Pregnancy is certainly one of the most challenging experiences of a woman’s life. It brings about so many changes: emotional, financial and social just to name a few. One of the most obvious, however, are the changes in a pregnant woman’s body and how she feels about those changes.
Some women revel in the rounding of their bellies, feeling more beautiful and alive than they ever have. Cynthia is one of those women “Finally I felt that it was alright to eat what I wanted whenever I wanted because I was growing a little life inside of me. My husband thought I was gorgeous – he loved my curves, and that helped me feel sexy. I experimented with different kinds of clothing and really let my personality come through. It was a terrific experience”.
Other women experience negative feelings about their bodies when they become pregnant. Angie had a difficult time feeling attractive: “I felt totally out of control of my body during that time. I had always been the same weight and all of a sudden I had to buy clothing that seemed enormous. People looked at me differently and sometimes treated me like I was fragile or incapable. Friends made comments to me that I was gaining a lot of weight, and it totally freaked me out.” Clarissa also felt self-conscious: “I was throwing up almost every day and felt bloated and tired. It’s hard to believe you’re beautiful when you feel so sick all the time”.
Why do so many women, like Angie and Clarissa, feel bad about their bodies during pregnancy? Part of the reason can be found in the history books. In Western culture, the female reproductive system has traditionally been viewed as unclean. In the 1800’s, women were encouraged to conceal their pregnancies with heavy clothing and confine themselves to the home. Dr. Marion Olmsted writes: “Today, pregnancy and childbirth have an illness status in our society. The pregnant body is directly opposite to the cultural ideal for women, and, as a result, pregnant women tend to be culturally invisible. (They are often) seen as asexual, unattractive beings”.
Over the years, medical views about how much weight a woman should gain during pregnancy have fluctuated greatly. In the 1920’s, doctors believed that weight gain should be limited to 15 pounds to promote easier labor and to preserve women’s “figures”. By the 1940’s the medical world had come to believe that there was a relationship between preeclampsia and excessive pregnancy weight gain. Many doctors encouraged women to restrict their weight gain throughout the 1960’s in order to avoid “complications”. In the 1970’s, however, opinion shifted as researchers discovered that low birth weight was related to maternal weight gain. Women were finally encouraged to eat according to their appetites.
There is not much research on pregnancy and body image problems, but what does exist suggests that body image is often poor during pregnancy and worsens over the course of pregnancy. Studies suggest that 72% of pregnant women are afraid of being unable to return to pre-pregnancy weight; 24% are distressed by weight gain; 28% dislike changes in their hips and thighs. Low body self-esteem was more common in women who had a history of dieting. In contrast, 30% of women surveyed are less concerned about their weight during pregnancy.
One study found that compared to the “ideal American woman”, pregnant women saw themselves as more ugly, awful, dirty, older, slower, heavier, larger and fatter. When comparing their pregnant partners to the “ideal American woman”, men rated them as larger, fatter, more tense, and weaker.
In severe cases, pregnant women can also suffer from eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Research has suggested that during pregnancy, 7% of women develop eating disorders, 6% diet, %5 binge eat, and 25% overeat. Dr. Olmsted’s research found that women who struggle with eating disorders can adversely affect their infants and children after birth. Infants may experience poor nutrition and poor growth, and approximately 15% of infants experience deliberate calorie reduction because of their mothers’ preoccupation with weight.
With these societal pressures, it’s no wonder that many pregnant women feel out of control and ashamed of their rapidly changing bodies. They may have tremendous guilt satisfying their normal hunger cues when there is pressure to maintain a limited weight gain by their doctors. Even if you are experiencing these difficulties, there are ways in which you can learn to love your pregnant body.
1) First, try to remind yourself what a miracle it is that your body is creating another life. Read about all the physical work your body has to do to make a healthy baby, and remind yourself that it needs the proper nutrition to do so.
2) Trust your internal hunger cues. Your body will tell you what it needs to eat in order to make a beautiful baby. Try not to panic if you feel hungry for more than you think you “should” be eating. As long as you are eating in response to hunger rather than sadness, boredom or anger, it’s always OK to eat.
3) Remind yourself that pregnancy is a temporary state that women move in and out of. As long as you eat in response to hunger, your body will regain its normal pre-pregnancy weight (give or take a few pounds), within a year of birth.
4) Get angry when you see our culture or the media ignore or denigrate pregnant or larger sized women. Remember, only 2% of women are born with a body type that fits the “ideal American woman”. Remove magazines and TV programs from your surroundings that promote unrealistic images of female beauty.
5) Seek out doctors and/or midwives that do not shame you about weight and eating, or pressure you to overly restrict your weight gain. If you feel too much pressure, switch to another provider.
6) If you still are having trouble feeling beautiful as a pregnant woman, or if you fear you have an eating disorder, seek support from a trusted therapist, to help you explore whether there are underlying issues that cause your low body self-esteem. Remember, every body is beautiful, especially a pregnant body!
If you are pregnant with an eating disorder, we can help you get better – please do not suffer any further and ask us for help!