As I waddle toward the home plate of pregnancy -- 32 weeks down, 8 to go, but who’s counting -- there’s a lot I should be thinking about: birth plans, kick counts, nanny shares, breastfeeding classes, preparations for maternity leave. Heck, my husband and I haven’t even settled on a name yet.
All of these things deserve much more attention than the fact that I’ve gained 50 pounds. All of them. But on the Monopoly board of my mind, guess who’s buying up all the goddamn hotels? Vanity. I can’t stop thinking about how unattractive I am, and I’m so mad at myself for caring.
Like rosary beads, I finger the reassurances I’ve heard from my family, friends, and doctors: There’s a lot of amniotic fluid in there. He’s a big baby. Everything seems healthy so far. Women in our family carry large. Breastfeeding burns 500 calories a day. It’s summer, so you’re retaining a lot of water. You’ll lose the weight. You’ll lose the weight. You’ll lose the weight.
My friend Louise,* the 30-year-old mother of a toddler, added a lovely new one in an email to me today: “Weight means everything’s working. I’m not Dr. Science, but I think you need it for after the baby’s born. Fuel for healing and breastfeeding and to compensate for missed meals when you’re too distracted or busy to eat.”
She’s right, I know. But no matter how many reassurances I string together, I feel like they’re doing nothing for me.
I never know when one offhand look or comment is going to send me into a tailspin of self-loathing. There was the time I asked my doctor if I should be concerned about my weight gain. Looking me up and down, she said that maternal obesity could definitely cause health problems with my baby, “but I don’t -- think -- you’re quite there.”
She wasn’t trying to be cute. For the first time in my life, someone was truly stopping to consider whether or not I was obese. It shouldn’t have scared the shit out of me, but it did.
Then there was the moment last week when a man who works on my floor passed me in the hallway. Always reliable for a friendly “How are you?” in the past, this time he opted for a curt nod.
Immediately afterward, he passed a cute assistant whose desk is near mine.
“Jill! How are you?” he said with a grin, and my heart sank.
Just typing this makes my skin crawl with embarrassment -- why the hell do I care that a random co-worker declined to smile at me, a married woman in her third trimester of pregnancy? -- but the truth is smiles like that have been a bedrock of my self-esteem since adolescence. I thought I had escaped such triviality by growing up and finding unconditional love with my husband and family, but apparently not.
Until I got pregnant, I didn’t realize just how greedily I’d been drinking from the steady stream of feedback all women receive on their appearance (whether we welcome it or not). I think that’s because the feedback I received was largely subliminal and positive: a lingering smile from a barista here, and a sales assistant eager to help me find the perfect cocktail party dress there. I wasn’t modelesque by any means, but I was 5’8”, blonde, and built like a well-sunned dairymaid. It all went down so easy.
Pregnancy shoved me off my little island of privilege.
The stream of feedback is still there -- oh, is it ever -- but now it’s constant, rushing, loud, overt. At least twice a day, someone will point at my stomach and say, “Yikes, how much longer has he GOT in there?” Well-meaning relatives will gasp at my swollen ankles and demand that I lie down and elevate them immediately. People who haven’t seen me in months will bug their eyes when I come into view, exclaiming, “WOW! You look different!”
All women live in a world where their bodies are treated as public property -- up for discussion, evaluation, judgment -- but there’s something about a pregnant body that really makes people let their guard down.
This is true whether or not the woman in question has gained a lot of weight. Of her own pregnancy, Louise wrote to me, “I gained very little weight, related to [medical complications]. And, oh, the praise I received! I was so small! I only carried in my belly! I didn’t look pregnant from behind!”
She continued, “It really pissed me off. I had no control over how much weight I gained. It was, at times, a medical concern. I mean, yes, I’m not going to lie, it was nice that baby weight wasn’t an issue. But I don’t like people assessing my body, even if it’s in a positive way. Fuck that.”
I wish I were as self-possessed as Louise. I wish I could wave away the critical voices inside and out of my head with a simple fuck-it. I don’t know what makes me feel uglier: the weight gain itself, or the realization that so much of my self esteem, my pride, still comes from external validation of my looks. But both of them sure do make me feel ugly.
As I type this, my son is kick-kick-kicking into my ribcage, his little knees cresting every so often in the ridge above my belly button. This is the one part of my body in which I still take an unequivocal delight. I can't wait to hold him in my arms.
I'm sad this joy is even somewhat diminished by my body issues. I'm sadder still to confess this: I didn’t think I had a gender preference for the baby, but right now, I’m grateful to be having a boy. Pregnancy has made me realize how much more I need to grow in my own self-confidence as a woman before I'm ready to raise one in this culture.
*Names have been changed