The problem with the “Are you pregnant?” question has been back in the spotlight lately. Jennifer Aniston wrote a scathing essay in The Huffington Post, back in July, after she had enough of the tabloid speculation about her imaginary “baby bump,” and then last month Aniston’s own husband was in the news for having asked co-star Emily Blunt about her (real this time) baby bump before she had been ready to tell. The idea that we should ditch our culture’s incessant body shaming has fired up again across the internet, and I’m happy to see it. But what happens when you are the one to get the pregnant question? Specifically, what happens when someone who is working on recovery from an eating disorder and successfully restoring weight gets the uninvited, “Oh! When are you due?”
It’s probably not hard to imagine the chaos inside a recovering mind as weight creeps up, then approaches, nears, and finally reaches an ideal body weight—you might even be feeling it yourself. Even after many years, it is not too far away for me to conjure if I try to think back. We would hope that when we move toward recovery, we would feel better as each week of healing for body and brain passes, and mostly we do. Strangely, just as we get close to our ideal weight, many of us rather suddenly feel a quick and vicious return of the biting anxiety we thought was behind us when, slowly, we became more comfortable with our increasing weight. (Fortunately, it typically scales back down noticeably when we do get to our ideal weight.) Any added commentary—from family, friend, or stranger—that seems to be about our weight can feel devastating.
In her article, Aniston fought back: “I resent being made to feel ‘less than’ because my body is changing and/or I had a burger for lunch and was photographed from a weird angle and therefore deemed one of two things: ‘pregnant’ or ‘fat.’” I felt optimistic that our society was, once again, having a piece of this dialogue.
And then, I got the pregnant question.
I recently went to have my teeth cleaned, and as soon as the hygienist pulled the door only half-closed from the waiting room, she asked, loudly and very excited, “Are you pregnant?!”
No. No, I am not.
In fairness, I am quite sure this particular person’s comment came more from the “I’m so happy for you! [and I have to ask a lot of people if they are pregnant because I take x-rays of teeth all day]” thought process, and I didn’t think much about it.
I emailed Kylie Mitchell, MPH, RDN, a dietitian who often treats those recovering from eating disorders, to share Aniston’s article, and threw in a giggle about my own pregnancy question. I was stunned by her answer: “It honestly surprises me how many times my weight-restoring clients are asked if they are pregnant.” I read it, and re-read it. Speechless, I next emailed Linda Chase, LCSW, CGP, a psychotherapist who also treats those working on recovery: “Is this really happening?” Her answer: “Yes.” The short sentence she added seemed to open some small, satin box of leftover whispers, each one quietly speaking its account of the many terrors and tears she has heard over the years, “And it can be very difficult.”
I remembered back to my own recovery, and the often fragility of my body image as I was newly weight restored. I remember fighting with some magically significant number that terrified me after I seemed quite recovered to those who saw me, and to those who ate with me. Being asked if I were pregnant? “Very difficult” would have been an immense understatement.
Until we can somehow successfully educate our society that asking about someone else’s pregnancy is just never okay unless you are already planning her baby shower, here are a few things I would tell the “me” of many years ago who is fielding the “Pregnant?” question:
- Taking all the things you feel in a moment like this head-on will often jump you forward in your recovery in a way nothing else can. It will help you. That rush of white-hot anxiety can be erased with an eating disorder (or many other things) for a quick moment, or it can be confronted. And confronting these feelings, however hard it is, will be a big part of the way out—even if in the moment you feel battered from the fight. Choosing the easy way just makes the eating disorder, and all its friends, stronger.
- Ask yourself today, maybe in a therapist’s office, “What is the worst that would happen?” I know it might seem like it would be even worse than accidentally sending an email “reply all” to your entire company (which, I can say, definitely does not feel good). But go there, with as much detail as you can. Where exactly would you be? Who might ask you the question? Who else would you be with? What would they think when they heard? If everything you most fear happened, would you still be ok? Would you still be alive, still be healthy? Would the difficult emotions you might feel last forever? Would you still have people somewhere who care about you, a place to live, things to be grateful for? (By the way, this also works for anything from going out to dinner to giving a scary presentation at school or work.)
- What in life do you really want to be? Not just at this moment—in your whole life. I want to be a good wife, and a good parent. I hope that I am loyal to my family and friends, and kind and generous to those who have a much harder life than I do.
Being called “pregnant” because I carry some weight in my stomach matters much less to me than if I were called a dishonest friend, a selfish wife, an unkind mom, a rude coworker.
If my focus is working on those important and long-lasting things, an offhand comment about how my stomach looks in this particular shirt doesn’t mean quite so much. If the worst someone can call me is “fat,” I’m doing just fine.
Image Source: Flickr