"If this is your first pregnancy, you may be especially bothered by changes in your body image,” said the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, published in 2011. It went on to clarify, “Simply put, you may feel fat and unattractive."
The truth is, feeling “fat and unattractive” was not on my mind at that particular moment. I had dragged myself back to bed from my usual post at the foot of the toilet, a place I had grown intimately acquainted with, and really, I just wanted to read about what was going on inside me. Apparently, there is a baby in there. You know, a tiny, tiny human who will one day in the near future stretch my poor, unsuspecting vagina around its shockingly large head, burst into the world, and change my life forever. It’s too enormous to comprehend. And in the meantime, I feel like total crap. Am I normal? Is everything going OK? Does my baby have a face yet? Those were my more pressing concerns.
In defense of the Mayo Clinic Guide, the book is actually full of helpful info, and at least the section that covers body image acknowledges that some women may feel nice, or proud, and that body image issues can be blamed on our culture’s obsession with thinness. But a little later in the book, without any such disclaimers, in a section on shopping for new clothes, I ran into this statement: “Think vertical. As you widen, look for clothes with vertical rather than horizontal lines to make you look slimmer. Dark coloured clothes also tend to be more slimming.”
And I felt kind of weird about that.
Because it wasn’t just the Mayo Clinic Guide; most of the books I read offered helpful tips on how to avoid feeling like a gigantic ugly fat cow while pregnant. You know, with slightly different wording. Many of the books explicitly assumed I would feel bad instead of good about the changes in my body, particularly surrounding the inevitable and completely healthy weight gain that accompanies pregnancy.
But more than that, as I eagerly consumed all the information I could find about my new situation, the resources all told me about how I might lose the weight afterward. How I could reclaim my slender body just three months after giving birth. Women get right back on the treadmill, because as long as you make it a priority, you’re going to be just fine.
By which they mean, you’re going to be thin.
There are a few things that bother me about all this. For one, I’m actually not thinking about how terrible I might look. Two, why is looking terrible almost always synonymous with gaining weight? Why do “fat and unattractive” fit automatically into the same breath?
And thirdly, even if one is very afraid of weight gain, pregnancy is totally different from “getting fat”. It’s all about growing a baby. Which, you know, should be obvious. The weight gain is good! When women lose weight in pregnancy (when they weren’t very heavy to begin with), it’s considered a problem. When women lose lots of weight in pregnancy, it often means something is going seriously wrong.
I have spent a lot of my life caring about the way I look. Not because I am fashion-obsessed or concerned with being beautiful; it’s just there, this quiet anxiety. I’ve learned, as a female, that how I look at matters. It’s hard to live in this world without learning how much importance women’s appearances are given.
But getting pregnant is the beginning of a crazy, transformative journey, and for me, it flung up big existential questions right and left. What do I want out of life? What do I have to offer a child? What kind of parent will I be? And yeah, okay, I even started thinking a little more about my own death. Being thrust into the middle of the circle of life can do that to a person.
Basically, being pregnant has made me think a lot less about how I look. This just seems bigger, somehow. And bigger is sometimes better.
When I hit 12 weeks, I hauled myself through a haze of morning sickness to the nearest clothing store. I wanted to buy myself a present. I wandered around, touching billowing tunics and loose sweaters. And then I spotted a slinky peach-coloured dress. It was made out of a soft, stretchy fabric that felt welcoming under my fingers.
A salesman appeared. “Oh honey,” he said, surveying me in my enormous jumper, trackpants, and greasy hair. “That is a very unforgiving dress. You can’t gain an ounce in it.”
And something came over me. “Well,” I said, “I’m about to gain at least thirty, so I think I should give it a try.”
He stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“I’m pregnant,” I clarified.
“Oh,” he said feebly, but didn’t add anything.
So I went off to the dressing room and tried it on. It showed off every bump. My newly swollen breasts, now about a size larger than “miniscule”, looked positively victorious in it. My belly was clearly visible, bloated and at the beginning of a baby bump. It was clear that the dress would stretch to allow for my upcoming growth, and as it stretched, it would become even more scandalous and skin-tight. I smiled at my reflection. I decided in that moment that I was going to show my body off. No vertical stripes for me. This belly is worth celebrating. It’s not just a miracle of evolution and biology and all that. It’s a body image triumph too. And I won’t let any pregnancy book tell me different.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.