomach. I loved my pregnant shape and my enormous stretch marks! I got massive with water retention as well by the end (very hard to find shoes that fit, and I gained a shoe size afterwards, I guess the bones in my feet had shifted a bit.)
    So, when a friend came round to see me a day or two after the birth I still felt pretty big. But the first thing she said was "You're so small!" which made me feel great. (It wasn't so good when I told her I had mastitis a few weeks later and she helpfully said, "Oh, our cows used to get that!")
    I definitely put on weight while breast-feeding. I tried to eat sensibly, just more, rather than snacking on bad food, but it meant that I got into the habit of eating too much at each meal, even when the breast-feeding was tailing off. Oh well, it's 11 years now since I had my first child and I still need to lose weight, but at least my boys love my 'bouncy tummy'!

  9. useful Information... looking very healthy belly. Congratulations...

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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