Trigger warning: This article discusses having an eating disorder.
I was walking down a random, now forgettable sidewalk, with my trusty yet busted earbuds planted firmly inside my ears so I could appear preoccupied but remain aware of my surroundings, when a man behind me let out a whistle and a—like the sidewalk—forgettable cat call. Rarely do these comments warrant a response, but in that moment, I knew just what to do to embarrass the stranger who felt so entitled to my time and attention. I turned around to reveal my 18-week pregnant belly.
The man, who must have been in his mid-20s, immediately stopped walking and started profusely apologizing. His eyes darted every which way in order to avoid meeting mine; his cheeks turned a bright pink; and as he searched frantically for something, anything, to excuse his behavior, he said with a timid smile, “It’s just, wow. You did not look pregnant at all. You really don’t even look that pregnant now!” When his eyes finally met mine, I smiled, too. It was impossible to hide my sense of accomplishment.
I have been in an imperfect recovery from an eating disorder for over 10 years.
I wish I could say that pregnancy afforded me a 40-week break from starving myself or forcing myself to empty the contents of my stomach if and when I did manage to eat. But that would be a lie. The way my body stored fat in preparation for my baby, stretched to accommodate his growing limbs and loosened to prepare for childbirth, worked to derail the very best of my intentions.
During my first pregnancy, as the fear of impending motherhood began to grow, and my anxieties worked to convince me that I wouldn’t be able to handle the immense responsibility of caring for another human being, my disorder promised stability—some semblance of control when faced with so much uncertainty.
But it was the comments people made about how little my body appeared to be pregnant that fortified this feeling of faux-assurance. My life was changing so quickly I felt like the world had tilted off its axis, but the people around me couldn’t tell. They had no idea that I was scared, anxious, worried, hesitant, and painfully doubting my ability to be the mother my future child deserved.
I could control the chaos inside by controlling what everyone in my life saw on the outside—and people would celebrate me for it.
Whether it was a random stranger on some unremarkable sidewalk or my mother, partner, friends, distant family members, or high school classmates I only communicate with via Facebook, every comment highlighting my body’s ability to hide a pregnancy gave me the type of insidious, shallow validation I needed to believe that I could hide my perinatal anxieties and maybe, just maybe, become a decent mom, too.
At least 30 million people suffer from disordered eating, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. Disordered eating has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness—every 62 minutes someone dies. And while our country likes to tout pregnancy and motherhood as a cure-all for a variety of issues—whether they be marital or personal, physical or mental—pregnancy is often a time when disordered eating habits are introduced, reintroduced, or, in many cases, maintained and more easily hidden.
A 2018 study of 94 women published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth found that two eating-related themes emerged during pregnancy: navigating a “new” eating disorder during pregnancy and returning to an “old” eating disorder postpartum. And a 2005 study of 49 pregnant women with a history of disordered eating, published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, found that 22% of participants relapsed during their pregnancies.
I relapsed during my first pregnancy. At a time when I didn’t know how to be a mom or what parenthood would look like—all I knew was how to be a woman capable of upholding and reinforcing an impossible beauty standard of which even people who are busy growing arms and legs inside their bodies are not immune. I didn’t know if I could handle late-night feeding a newborn or the eventual (and terrifying) fevers that would require a frantic trip to the nearest emergency room. I didn’t know if I could keep my baby breathing through the night or protect him from untold danger that felt, among many other things, inevitable. But I could handle a restricted diet that made me appear to be what society considers to be the “ideal” pregnant woman.
I could appear unchanged in every other area of my body except a minimally protruding, flawlessly rounded, perfectly placed belly. I could make people feel comfortable by hiding the erroneously labeled “unsightly” aspects of pregnancy—like my body’s audacity to take up space in a society that works tirelessly to minimize it with fad diets, invasive surgeries, and manufactured shame—by returning to what was often the only comfort available to me during a tumultuous childhood and in the wake of trauma: disordered eating.
Every “you’re all belly!” and “you barely look pregnant!” and “OMG, girl, you look so small for a pregnant woman!” was a reminder that I was powerful enough to regulate at least one aspect of my life, regardless of any outside force that worked to take that power away from me.
I could answer our culture’s siren call to be two juxtaposing things at once: a woman who shrinks while her body expands.
I went home and told my partner that I had been catcalled by a stranger who didn’t realize I was pregnant. I couldn’t hide my morbid excitement as I recalled the catcaller’s reaction—his surprise, his embarrassment, his faux-compliment. My partner validated my innate feeling of accomplishment, too, telling me I didn’t really look pregnant. I looked great. Like every other person in my life, I had fooled him, too.
About a month after my healthy, perfect, smiling baby boy was born, I spiraled further into my eating disorder. For so long I had heard that I didn’t really look pregnant, yet four-weeks postpartum, my belly hadn’t deflated, my breasts had expanded, and traces of my pregnancy lingered.
In an act of desperation and disgust, I taped a piece of paper to my bathroom mirror with the words, “You’re fat, you’re disgusting, stop eating.” I looked at it every day, digging inside the rib cage I wished would protrude to hide not just what pregnancy and childbirth had done to me physically, but what it had done to me mentally—the anxiety, the depression, the self-doubt. When my partner noticed the note, he took it down immediately, asking why I would ever write something like that about myself.
“I just don’t want to look like I was pregnant,” I responded.
“But you were pregnant,” he said, his face pained with sadness and confusion.
“Yeah, but I didn’t look like I was pregnant, remember?
This time, no one was smiling.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.