Does this Baby Make Me Look Fat?

Don’t worry – the pregnancy related posts will run their natural course some time soon because I’m due in mid-March, but until then, it’s pretty hard not to reflect on something that’s so powerfully shaping my experience of myself, as well as the way other people experience me. According to this excellent article (Body Image | Brown University Health Education“Body image is a widespread preoccupation. In one study of college students, 74.4% of the normal-weight women stated that they thought about their weight or appearance “all the time” or “frequently.” What gets really wacky with pregnancy is that suddenly many of the people I interact with on a daily basis are now also thinking about my weight and appearance all the time or frequently, and they appear to feel quite comfortable commenting on these factors.

I spend a fair amount of time reassuring clients that no one else is paying as close attention to their body and the subtle shifts in appearance that folks tend to fixate on within themselves. And this is true. Really, it is. You can even do an experiment. Look at someone you know every day for a week. I can guarantee you that their weight will fluctuate within at least a 3-5 lb range based on the time of day, the sodium content of their food choices the previous day and etc, but to you, they will appear stable. Especially for the I-weigh-myself-one-million-times-each-day crowd, the same is probably not true for your own body image. In other words, if you see numbers fluctuating on a scale, you will believe that you see your appearance shifting drastically because the beliefs you have about those numbers will skew your perspective. It is possible to look at the same thigh two days in a row and see it as reasonably proportionate one day, and massive and disturbing the next without the poor leg actually changing at all.

What’s really zany about pregnancy is that suddenly all bets are off. Everyone, from receptionists, to friends, family, mail carriers and dudes holding doors open actually is actively visually assessing me, which if it wasn’t obvious from the gazes is obvious because people say stuff. Feel free to gasp. It is the worst nightmare of the dieter, the disordered eater, the female high school student, and, some days, me. Everything I’ve been taught, everything I preach to my clients about body image and reality-checking has been turned on its head for the last 27 weeks (12 weeks and 6 days to go, in case you’re keeping track). I can now assume that when I leave my house, someone’s going to comment on my size. Many days, it’s many someones. In our culture, bearing a babybump is basically the same as wearing a flashing neon sign on your head that says “Hey, check me out! And then compare me to pregnant celebrities! To my face!”

The fascinating part of this turn of events is that the assessments of how I look, and the comments that are made, frequently pretty obviously say more about the person making the comment then they do about my actual appearance. I know this because sometimes I get a “Wow, you’re such a petite person that it makes your stomach look really huge”, and then five minutes later I get a “Wow, you’ve really only just started showing, your bump is so tiny” and then an hour after that I get a “Wow, your boobs are so huge!” (no, I am not making these things up). In other words, just like personal body image fluctuates with mood and context, so do the assessments other people are making about my body across the course of one day in which the only thing actually changing is how bad the baby-induced heartburn is. The ludicrous diversity within these comments has actually helped me get some perspective because clearly people are not seeing me. They’re seeing me, distorted through their own ideas about femininity, motherhood, my role in their lives and probably their relationships with other women.

It’s terrifying, don’t get me wrong, and I am very much looking forward to getting out of this spotlight, but I’ll be taking some lessons with me about how profoundly relative and subjective thoughts and feelings about appearance can be.