My Pregnancy, My Eating Disorder

Among other things, recovering from my eating disorder meant I could get pregnant. Me. Pregnant. It’s a stretch for many of us to imagine getting excited about growing a big belly, but add a history of eating disorders into the mix and it’s downright weird.

Eating disorder culture is an unhealthy, relentless focus on unrealistic standards of beauty and physical fitness, along with the presentation of hunger and food as pathologies, or demons, to be conquered. This culture of body hatred is inescapable, whether you have struggled with an eating disorder or not.

We are supposed to feel bad about our bodies, no matter what they look like.

We are supposed to judge our food and exercise choices as “good” or “bad.” It is considered totally normal to say “I was good today” in reference to starving, or to say “I’ve been so bad” to refer to the act of not exercising. This happens so much it is considered commonplace; but it’s shocking when you think about the fact that food and exercise are used as shorthand to convey our entire worth as persons.

Body hatred, negative self-image, and eating disorder culture are so relatable because they are everywhere. They are not the exclusive provinces of women, but it’s true that women are disproportionately impacted. The pressure to be less is profound; it is not just about bodies. It is about the devaluing of an entire gender. It is a pressure, placed strongly upon women, to take up less space in the world. To be seen and not heard. To be airbrushed into something that is non-human. These unattainable standards are labeled “perfect.”

And yet, how to explain the endless fetishization of pregnant women? The pressure to turn pregnancy into a spectator sport, complete with photographs that everyone you’ve ever met can comment upon online? The relentless messages about “getting your body back” after pregnancy is complete? The magazines, the stars, and the stories about how they lost (or didn’t lose) the baby weight?

Through the process of my pregnancy, and through my lens as an eating disorder survivor, I came to see pregnancy voyeur culture as an important component of eating disorder culture. The specifics may be different, but many of the pressures and root behaviors are the same.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body and physical appearance is seen as appropriate for comment by strangers.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, it is considered appropriate to discuss how much weight she has gained or lost, and these numbers are taken to signify something more than simply what she weighs. They are taken as a way for others to assess not just whether she is acceptable, but whether other women are acceptable.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, the shape of her body is taken as an immediate assessment and announcement of her sexuality.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, strangers feel they can touch her, from rubbing a belly to rubbing an arm.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body is treated as a piece of public property. That body may be commented upon, or have laws placed upon it.

Pregnancy can be a profoundly alienating and centering experience. My pregnancy was both. It was shocking to me that my body could create my baby, and also that during the process of pregnancy I could feel totally new things. That foods I had loved no longer tasted good. That foods I hadn’t desired in years were sudden, urgent cravings. That aches could develop in areas of my body I had never considered.

It was also centering, in that I had to surrender to what my body would do. When it came time to give birth, I had no choice. I was operating on my body’s timetable. Not my mind’s.

When I realized I was going to have a girl, I thought hard about the body image struggles I had gone through in the past. I thought about the hospitalizations of my youth, and the days when, at rock bottom, I accepted that anorexia meant I was probably going to die. I thought about not wanting to pass that along to my daughter, and more specifically taking active steps to not model any body destructive behavior in front of her.

And so, as with my recovery, I ate. I ate and ate and ate. I grew. And this time, so did she.

This original essay first appeared in DISORDERED a zine on eating disorders feminism and anti-oppression…

The Push To “Lose The Baby Weight” Is Bunk

The social and psychological push to “lose the baby weight” is among the crappier things we do to new moms. There is, even during pregnancy, a fixation on “getting your body back” that leads to pregnancy fat-talk, or the push to share how much weight you have gained. I have written before about why I chose not to participate in that talk, as well as my story navigating pregnancy after an eating disorder, and on having a new sense of body image after having a baby.

By now, I’m fairly good at resisting negative body image-type things. In fact, I can often completely shut down internal and external messages that conflate my worth with taking up less space. If I hadn’t — painfully — learned how to do this through the course of various medical interventions, I do believe anorexia would have prevailed and I would be dead. This does not mean I don’t hear the pressure to lose the baby weight. I hear it loud and clear. And I find it irritating.

Yes, losing the baby weight is most definitely something other people do and do care about, and my eating disorder culture police siren isn’t chasing after them. It is not feminist to judge others in a different lane in life. I can appreciate the drive to want to fit into more of your old clothes, and to “feel like yourself again.” But I would, again, like to push back against a broader frame that asserts that a pregnant body and a body after giving birth belongs to anyone but the person in it.

