When you’re a chubby kid who grows into a fat woman, you get one message early and often…
Your body doesn’t work right. I learned that from playground jerks, dismayed Weight Watchers coaches, the entire clothing retail industry. When I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome at 14, it wasn’t a surprise; it just affirmed the message I got every day: Your body is not normal. I spent most of my life trying to “normalize” it through non-stop diet cycling, obsessive exercise and good old-fashioned disordered eating — until my late 20s when it finally occurred to me that diets (or what we now call lifestyles) didn’t work, and neither did self-loathing. I then did years of diet deprogramming with intuitive eating, and slowly learned to accept food as food and my body as my body. That didn’t mean I woke up every day cooing to my cellulite and weeping at my own astounding beauty. For me, body positivity meant digging my body on some days and sometimes feeling insecure about it — but walking out the door and living my life, regardless. It meant unconditionally accepting this body as is: hazel eyes, soft belly, wonky ovaries, the whole shebang.
Still, when my husband and I decided, at 35, to try to have a child, I was prepared to accept that my body couldn’t do it. I assumed it would take many months, medical specialists and plenty of scientific intervention. I readied myself to fight doctors refusing to treat me unless I got to a certain BMI (which happens, a lot). And of course there would be miscarriages and serious complications, if I could get pregnant at all. I believed all this simply because, body positive or not, I was used to the idea that my body didn’t work.
I assumed this would be my self-acceptance Everest, and thus I was frankly stunned when I got pregnant right away, without even leaving the house.
I spent the first few months in a similar state of shock, when each prenatal test and checkup confirmed everything looked (knock wood) a-okay. With every normal vital sign and lab result, I grilled my doctors, like a hardboiled detective:
“But I’m high-risk, right?”
“Only on paper,” my doctor said, shaking her head. I’d turned 35 at about four weeks pregnant. “You’re pretty young for this practice.”
“But I have PCOS.”
“That’s not really an issue once you’re pregnant.”
“But, my weight?”
“It doesn’t automatically make you high-risk. As long as your nutrition is good and your labs are normal, you’re fine.”
All I had to do was take care of myself, avoid undercooked meat and keep growing. And I did. Hormonal bloating puffed up my face, and my tummy began to stretch forward. But five months in I still didn’t really look pregnant. I just looked like a bigger version of myself.
This, as it turned out, was the real body acceptance challenge. Pregnancy doesn’t typically look the same on plus-size bodies as it does on thinner ones. I probably would have realized that had I ever seen photos of a pregnant plus-size person in media, advertising or on any of the zillion pregnancy apps I’d downloaded. I found a message board for plus-size parents-to-be on one of them, and it was full of questions and fears: “Will I be able to feel my baby move?” “Will I be need to have a C-section?” “Am I ever going to have D-belly or will I always have a B-belly?”
The B-belly is a hot topic among plus-size pregnant folks, because most of us have it (some non-plus folks do, too): It happens when you have a natural indent at your waistline, rather than flat abs, so your pregnant belly ends up looking more like a capital-B versus a capital-D — the hallmark symbol of pregnancy. People on the board shared their favorite outfits and shapewear products to make their bellies look more D-shaped. At first it struck me as sad, seeing so many people stressing over something aesthetic. But of course, it was understandable — and of course, I was stressing over it, too. The larger my body grew, the more self-conscious I became, especially when I left the house.
It takes work to maintain self-acceptance in a society that would rather you be thinner. It’s even trickier in a world where every Instagram commenter is your doctor: No girl, it’s not about your appearance! We’re just worried about your health! Your joints, your poor internal organs! I was around a size 18 before pregnancy, and I’d dealt with my share of this concern trolling. But the bigger you are, the more overt and extreme it is. Among other things, research indicates larger-bodied people are more likely to be convicted in court, are paid up to $19,000 less than their thin counterparts, and receive less financial support for education. Of course, this is all compounded by other prejudices like racism, ableism, etc. — and as a white, able-bodied, size-18 woman, I hadn’t had it nearly as bad as most.
But things did change as my body got bigger, while still not looking obviously pregnant. Side-eyes turned into head-on stares and head-shaking. Strangers didn’t hide their annoyance at having to step a few inches over to make a space for me over on the subway. And obviously, no one was giving me their seat. They didn’t see a droopy pregnant lady coming home from the gym. They saw a fat woman, probably winded from her daily walk to the donut shop.
The bigger I got, the angrier the world seemed. I was torn: Part of me really wanted people to know I was pregnant. But part of me worried about what they’d say if they did. As anyone who’s been pregnant knows, normal social behavior goes out the window upon sight of a pregnant woman. It’s suddenly normal to reach out and rub a co-worker’s belly, and many people feel compelled to make appraisals of its size: But you’re SO big! Sure it’s not twins?! That’s bad enough — but when you’re plus-sized, there’s a distinct change in tone. I’d seen how nosy strangers (and all those Instagram doctors) instantly turned into obstetricians, wringing their hands over your surely distressed baby and diagnosing you with gestational diabetes on sight. I’d heard horror stories about hospital staff calling in children’s services to speak with fat parents after birth, presuming them to be unfit. I wish I could’ve brushed it off as rumor, but I’d read the research: Providers generally do make such assumptions about people of a certain size. I often thought of one particularly grim finding from a study on anti-fat bias: 24% of nurses surveyed said they were “repulsed” by obese patients.
I’m normally able to roll my eyes at randos speculating on my health, but now I felt utterly vulnerable. It was hard enough wrestling with own anxieties — the kind I’m sure a first-time pregnant woman of any size has — without assuaging everyone else’s judgment.
So, I resorted to hiding. I bought two enormous tent-style dresses — which were cute and comfortable, but which also obscured 80% of my body, allowing me to essentially hide in public and sidestep all potential commentary. I wore them almost every single day for months. I wasn’t accepting my body so much as pretending I didn’t have one. But at around six months into my pregnancy, something changed. My belly, though still B-shaped, began to poke out in a more obvious way. The faint little fish-like movements I felt inside it became kicks and turns. Inside my body was another, and it was growing strong.
Little by little, it began to sink in that my body and I were doing just fine. After so many years grappling with the belief that it could do nothing right — nothing a “normal” body could do — my body had shown up for me in the biggest way. Maybe I ought to show up for it, and for the little creature we were making. I decided one day to opt out of the tent dresses and try on something a little more fitted, with an empire waist — something that actually highlighted my middle and made it look even bigger. Looking in the mirror, I still didn’t know if it looked pregnant or simply big. Would others know? No way to tell.
I stepped outside into a not-yet-too-hot summer day and headed toward the subway, deciding to walk to a farther stop. I got to the station and hopped onto the busy train, hot and flushed from the long walk. Grabbing the subway pole, I looked around to see if someone would hop up and give their seat to the overheated pregnant lady.
I looked at my reflection in the glass train door as we rode through tunnel. I honestly didn’t know if the seated passengers didn’t know I was pregnant or just didn’t care. And for the first time, I didn’t care either! Whether they couldn’t tell, couldn’t be bothered, or were just too busy on their phones, I wasn’t worried about what other people were or weren’t thinking. I was fine.
And that was almost as great as getting a seat on the subway.
Thank you, Kelsey. How lucky your baby is to have a mother like you.
(Photos by Christina Han for Cup of Jo.)