Pregnancy and Body Image in the (still!) 20-Something Grad Student

September 10, 2011 § 9 Comments

I have just nine days to claim that I am still a “20-something.” Sure, I went kicking and screaming into this decade, terrified to lose the hard-won title of “teen.” And now? Now I’m clinging desperately to the last nine days of 29. In the meantime, there will be celebrations and hoopla, but I’m still digging my heels into the ever-shifting earth, gritting my teeth against reality, and squeezing my eyes shut to the truth. On September 20th, 2011, I will turn 30.

As I reflect on these last nine days, I’m struck by some very real disappointments. When I was eighteen, I had made a plan. I decided that I would pursue my PhD in English so that I could become a world-famous scholar. (Little did I know what that job really meant.) I would graduate with my PhD in English (with honors and utterly hyper-involved in committees and other CV-building activities) before I turned 30. In fact, I determined, it would be possible and highly probable that I would graduate with my Master’s in 2006 (done!) at the age of 24, and then I would graduate with my PhD in 2010 at the age of 28. Silly, adorable girl. I had heard tell of some true scholars, masterful experts in their fields, who had completed their doctoral degrees in four years’ time. I would be one of those overachievers. Easy-peasy. I had also decided that I would begin my family prior to turning 30. I would already have two children, the oldest around the age of 2.

It’s an adorable, pie-in-the-sky fantasy, isn’t it? (The worst is that not one person told me I was naive, that I was underestimating the work load and overestimating my ability. Where were the cynics when I needed them? Was everyone truly just watching, waiting on the sidelines to see if I actually would do it?)

Between the ages of 22 and 29, I gained 80 pounds. (If you go further back…to the ages of 20 and 29, it’s a gain of 100 pounds.)

The weight fluctuated, as weight often does, so that I would lose loads and then gain it all back with interest. As an undergraduate, I dated twice. The first (2000-2001) was an utter disastrous mistake. He knows he was a mistake because I informed him of that the night I ended it. He warped my mind, my self-perception, left me shaken, confused, and insecure. The second (Spring Break of 2004) was a fling. He kissed me in a way that made me tingle and made my heart race. But he was as dull as dishwater; he wasted my limited cell phone minutes with hours of one-sided conversation…all from my end of the line. I also suspected that he had limited brain matter, so I quickly grew bored of him in a matter of a week. I lied to him on the day that I ended our little dating experiment, telling him that I had definitely been accepted into an out-of-state Master’s program. (I had only been wait-listed and was in the heart-rending process of begging my way in.)

I dated no one during my Master’s program. I put my head down, convinced myself I was unloveable, and dedicated myself to my plan of scholarly pursuits. (I figured if I could at least get the doctorate before 30, then I wouldn’t need the family portion of my plan to see fruition.) My weight steadily increased (except for a couple of months here and there of intentional weight loss), and I knew I was ugly and undesirable. I developed feelings for a fellow Master’s student, but he failed to notice me. I knew it was because of my weight. I entered my PhD program confident that I had lost all opportunity to find love and fulfill any dream of becoming a young-ish mother and scholar, so I stopped looking with interest. Robert came around in January 2007, and that history has been fairly well-documented. I continued to struggle with my appearance, so utterly confused as to why this man found me not only physically attractive but also worth expressing love to.

When I was sixteen, I told myself on my darkest days that it would get better when I was married. When I knew someone was voluntarily linked to me, I would feel better about my appearance. I wouldn’t care so much about my weight. And then a decade later, as a twenty-six-year-old fiancΓ©e, I told myself that pregnancy would cure me of my body image issues. (You’re supposed to look fat when you’re pregnant, right??)

As a twenty-nine-year-old four-month pregnant wife (who still doesn’t have a doctorate to speak of, and who is nine days away from 30), it slowly has dawned on me that I may not be curable. I may never feel confident about my body. As I lay in bed beside my husband who rubs my expanding abdomen, I try to hear his voice over my own. I try to hear him telling me that I am beautiful, sexy, extremely feminine. The din he unwittingly competes against rumbles on that I am fat, disgusting, ugly. That I don’t even look pregnant…just fatter.

The worst of it is that this is my first pregnancy, so I have no idea where this dialogue has come from. I certainly hadn’t spent years perfecting the self-loathing pregnancy track in order to destroy my confidence as I grow our baby. (And, as a side-note, I should clarify that, in utter and unabashed paradox, I am thrilled to see the swell of my abdomen because it means the baby is growing. Have I become so detached from my body?) But it strikes me. These aren’t my words. These aren’t my original thoughts. I am not that creative.

