I’ve never been thin, so I won’t say that I’ve ever benefited from thin privilege. But I have been fortunate enough to have an hourglass figure, and that has always been a commodity for me as a black woman. Truthfully, for the first half of my life, my body was frequently a source of discomfort because it brought the wrong kind of attention. As early as elementary school, I was on the receiving end of a variety of objectifying comments that would make any person, let alone a preteen, blush. With time, though, I learned to appreciate my body for its beauty instead of seeing it as the source of unwanted social attention.
But when I became pregnant with my first child in my early 20s, I had to renegotiate my appreciation contract with my body after I gained a considerable amount of weight. As in, “I’m waiting to give birth to a toddler” weight.
It was my first significant weight change, and I didn’t know how to handle it, particularly given that our society puts so much emphasis on women’s weight and body size. I found my relationship with food drastically changing. I was afraid of how everything I ate would affect my body, and I wondered how many pounds would come from each bite.
Once my son was born, I felt pressure to return to my pre-pregnancy weight quickly. I was not eating enough, particularly given the demands of being a new mother. I lost the weight quickly, and many of my peers wanted to know my secret. They had no idea the key was compulsive workouts and an unbalanced diet. I was smaller than I’d ever been, and I wasn’t healthy. While my “snap back” was praised, I was struggling with the symptoms of an eating disorder. After a few concerned comments from my mother and months of chronic fatigue, I realized that no dress size was worth my health.
Western beauty standards have created an environment in which women are expected to strive toward size goals no matter the cost. The pressure to lose weight as a new young mother hurt me physically and emotionally. It’s challenging enough to manage the stress of everyday motherhood, including the physical demands of breast feeding and potential mental-health conditions such as postpartum anxiety and depression. When you add trying to adhere to diets and cram in workouts, it’s nearly unbearable.
Pregnancy might be one of the most significant physiological changes that humans can endure. Your organs shift around substantially, and during labor, you experience pain well above the normal range of what is tolerable. Why do we have such an issue with our bodies showing that we’ve been through something that miraculous — albeit often uncomfortable?
I overcame the body image issues I had with my first pregnancy. Now, nearly three years later, I’m pregnant again. But instead of obsessing over the scale and avoiding food, I am going to embrace my pregnant body.
My hips are wider than they were before my first child, my breasts aren’t perky anymore, and my stretch marks are likely a permanent part of my body’s map. But to prioritize my mental health and solidify my ability to be the best mother I can for my children, I have to learn to be fine with that. Being comfortable with my new plushy body requires rejecting the message that I must be below a certain size to be valuable. I’ve had to stop looking at skinniness as an accomplishment and understand that health should be my only goal.
We’re making small steps toward reassuring women it’s okay to be anything other than thin. There have been many body-positive movements in the past few years. There are even some that are specifically aimed toward postpartum body acceptance. However, body positivity, especially during pregnancy, has a long way to go.
We need to rethink the subliminal messages we send to everyone, especially vulnerable groups like pregnant women. Pregnancy is already an emotionally and physically challenging time. We are at an increased risk for depression, stress levels are often high and maternal mortality rates in the United States have more than doubled since 1987. Pregnant people can’t afford the increased pressure that comes with obsessing over a dress size.
When nothing else about life will return to its pre-pregnancy state, why is our society determined to convince women that our weight should?
As I await the birth of my second child, I’m going to enjoy life. If I gain an extra 40 or 50 pounds in the process, then so be it. It isn’t always easy to reassure myself that I am valuable regardless of the number on the scale. But I can’t afford to hold on to harmful messages anymore. I have to alter my thinking not just for me, but for my daughter, too.