National Eating Disorders Association
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How to Talk about a Pregnant Woman's Body: Don't.

Sara Shaw

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that most people know better than to touch a pregnant woman’s stomach without permission. Right? Can we agree on that? Unless the pregnant woman in question is a close friend or relative, the belly is a hands-free zone.

Why, then, has a pregnant woman’s body become a perfectly acceptable topic of public consumption? Why do friends, coworkers, and even perfect strangers feel the need (and the right, even) to verbally document their opinion on the growth of pregnant bodies? When I was pregnant with my son last year, I was appalled and often embarrassed by the way that people felt entitled to comment on my body. Even though, if I’m being honest, most of it was intended to be complimentary, I never knew how to respond.

“Oh, wow, you’re all belly,” co-workers would tell me.

“I’m so jealous, you barely even look pregnant!” Um, thanks? Am I not supposed to look pregnant?

And as my pregnancy progressed, the commenting became more frequent and blunt.

“You’re HUGE,” a girl who hadn’t seen me in a few months exclaimed, after looking me up and down.

One friend at the gym even said to me, “You must be having a girl. My mom said when she had me, she carried just like you, and she couldn’t fit her bum through the door.”

I had a boy.

What none of these people could possibly have known is that I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for the past 15 years. In college, I was hospitalized for several months, and while I’ve been able to maintain a mostly healthy exterior since then, my anorexia had remained a constant voice in my head, speaking up when I was at my most vulnerable.

Pregnancy was a huge risk for me psychologically--knowing that no matter what, I was going to have to eat healthily to feed my baby, and that my body was going to expand and grow in a way that was going to test my psyche and basically just freak me out. So even those “nice” comments that were said with the best of intentions--the comments about how small I looked, how little weight I’d gained--were in fact, feeding a monster. And the comments about how big I was getting? About the possibility of stretch marks and flab, about their experience of never losing their “baby weight?” Those threw my already hormonal, anorexic brain into a tailspin.

Sure, I knew I was going to gain weight, because that’s a healthy and important part of pregnancy. And in time, I learned to love my baby belly. I loved feeling that little boy dancing around inside of me, I loved watching him do somersaults against my belly button, and I was able to push the fear of the weight gain into a dark corner in the back of my mind. But constantly being dragged into conversations about my size didn’t help.
What do you even say, when people make those comments? Do you validate them by saying thank you? Do you make the situation more awkward by chastising and correcting them? For me, my response evolved. At first I didn’t really know how to respond. I would smile and nod, or try to make a joke. After the “you’re huge” comment, I got defensive and snappy. Finally, by the time I was about seven months pregnant, I think I reached a happy medium. With friends, I was able to smile, understanding that their comments were innocuous, and say something to the effect of, “Just so you know…the last thing a pregnant woman wants to hear is anything about her size.” With strangers, I would try to reroute or end the conversation. Because the longer you engage in that discussion, the more acceptable it seems, and the easier it is to internalize the remarks. And that’s really the key—keeping other people’s opinions from becoming dangerous or permanent parts of your own experience.

So what is it about pregnant woman that makes people say things that they’d never dream of saying to other women? You wouldn’t think of commenting on the size or shape of a non-pregnant woman. Why does pregnancy make already emotionally vulnerable women fair game? How is that somehow okay?

Here’s the thing. It’s not.

No one should have to put themselves on display and allow their bodies to be picked apart and examined. Those bodies belong to us and no one else. Sure, they’re changing, they’re growing, and the comments are almost always innocent and made with no ill intent. But the magnitude of what a pregnant woman’s body is already doing--creating and sustaining life--should be enough. I mean, wow.

Maybe it’s just because people don’t know what to say. Maybe we’ve become so accustomed to phrases like “post baby body” and “baby weight” that watching a pregnant body morph seems like an appropriate and entertaining conversation topic, and we’ve been programmed to think that it’s our job to engage in it.

Why not try saying something else? Maybe, “you look so happy.” Or “you’re going to be an amazing mom.” Perhaps, “look at you, you’re glowing.” I promise you, pregnant women are already aware of their changing body. They don’t need to hear about the stretch marks they may get, or how they’re “all belly.” Because that implies that anything else is a failure. It reinforces an absurd and impossible standard that no woman should have to attain. And the last thing a new mom should have to worry about is whether or not she can “bounce back” into her previous shape. That previous shape wasn’t the shape of a mom. That shape didn’t need to fit a snuggling newborn into it, or wrap its arms around a crying child. It was a different shape.

And no matter what that shape has or will become, I think it’s time to start recognizing that while it may never be the same, it’s always going to be infinitely more beautiful.

Want to learn more about pregnancy and eating disorders? Check out these NEDA resources!