No, these are the words of the world around me. These are the values of the society to which I succumb while I attempt to work my way through a brand-new physical experience. In the beginning, Robert and I had agreed that I would lose enough weight to feel confident (we guessed around 130 pounds, which would bring me to a weight of 135, comfortable for my 5’3″ frame). And last year, when I wasn’t writing, I began that progress and lost 40 pounds. And then gained it all back plus an additional twenty. I knew I couldn’t ignore the drumming in my head any longer, the pounding against my skull that begged “babybabybabybabybabybaby.” At the beginning of the year, far from my pre-pregnancy weight loss goal, I gave voice to that drumbeat. Robert was concerned because he knew what I saw when I looked in the mirror. He knew that I would only gain more in order to grow a healthy baby. He worried about whether or not I would enjoy the process of pregnancy.

He was right to worry.

Although I am enjoying (most of) the new sensations that accompany pregnancy (this week I am confident that I have felt the baby squirm at least once a day), I am not enjoying the changes in my own body. I lamented last night that I did not understand how my pants could get so tight that I couldn’t fasten them (typically a sign of at least 8-10 pounds gained), yet I’m still one pound under my pre-pregnancy weight. How could it be that my total pregnancy weight gain is -1 pound, but I’ve already started to wear waist-band expanding contraptions on my pants? To my great frustration, I cannot reconcile my logical brain (“the baby is the size of a navel orange, and your uterus is the size of a cantaloupe…your pants will not zip up over that”) with my emotional brain (“but…they fit fine last week!”)

And, as I said, I realize they’re not my words. They’re the words of this ass-backwards, utterly mind-fucking society. Just look anywhere and you’ll see messages of doom and gloom for the woman who gains weight throughout her pregnancy, whose belly swells.

On July 28th, this year, the Today Show aired a segment where they examined a growing trend of anxiety-related weight problems with pregnant and just-post-partum women. If you’re not familiar, please take a moment to watch it, here:

On July 28th, I was 11 weeks pregnant. I was gripped with anxiety about losing the pregnancy, despite a healthy ultrasound just sixteen days prior to watching this segment air. I had lost 11 pounds since becoming pregnant. (Utterly unintentionally, but I was delighted.)

I immediately felt guilty. I am one of those women who is worried about gaining too much during her pregnancy because I am already so very obese. Dr. Nancy chides those who are concerned about weight gain, telling us to focus on the fact that we are actually capable of conceiving when there are so many unfortunate women who struggle. I wanted to dig a hole and hide into it. Where was my compassion?

In the seven weeks since that time, I’ve found myself still just as anxious about my weight and appearance as I was on July 28th. How could I not have gotten the message? What was wrong with me?


"Wow! Victoria Beckham Debuts Slamming, Size-0 Post-Baby Bod." From US Weekly, 9.3.11. Posh Spice lost all of her pregnancy weight before her baby was 8 weeks old.

(image courtesy US Weekly)

And this:
Jaw-Dropping Post-Baby Bods!” from US Weekly (a whole gallery of celeb moms who lost it all in an incredible amount of time.)

And this:
Hollywood’s Hottest Moms” from InStyle (another gallery of svelte post-baby celeb moms; gives the impression that the only way to be a “hot” mom is to be wafer-thin and runway-ready.)

And this:
Hey mama! Post-baby body secrets of celebrity mothers” from New York Daily News (apparently one of the best ways to “lose weight” is to breastfeed. Except when you realize that breastfeeding mostly just shrinks the uterus back to its pre-pregnancy size by releasing a specific hormone. Sure, it burns some calories, but it can’t combat poor nutrition.)

But I’m not the only one! Read this interview with new mom Elaine Schoch on MSN Health
Celebrity mamas fuel post-baby body blues

These are the images that bombard me when I turn on the television. When I go grocery shopping. These are the tales of weight-loss victory I hear in the waiting rooms of my OB. On the radio when I drive to work.

I know not to lose weight during my pregnancy. I also know that as an obese woman, I should not gain too much weight. I’m proud of my -1 pound of gain in the past seventeen weeks. But I don’t intend to keep it up. I intend to gain only when I need to…and hopefully, that gain will primarily come from Baby Hab. In the meantime, I do feel confused and frustrated. As a woman who has spent most of her adult life despising when clothes begin to feel tight, I am not sure how to feel when the numbers on the scale don’t indicate a gain but when the pants won’t zip.

I don’t fit into any maternity clothing because they seem to be mostly designed for already small women who just happen to get a little pooch. I’ve been seeing a change in my actual body composition…my upper legs are a little bit larger, my ass is certainly more spread out. And, of course, my abdomen is beginning to swell. Not fitting into the clothes meant for women who are purposefully expanding is disheartening, humiliating, and degrading. I begin to worry that nobody will know that I’m pregnant. I have been purchasing clothes that are simply a size larger than my pre-pregnancy size. Nothing I have purchased falls into the “maternity” category. Nothing shows off the increasing swell in my abdomen. And I’m not sure it ever will.

These are my insecurities. And sources of deep confusion. As well as guilt. I realize what an ironic blessing it is that I even have the ability to complain about the changes in my body.

