No belly, no respect

During my pregnancy, strangers constantly told me that I was too small to be healthy -- even suggesting my baby might be abnormal. Who said expectant mothers have to look like fertility goddesses?

Published May 5, 2004 4:10PM (EDT)

Five months pregnant and gummy with thirst, I walked into a corner store in my downtown Toronto neighborhood to buy a drink. The clerk gave my body the once-over and asked when I was due. I told her our unusual due date -- Christmas Day -- and she frowned. "No, no. You're wrong, or else you're going to have a preemie! You're too small!"

Seething silently, I took my juice and stormed out, but she'd gotten to me: I pictured an elfin baby floating around in my inadequate belly, refusing to be born.

I'm 6 feet tall, and at my thinnest I weigh around 145 pounds. Five months into my pregnancy, I had hit only 150 and could still comfortably wear my size 8 clothes. When I ranted about the cashier to my midwife, she told me to relax; the baby and I were both fine. My boyfriend, the baby's father, would listen to my tales of skinny pregger harassment and laugh, offering the useful advice, "Be flattered. Ignore it."

A few days after the preemie incident, I ran into a colleague on the street. She was pregnant herself, her belly tented beneath her fiancé's huge T-shirt. "I see you're wearing yoga pants," she said. "I used to wear yoga pants." She was on her way to McDonald's, she told me, adding: "I guess you don't ever go to McDonald's."

Even though I got bigger, the comments became more annoying. At seven months, a cabdriver posed the old due-date question. I told him and he suggested I check with a doctor to see that the baby was "normal."

Mine was, as a friend put it, "a sitcom pregnancy." The orb blocking my toes did have a certain fake strap-on quality to it. In the eighth month, I still looked like me, except for the comical globe smack in the center of my frame.

I seemed to have good timing: Thin expectant mothers are in fashion these days. Us Weekly and its magazine ilk regularly gawk at the pregnancy "bumps" of the stars, but, unlike Reese's or Gwyneth's, my skinny pregnancy wasn't exactly fabulous. Fielding invasive comments every few days left me feeling isolated and anxious; a failure at motherhood -- full bodied, pull-the-child-to-the-heaving-bosom, overflowing motherhood -- before it had even begun. The world seemed to expect my own body to disappear and be replaced by Mother Hubbard's. To me, the comments meant the same thing: You don't look like a mother. Real mothers require hips to push out the progeny and breasts to feed them. And I wanted that goddess look; gangly and flat-chested my whole life, I dug the idea of being a harbinger of plenty and fruitfulness.

I wasn't unhealthy, or battling an eating disorder: I simply had no appetite. During my first trimester, the sight and smell of most foods caused my insides to fill up in protest; I walked around for nine months with the sensation of having recently swallowed several cups of seawater. Textures repulsed me. First I rejected slimy things, like cooked spinach and tofu, then crisp things, like lettuce and bread. I was left with protein shakes, ice cream and fruit. As I entered my second trimester, my appetite gradually returned in a new, truncated form, and I continued to exercise regularly, walking on the treadmill at the gym or going for geriatric-paced jogs three to four times a week. By the ninth month, I had put on more than 25 pounds, nearing 175. Though my face was unnaturally gaunt from the nausea, in celebrity terms and according to the numbers, I wasn't even very thin. So why was I irking the cabdriver, the dental hygienist and the damn juice lady?

The comment I heard probably a half-dozen times -- once in a weight room, once from a waitress -- was: "If I were you, I'd look at pregnancy as permission to get really fat, and just go for it." I thought about that statement a lot. Are our looks such a prison that we regard pregnancy as a kind of "get out of jail free" card? Would we eat pickles and ice cream all the time if we could? By passing on the pass, I came to feel like I was betraying some kind of historical prerogative: I'd been granted the only nine months of my life where I didn't have to be hungry or a blind follower of beauty ideals, and I was behaving like a pathetic Kate Moss wannabe.

Freudians would say that anorexia, or self-starvation, reflects a fear of oral impregnation. Perhaps my thin pregnant body told the world that I was rejecting my pregnancy, refusing the weightiness of motherhood with its corpulence and responsibility. Or maybe people see thin preggies as bulimics who spend their spare time trying to throw up the alien invader.

