Body image while pregnant

Being pregnant changes your body, and the changing body size and shape can lead to body image issues for many women.
Being pregnant changes your body, and the changing body size and shape can lead to body image issues for many women.

Author Sheila Kitzinger puts it quite succinctly in The Experience of Childbirth: "Suddenly [she] is somebody different - an expectant mother - a subject of interest and concern to society - her life seems to be no longer intimate and apart, but something anybody can talk about. They even know when her last period was, whether she is being sick in the morning, and whether her nipples are the "right" shape."

Hating being pregnant is a vicious cycle

Pretoria-based endocrinologist Professor Tessa van der Merwe says it’s a vicious cycle – if you hate every minute of being pregnant, you probably feel miserable and depressed, and you’re probably not taking very good care of yourself. If you’re neglecting nutrition, you could be making yourself feel worse, as poor nutrition upsets your hormones and, as a result, your moods.

Unrealistic role models and expectations of pregnant women

According to American academic Elena Neiterman, a combination of the recent visibility of pregnant celebrities in the public arena and the expansion of the consumer market for pregnant women have contributed to completely unrealistic role models and expectations on the part of pregnant women. As a result, she says, perceptions of the pregnant body have been “absorbed into the contemporary aesthetic image of femininity, one that is completely divorced from the maternal body.”

Getting back into shape

In other words, we’re so bombarded with images of Sarah-Jessica’s flawless midriff that if we can’t manage to erase our own curves, we believe that we’re somehow deeply flawed. If Madonna can look that fabulous at fifty, why can’t we? It must be remembered though, that someone like Madonna, who has all the time and money in the world to pick at her macrobiotic lunch and subject her obsessively honed physique to yet another punishing workout with her team of personal trainers, is an extreme example of... let’s face it... a control freak.

It's hard to deal with change

It’s not just the media though. For many women, it’s simply hard to deal with change. Not since puberty has a woman had to contend with such overwhelming physical changes in such a short space of time. It seems obvious that on an emotional level, it’s going to be just as agonising as puberty was.

Babies take up space in our life

Johannesburg-based psychologist Sheryl Cohen says a good starting point for women who are struggling to adapt is to realise that babies take up a space in our bodies because children take up a space in our lives. 

“I often think that the pressure to ‘get into those old jeans’ is the same pressure that society heaps on us to get ‘back to normal’ and not allow our children to interrupt our lives and our expectations.” This, she says, is neither realistic nor reasonable.

“It’s the stuff of fantasy. Children are disruptive - in both the positive and negative sense.  Their birth brings change and change brings growth and growth can be exciting and frightening all at once.”

Dealing with change

So how can pregnant moms deal with change – not just physical changes, but the manifold changes in life-style, priorities and relationship to spouse etc?

Cohen says women need to accept that all change brings gain and loss.

Keeping in mind what you will be gaining

“The change in your body has gains - since it is a sign that your baby is growing and thriving. But there are losses too: perhaps it’s that you can't see your toes, or you can't keep up with your old gym routine; or you have less energy.”

This is not only the experience of pregnancy; it is the experience of all life changes.  “Getting married has its gains and losses too. The trick in negotiating life change is to edit the experience so that you have a balanced view of both the losses and the gains in order to accept the experience.”

Dealing with body image and physical change

In light of the body image, she says, perhaps those that struggle the most are those who focus more on what they are losing in the pregnancy (like their waist-line!) and thus develop blind spots to what there is to gain.  

Adapting to physical change

Adapting to the physical changes might be that much harder for extremely exercise conscious women who, before the pregnancy, were used to pushing the boundaries of endurance. (After all, did we not see images of sinuous, tanned Madonna pounding the tarmac like Bionic Woman as she went for her 40th lap around Central Park while she was pregnant with Lourdes? If she can, we can, surely?) 

Sports psychologist Clinton Gahwiler says he would imagine the principles involved are not unlike the stress of retirement, responding to injury setbacks in athletes, or coping with a chronic disease and its effects.

“Our challenge is to adapt, by setting goals and expectations based on our current potential, rather than some idealized ultimate potential.” He agrees that it’s not easy. 

Learning to see things as they are

“The bottom line is about learning to see things as they are, as opposed to how you think things – or you as an individual - should be.” Gahwiler says that as soon as we do this, we can begin to respond more appropriately, and hence also make better progress. (As opposed to sabotaging yourself by overdoing things).

Those nearest and dearest to us can also have a significant impact on a pregnant woman's body image. An unintentional, insensitive remark like “Gosh but you’re huge” can have a devastating effect, if a woman is already having issues with her appearance.

Emotional support is imperative

Whether or not a supportive spouse or partner is in the picture will play a crucial role, too. One gynaecologist interviewed for this article said he’d had a patient whose husband moved out of their bedroom when she was 7 months pregnant because he was ‘turned off’ by the stretch marks on her growing boep.

Understandably, the woman in question was severely depressed. If you do experience lack of support or emotional withdrawal from your partner, it’s really important to discuss these issues honestly and, if, necessary, for both of you to get some input from a professional counsellor. 

Fortunately, according to the gynaecologist in question, this isn’t at all the norm. The majority of expectant fathers are fascinated by their partner’s pregnant body and they find it beautiful and erotic.

We need to learn to be patient

Ultimately, says Sheryl Cohen, living in a ‘time-disordered’ world where everyone demands immediate gratification is definitely taking its toll on our expectations and values. We need to learn how to be patient.  “Waiting is no longer a virtue. It’s a disruption and an inconvenience. Growing a baby proceeds at its own unhurried pace, then getting your body back is another process and it all takes time.  No wonder we struggle. “

Go to page 2 to read a mother's experience


Tiffany’s experience:

I sit here 8 months pregnant and while I feel truly blessed to be able to have a child, I wonder how stupid one must be to go through this twice.  

Every day there is another pregnancy related symptom to deal with.  Your co-ordination goes and that once sexy, energetic walk turns into a waddle of pain.  Nothing feels like you.  It’s like they put your vibrant agile slim body into a fat suit that you have not become accustomed to.  Your whole centre of gravity shifts.  

Every time I stand on the scale I freak at the rate of weight gain as I approach the birth date and I have to remind myself that this is baby weight and not ALL going to my butt!  It’s the feeling of being out of control, seeing your body change and not accepting your form. 

One minute I’ll have a man drooling over my new form (Crazy, who does that?) The next minute I’ll have somebody say, wow you really looking pregnant now and I’ll go into a depression. 

I’ll never forget the first time a stranger noticed I was pregnant.  My initial reaction was, “Who told you?”  She replied oh I can see.  I was so shocked I paid for my muffin, walked out the door and burst into tears!!  She might as well have said, wow you look fat!  At that point I just didn’t see the difference. 

Looking pregnant should be a beautiful thing yet I have spent half my pregnancy trying to hide it.   The other night I was offered a tequila and all I could think was wow this person hasn’t noticed I’m pregnant. I get people telling me I’m carrying small and this makes me feel wonderful.

At 33 weeks I’ve put on a total of 15kgs and will most probably end off at the 20kg mark.  This plays on my mind daily and I hold up my pre-pregnancy clothes, wondering if I’ll ever achieve that size again.

But you know what?  I WILL, and not only will I be wearing those skinny jeans again, I’ll be the proud mother of a beautiful creation.  And then I know I’ll look back and wonder how anyone could possibly only go through pregnancy once.

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