I wonder if it will change…or when it will.

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§ 9 Responses to Pregnancy and Body Image in the (still!) 20-Something Grad Student

  • Oh, Amanda, I know nothing about pregnancy, but I know lots about gaining weight and feeling insecure about body image. I fight this daily, and I DO NOT know how not to. If we could figure out how to successfully fight the messages that bombard us–we could make ourselves famous and relieve the misery of millions of women. I hope you will continure to write about this, as, perhaps, dialog like this can help. I’m with you sister. I understand.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      You’re so right, Kathy! We should brainstorm a way to eliminate body image problems among women! That would be awesome. πŸ™‚ And so giving, hehe. (Who cares if we generate bucket-loads of income on the side? ;)) I don’t know if you’ve heard or not, but apparently LeAnn Rimes is getting a lot of attention recently for her drastic drop in weight. At first, she was claiming that it was because she was stressed about her divorce, and then she said she wanted to look good on her wedding day to her second husband, but now? Now she looks like a damn skeleton with skin stretched over it. (She’s at the point where you can see the ridges of her sternum…not very attractive.) But I remember when she first came around that people gave her some flack for being one of the plumper (and by “plump,” I mean a size eight) teen singers.

      It makes me wonder about whether there is a “middle ground” (like a culturally-accepted and -prescribed) when it comes to women’s bodies. Or if we’re just doomed to seek out a mythological place where the sun touches the earth. It seems you can ask any woman about her body, and she will point out the areas that are not ideal. But what exactly is this ideal? And why isn’t there at least one person we can all agree to point to as the poster child for that ideal?

  • jacquelincangro says:

    It’s such a paradox, isn’t it? When you’ve spent many years struggling with weight and body image, you can’t just turn those feelings off like a lightbulb just because you’re pregnant.
    As far as the celebrities go, I’d like to think that I too could lose that baby weight if I had nutritionists and personal trainers and chefs at my disposal.
    I second Kathy’s sentiment – we support you and are with you.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      It’s so true. I think I’m starting to come to terms with it, though…I think writing it out helps. And it certainly helps to have such wonderful and supportive readers! πŸ™‚

      And you are so right–if we all had nannies, nutritionists, personal trainers, and personal shoppers at our beck-and-call 24/7, then maybe we’d all look like giving birth and raising a child are just like a walk in the park! πŸ˜‰

  • Tori Nelson says:

    This is rough because it’s never so simple as just telling yourself you look fine. I will say that about half-way through my pregnancy (after fretting about the weight gain, the swollen this or that) something changed. I was in love with this kid, in love with the idea of him and that I got to be the one to carry him around. That is a bond that no one else can ever touch and an experience that no one else can ever have. I settled on saying “I don’t like the way I look. I just don’t. But I’m going to take care of that later”. I know it’s so hard to feel uncomfortable in your skin. That’s a problem I’ve struggled with since forever. The positive thing is that your body for all it’s flaws or bumps or this or that is the amazing tool that can GROW A CHILD. The appearance side of things can’t ever compare to that feat πŸ™‚

    • Mrs. H. says:

      Thank you, Tori. That is great perspective! What a miracle that my body somehow knows how to do this thing that it’s never done before. Today, I’m 18 weeks pregnant…so 4 and a half months along. I can tell that my stomach is starting to swell to where it’s almost reached as far out as my breasts are. And this morning, I stood there, pressing my shirt down to see the swell…and I actually smiled! Maybe I’m reaching my turning point too. πŸ™‚

      Thank you for the support. I think every new mother should have a blog and such incredible readers!

  • petthedog says:

    Oh friend. We have talked about this so much, and I wish I could make all of this anxiety disappear for you. I know now, more than ever, how conceiving and staying pregnant is miraculous regardless of our starting weight/health/etc. We can do everything “right” and still not experience the nightmare of loss. When our stress over “aesthetic” decreases our joy over the miraculous, it’s paralyzing. I’m so sorry.

    Enjoy your baby, ignore Beckam’s abs.

    • Mrs. H. says:

      You’re so right, V. I do have good news. This morning…I could tell the anxiety has started to melt away. I think it’s from all of the conversations we’ve had about body image and pregnancy, as well as all of the support I’ve been receiving lately. I know that I’m taking care of my body the best way I know how, and that’s good enough. I think that’s where I am. I’m at the “I’m doing ‘good enough.'” And I’m happy with it. πŸ™‚

      This morning I actually felt happy to see that my abdomen is starting to swell into a more noticeable belly. Maybe I’m starting to become more comfortable and confident. Reminding myself about the utter miracle and blessing that this truly TRULY is has been helping me immensely. Love you, my friend.

  • R says:

    I just read your replies here, and am so glad to hear that you are feeling better about your body. I think you look beautiful! Hugs, R

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