Pregnancy and Body Dysmorphia

Learning to give in to pregnancy’s body takeover

by Alexis Barad-Cutler

I was absolutely terrified of becoming pregnant — not because of the enormous responsibility of carrying a life inside of me, nor was it out of the fear of labor and delivery. For me, it was all about how pregnancy might potentially disfigure me, stretching my skin beyond its wildest limits to ultimately become something unrecognizable. Dramatic, yeah, I know. But if you’ve lived with body dysmorphia and an eating disorder for much of your life, the fear of actually getting big — like for real, and not just in your head — is almost crippling. Luckily, it wasn’t crippling enough to hold me back from trying, and then succeeding, in becoming pregnant. But from the moment I peed on four sticks at five weeks pregnant, I had to know: Was my recent weight gain the beginning of a baby bump, or was I ballooning out of control, as I had always feared?

I had been underweight before my husband and I had started to try to conceive, and so, I had made a concerted effort to eat more (i.e. to basically eat like a regular person). Over the few months of listening to what my body wanted, and feeding my body, I put on some much needed weight. By the time I had gained enough weight that my clothes fit very differently, was when I found out I was pregnant. I have to admit: A major reason I wanted the stick to show a positive pregnancy was not so much the pregnancy itself, but because I wanted there to be a reason for all this recent weight gain.

I spent nearly the entire day after having discovered that I was pregnant, looking up images of other women’s bellies at five weeks pregnant. I Googled, “five weeks baby bump” in as many iterations as possible. I spent little time thinking about what this actually could mean about the next 20 plus years of my life.

I wanted there to be a reason for all this recent weight gain.

We don’t own a scale, which is something I am proud of to this day. I know that I would spend way too much time stepping on it, and stepping off, and holding my breath, and rocking on my tippy toes to get whatever arbitrary number I decided I should be that day. So I went to the locker room at the gym I belonged to at the time for the sole purpose of getting my actual weight. When I saw the number, my heart started racing. I knew that the fact that I was pregnant meant I couldn’t diet, but I also felt helpless, like I now was under a prison sentence. If this was my baseline, I thought, then where would I be nine months from here? I felt like I was doomed to live in a body that I would hate from here on out.

On my way back from my blood test that day to confirm that I was, indeed, pregnant, I called my mom to find out what she weighed when she was newly pregnant with me. Like that would be a thing that someone remembers from the time of their first-born child. (And sure enough, she didn’t remember, and told me I was crazy, and that I should go eat something.)

Determined to not let my body get out of control, I began an early AM spin class. I don’t wake up early for anything, but there I was — up at 5:30 am to knock a spin class out of the way before I had to settle in for a day of writing. By the end of the week I was exhausted beyond belief, really feeling down, and very aware that my priorities were way off.

The only way I learned to give in to the physical changes of pregnancy was to live through each day, and see that the world did not end by the time morning came. When I ate the carbs that my body craved at every meal, the world did not end. When I stopped exercising to the point of wanting to pass out, the world did not end. When I ate the ice cream, and the cookies, and couldn’t stomach the vegetables I was supposed to be eating — the world did not end. As my body continued to expand, the world did not end.

Eventually, a true baby bump emerged. For the first time in my life I was free from worrying about how my stomach — always the part of my body I’ve been the most self conscious about — appeared. In fact, I could emphasize my stomach’s size. The bigger, the better! I began enjoying my pregnant body, and the bigger breasts, and round stomach that came with it.

I decided to leave the numbers on the scale to my OBGYN. We made a pact: When the nurse weighed me, we would do it with my back to the scale. I announced to the nurse every time that she was not to tell me the number, because I was terrified she might forget. My doctor and I agreed that only time she would mention my weight would be if it was too high, or too low. That would be it.

As my body continued to expand, the world did not end.

Once, when I was seeing another doctor in the practice, there was a slip. I thought I heard a number. I wasn’t sure, but it sounded about right where I feared I would be. I walked around with that number hovering above my head for several days, until I forced myself to focus on the comforting weight of the small and mysterious person in my belly instead. It still was not easy. Somehow I did it. My pregnancy became the longest reprieve from the constant body checks, body scrutinizing, and food deprivation habits I had engaged in all the other times of my life.

Two babies later, my body is a lot different than it was before I had kids. I think I like it better now than ever before — namely because it is super strong, from all the lifting I do of my growing boys and the kinds of exercise I do to stay strong. I still have no idea what I weigh. I still have many disordered thoughts about my body and about eating — they’ll probably stay with me forever. I would like to think that, if I ever chose to try to have a baby again, I’d spend less time focusing on how much my skin would stretch and more time focusing on how big my heart would open from the privilege of growing another magical life.