From the time you become pregnant, your body undergoes many changes, both expected and otherwise (who knew about that incessant itching as your skin stretches?) You may begin to feel a little like someone else has taken charge, and you’ve become a rather curious passenger in your own body.
While it seems perfectly acceptable to talk about how you might be having an impact on your baby, we seem to talk less about how much your baby also influences you from the moment of conception. Immediately, that little being demands regular feeding (and extreme nausea if you don’t comply) and rest at sometimes quite inappropriate moments. That sudden sweet tooth, or craving for pickles you’ve developed can leave you feeling that you’re feeding your baby not yourself, as your habitual tastes start to change. As your organs begin to move around to make room for your growing uterus, you may also find that you have to re-learn physical sensations which you have taken for granted. Hunger may no longer feel like hunger, and it may take a little longer to realise that unusual pain in your stomach means you’re bursting for the toilet.
For many women, the changing shape of their body can feel surprisingly upsetting, and the upset itself can induce feelings of guilt about being ‘selfish’. In those weeks before you start to look pregnant, watching your stomach expand can fill you with dread and an awareness that others may just think you’re eating a bit too much cake. In our body conscious age, with endless photos of celebrity mums and their neat little bumps, this can lead to feeling fat and frumpy rather than glowing. Coupled with other physical changes, like your teenage spots making an unwanted reappearance, body confidence may be replaced with feelings of shame and wanting to hide away.
As you begin to look more ‘pregnant’, with a clearly defined bump, you may also begin to feel more proud of your body. The external evidence of your feminine strength and fertility may start to attract admiring glances and, as your tummy becomes harder to ignore, you may want show it off. However, this also brings unwanted comments from others which can leave you feeling increasingly self-conscious. Well-meaning friends who talk about how “massive” you are, ‘affectionate’ nicknames (note to friends/family/partners out there- it’s never ok to call someone “fatty”) and observations about how you are carrying “wide” can leave you with a disproportionate sense of your size. Starting to explore the world of maternity bras which look a lot like those your granny used to wear, and finding the maternity section in Topshop overpopulated by floral prints and floaty chiffon can leave you grieving for the sensual, sexual woman you were before pregnancy. Unfortunately, this can be perpetuated by social pressure to cover up and not impose your bump on the world (as demonstrated by this recent article in the Guardian: http://tinyurl.com/6yzxnou )
Many women are used to counterbalancing any weight gain with subsequent food restriction, and being unable to offset the added pounds can be very unsettling. This can again lead to a vicious cycle, as the feeling that your body is being sacrificed to nurture your growing baby results in a sense of resentment – and guilt about feeling anything but happy. In contrast, being able to eat in an unrestricted way can also lead to overeating and confusion about what is an appropriate amount to eat. For the approximately 1 in a hundred women who have experienced an eating disorder, becoming pregnant and the loss of control over their physical shape can be terrifying. If you find yourself increasingly preoccupied with your weight, food intake or physical changes – or if you have a history of eating problems – don’t be afraid to discuss this with your antenatal carers. Getting extra support during your pregnancy can make this time less of a struggle. If this sounds like you, check out www.b-eat.co.uk or speak to your midwife.
In fact, pregnancy can be an ideal time to re-educate our often mildly disordered attitude to food, weight and body image. Taking the weighing scales out of the equation, as this is the one time in your life you really need to gain some weight, you can begin to think about food as healthy and nourishing rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There is lots of information on the internet about eating a balanced diet during pregnancy to help you get into habits which can be used long after the baby arrives. You may want to look at a meal planner (http://www.babycentre.co.uk/pregnancy/nutrition/meal-planners-by-trimester/) or the NHS EatWell Plate (http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/eatwell-plate.aspx) to get ideas – or you may just want to enjoy spending the next few months eating what makes you feel good.
The keen awareness of your body during pregnancy is also one way of ensuring that you start to listen to what it needs. Beginning to notice your body’s signals and respond to them can put you back in touch with your physical self. During birth, being able to give yourself over to your body can help you have a quicker, more satisfying delivery. Noticing these more primal signs now can open up a more instinctual sense of yourself, encouraging trust in your body’s ability to manage new demands. Taking pride in what it is achieving can help you to form a new relationship with your body. Take time to rub oil into that expanding stomach, encourage your partner to admire the almost daily changes and answer those comments with a proud ‘I know, isn’t it amazing’. Because it really is.