Body image, pregnancy, and keeping the eating disorder demons at bay
Disclaimer: I don’t think my past or present struggles with body image and eating are at all uncommon. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever met a woman my age who hasn’t struggled on some level with body image. So, even if you’re not married, not pregnant, or not even thinking of marriage or babies right now--even if you’re not a woman!--I hope you’ll find something here to help you move closer to healing and acceptance of your body.
For the entirety of my adult life, the thought of getting pregnant both fascinated and terrified me: on the one hand, I desired to have children and raise them in the knowledge of the love of Jesus, but on the other hand, the idea of gaining weight--even for something as beautiful as a baby--was scary. Historically, unhealthy weight gain for me has been a sign of depression, anxiety, and general unhappiness. Thus, it’s difficult for me to think of any weight gain as healthy and good, even though intellectually I know that it’s necessary for my baby to grow as he should in my womb. I know that the extra weight I’ve gained on my thighs and butt will be important during breastfeeding. I know that a large percentage of the weight I’ve gained is due to increased blood volume, amniotic fluid, and breast tissue. I know that I’m not gaining too much or too little weight--and that the daily exercise I do is setting me up for a (hopefully) easier postpartum recovery. And I know that all of the protein and healthy fat I consume each day is good for Baby J. I know all of this. But getting my emotional brain to agree with my rational brain is no easy task due to my still-healing wounds related to eating and body image.
Some background: The first time I remember thinking I was "fat" was when I was in fifth grade and noticed that my stomach wasn't completely flat when I sat down. When I was in high school, college, and my early twenties, I struggled off and on (mostly on) with an eating disorder. In high school, when my metabolism changed, my tendency to overeat for emotional comfort caught up with me. I lost weight my junior year of high school after having jaw surgery to correct my severe underbite, but I gained it all back--and then some--in college. By my junior year at Notre Dame, I was depressed, anxious, and about 20 pounds heavier. That summer, I joined Weight Watchers and while I did lose weight, I also learned lots of tricks that helped me to starve myself for weeks at a time, until I would freak out and binge until I gained some of the weight back. This yo-yo pattern continued for almost the entirety of my senior year, until a dear friend noticed my disorder and suggested that I get help. I started going to therapy, but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I truly developed a healthy relationship with food and exercise. (I’m glossing over a lot here for the sake of brevity; I may write a future post on my eating disorder and recovery if there’s enough interest.)
And while I’ve learned to enjoy food, exercise for the right reasons, and (most of the time) embrace the goodness of my body, it’s still really, really hard to accept that my body will never be the same after having a baby. Even when I lose the baby weight, my hips will be probably be wider and other parts will have shifted around and I will just look different. My clothes will fit differently.
While the struggles I’ve had over the past few months with looking in the mirror, looking at myself in photos, and comparing myself to other pregnant women have convicted me of my vanity (and shown me just how much I’ve bought into societal standards of beauty. Grr.) and humbled me in new ways, I think my biggest takeaway is the realization of how resistant I am to suffering and sacrificing for the sake of love.
Obviously, gaining weight during pregnancy is not a suffering on par with what so many of my brothers and sisters around the world are dealing with right now. There are pregnant women the world over who can’t get enough to eat each day. There are pregnant women who have to force themselves to eat due to their hyperemesis gravidarum. There are pregnant women who are alone and scared and without the support that they need, and weight gain isn’t their top concern by any means. And there are so many women struggling with infertility who would gladly trade some extra fat around their thighs and hips for a baby. In many ways, it's a luxury to be worried about baby weight and postpartum workouts.
All that being said, being pregnant/motherhood in general is a sacrifice, and one that involves suffering, no matter how you slice it. As excited as I am to hold Baby J in my arms in a few months, it’s still hard to give up my entire body/life in order for another life to thrive within me. It was hard in the first trimester when I felt perpetually sick and tired, and even though I'm feeling much better these days, it’s still difficult to look in my closet at all of the clothes I can’t fit anymore, and may never be able to fit again. It’s still tough to see pregnant women at the grocery store who look like they have a basketball stuffed under their shirt, but otherwise bear no signs of pregnancy-related weight gain.
And it’s especially difficult to truly embrace the truth that my life, my marriage, my vocation to motherhood is not about me--and it’s definitely NOT about how I look. In the grand scheme of things, a few extra pounds is a small price to pay to bring a new life into the world. (Plus, Kristian is constantly telling me how beautiful my extra-womanly figure is, which is a big help.)
And, because God loves me even though I’m as vain as a peacock, he’s made it so that pregnancy has been--in some ways--a healing experience for me in terms of my body image. While I’ve had my moments of struggle (usually related to comparing myself to other pregnant women, or to my own pre-pregnancy photos), I’ve also experienced so much freedom and enjoyment in eating during these past few months. The fact that weight gain is a natural and important part of pregnancy has given me the freedom to embrace my changing figure--and to marvel at what my body can do. I’m still in awe of how much my skin has s t r e t c h e d to accommodate Baby J, and can’t believe that there’s more stretching yet to come!
Special graces notwithstanding, I’m still me, and I still have days when feeling good in my own skin is a challenge. So, I have decided to continue a few practices that I adopted several years ago to keep my eating disorder demons at bay.
The first is that I never, ever weigh myself. I haven’t weighed myself since my senior year of college, and even when I go to the doctor I get on the scale backward and ask the nurse not to tell me my weight unless there’s something I need to be concerned about. This has been a huge help to me over the years. I can tell if I’ve gained or lost weight based on how my clothes fit, and that’s good enough for me. And even though the monthly weigh-in is a typical practice at most OB/GYN and midwife practices, my wonderful midwife has been sympathetic to my struggles throughout this pregnancy, for which I am so grateful.
Secondly, I don’t workout in a gym. This is not only due to the fact that a gym membership isn’t something we can afford right now, but because of 1) all of the mirrors and 2) all of the temptations to compare myself to other women. It’s so easy to fall into scrutinizing my body when I’m surrounded by mirrors and surrounded by other women who may be more fit than I perceive myself to be. I’ve disciplined myself to workout at home, and have been doing so faithfully for almost ten years now (I know that’s not possible for lots of people, and I am not against gyms on principle. I just know that the environment isn’t good for my mental health.). And when I do workout in public--at a park or on a trail of some kind--I’m vigilant about maintaining custody of the eyes. When I notice that I’m drifting into comparing myself to other women around me, I quickly say a Hail Mary and refocus on the beauty of my surroundings, or my breath, or the podcast I’m listening to. If I have to pray 20 Hail Marys during one walk, so be it. It really does help!
Thirdly, I don't follow lots of women I don't know on social media, particularly fashion bloggers and celebrities. I'm simply too weak to avoid the temptation to comparison when seemingly "perfect" looking women constantly pop up on my Instagram feed.
Finally, when I notice the spirits of fear, anxiety, self-loathing, vanity, etc creeping in and trying to take over, I immediately renounce them in Jesus’ name. I literally pray, “Spirit of X, I renounce you in the name of Jesus,” and call on the Holy Spirit. It’s amazing how powerful it is to call these spirits by name and rely on Christ’s power to conquer them. If you want to learn more about renunciations, check out the book Unbound.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic after Baby J makes his debut, but for now I simply ask for your prayers as my pregnancy progresses, and I promise to pray for any of you who are struggling with body image-related anxiety or depression. I know how painful it can be, and my heart goes out to you. I hope you will do what is necessary to find healing, and if you need any encouragement, please send me an email.