Mine is not the first pregnant body to confuse those around me: The pregnant body has always sent, and received, mixed messages. In her book on motherhood "Of Woman Born," Adrienne Rich writes that in some cultures, pregnant women may be regarded as dangerous to crops, susceptible to the occult or "vulnerable to the evil eye or other maleficent influences." But "Rosemary's Baby" isn't scary only because devil worshippers sneak inside Mia Farrow's uterus: There's something about the pregnant body that's inherently frightening. No matter how much she eats, or how little, a pregnant woman's body will do what it wants to do. This is what I, master list-maker, relished (and sometimes feared) about pregnancy: the seceding of control. But maybe it's also why expectant mothers are so open to scrutiny and censure: An uncontrolled woman still needs to be put in her place.

"Your body didn't fit the pregnant ideal, and that seems threatening," Leora Tanenbaum, author of "Catfight: Rivalries Among Women," told me. "Once you're pregnant, you're supposed to start sacrificing yourself immediately, and physically, you probably just didn't appear as someone who was making that sacrifice. People want to know that you're going to put your needs last and the baby's, or the fetus', needs first."

It's funny: Pregnancy is the one time when sacrifice doesn't mean denial, but indulgence. According to the muttering masses, I needed to chow down, but I was well within the boundaries of a healthy pregnancy. Today, most doctors recommend a weight gain of between 25 and 35 pounds. In the 19th century, the medical establishment advised women to severely restrict their prenatal diets. Infant mortality rates were high and Caesareans a rarity, so a small baby meant an ideal, uncomplicated delivery. Until the late '60s, recommendations were much lower: 15 pounds, a low-salt diet, maybe even diet pills.

Dena Zimbel, a midwife and fitness instructor who specializes in training pre- and post-natal women, says that the research on ideal pregnancy weight gain is sketchy, at best. "In the previous generation, it was really an aesthetic value that was being passed on medically. But even the medical or clinical guidelines of today don't have much research to substantiate them."

When I was pregnant, both women and men often told me (when they weren't telling me I looked too skinny) that I looked great -- which, I suppose, meant that I looked skinny. While I admit I sometimes dug the ticker-tape commentary about my body when it swung toward flattering, I also felt disconnected from the accolades, and eventually they began to make me mad. I was haggard, my eyelids took on a creepy purplish hue, and my cheekbones poked through my face like butter knives. Until the final two months, I had terrible skin, and since I frequently couldn't sleep, my eyeballs were red-veined and bulgy. Yet the kudos would come: "You look great," said a woman behind me on a stairwell. "When I was pregnant, I had a butt like an 18-wheeler!"

(Only my boyfriend got it right. In a miraculous balancing act, he simultaneously reassured me I looked gorgeous while expressing concern about the way my ribs poked out above my belly and making sure I got enough food into my wobbly gullet.)

I gave birth to my son before Christmas, only a few days early. I labored 10 hours at home with a midwife, and delivered quickly in the hospital. Though the pain was indescribable (let me try: sneezing a bowling ball through a nostril), it was a great pain, an awesome pain, a pain I am grateful for. I could never have imagined feeling stronger or more alive. I know that luck and genes play a big part in childbirth, but I'm certain that being fit helped me to have a great labor, even free of drugs (although I did make a not-so-polite inquiry about their availability in the later stages). My recovery was surprisingly fast, too: Within an hour of delivering my enormous boy -- 9 lbs. 4 oz -- I was able to get up and have a shower. I had reserves of energy in the first weeks of my baby's life that I needed desperately.

In the hospital, while both of us were still covered in blood, I felt a shudder like I hadn't felt in months -- a kind of post-marathon hunger that my body barely remembered. In my favorite picture from that night, our midwife and my boyfriend are bent over our son, swaddling and cooing. I'm propped up on the hospital bed in the background, a small, blissed-out figure stuffing her face with crackers and cheese, all mother and all appetite, all at once.

By Katrina Onstad

Katrina Onstad is a journalist living in Toronto. She is a film writer at the National Post newspaper and a columnist for Toronto Life magazine.

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