There is strong overlap between eating disorder culture, voyeur culture, and an anti-modern fundamentalist culture that denies the existence of reproductive rights. I have written about this before in the context of why I chose not to post pregnancy photos to Facebook. To boil it down more essentially, modern pregnancy is a spectator sport, socially, and an increasingly church- and state-controlled sport, physically, and these two phenomena support each other. At the core is a belief that having a baby is an other-worldly condition, something that doesn’t belong to a woman herself, which is rather funny as the process of giving birth is, once initiated, an unavoidable, unstoppable total body experience for women.

In this context, body hatred and shame, within the frames of losing the baby weight and getting your body back, operate to support the idea that your body does not belong to you right now. Before birth, during birth, and even after birth. It is as if, with regards to pregnancy, a woman’s body is not allowed to change, and if it does, that woman’s true body is seen as a state in the past, captured in photographs or pant sizes gone by, while the state of present is simply a misshapen shell to be rejected.

Body hatred as a general state operates to keep women in a second-class status by making us prisoners of our appearance; by obliterating our self-worth; by robbing us of time, energy, and in many cases nutrients; by pitting us in competition with what appears to be other women but what is actually an unattainable state for all; by caging us from within. All of this continues with the fixation on the pregnant and post-pregnant body. But there is an additional punch: The social and psychological rejection of a pregnant body as “that woman’s body” from a hot-or-not standpoint operates to support the increasing violation of pregnant women’s civil and human rights. If that body isn’t yours now, then it’s easier to suggest that a statute written by a pen passed between politicians and clergy should trump you in moments of life, death, and great weight. This is one way that the psychological rejection of the pregnant and post-pregnant body is so serious.

But it’s most of all serious in the immediate experience of women who find themselves under pressure to not accept their bodies as they are now, before, and after giving birth. Having a new baby means you are usually tired all the time; if the pressure to lose weight is followed to its logical end of dieting and restriction, new moms may feel starving as well as tired. Giving birth is a moment of profound strength. It’s simply disgusting that a woman who has given birth should, as a matter of cultural expectation, then look at her body and reject it. This year I intentionally chose not to make a New Year’s resolution to lose my remaining “baby weight,” which I am reminded, when I look at my adorable daughter rolling on the floor, is actually “my weight.” She deserves better goals from me, and I, like any woman, deserve to accept myself as I am today.

P.S. – I feel it is nearly inevitable that this post will receive a comment about “health.” We are trained to equate less weight with “health,” and I not only reject that, but also identify it as a critical Jenga piece in eating disorder culture. Concern-trolling about health as a means to push weight loss upon post-pregnant people (or anyone else, for that matter), is not legitimate in a cultural context. Your doctor can credibly claim you need to lose weight for health reasons but the peanut gallery is not qualified to do so.

What Do I Say To Someone With An Eating Disorder?

What do I say to my friend or family member with an eating disorder? How can I help? Is it possible for me to fix it?

As a survivor of anorexia and an advocate for body acceptance, I get asked these questions all the time. This makes me sick, since it reminds me that if I had a magic wand to make eating disorders go away forever I would wave until my arm fell off, but it also reminds me that my arm is still here and I keep getting asked for more people.

First things first: I am neither a medical professional nor a licensed therapist. I am merely someone who nearly died because of anorexia, spent even more time suffering a whole bunch, and fought her way through to the other side.

Please engage with professionals who can truly help your loved one. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and a host of resources I urge you to check out.

What I have said to many others is based on my experience as a survivor who lost some friends along the way. I have less to suggest in terms of what to do or say, and more in terms of things to not do or say.

Do offer your unconditional love and support. What I most needed were people to love me, not fix me. Leave the treatment to the professionals and don’t try to be “the enforcer” of healthier habits. The “I’ll save you” path isn’t likely to go far, and it can also make it harder for the person to come to you later if they need help. They may not want to let you down when they are slipping. At least, this is the way I was.

Knowing that you will always be there and love them — no matter what — is a powerful weapon that may ultimately support a recovery process led by the person with the eating disorder and the professional team supporting them.

Don’t engage in “fat talk” — about them, or yourself. Your loved one doesn’t need to hear you tell them that you feel fat, or that you ate something “good” or “bad.” And while you don’t want to be dismissive if they bring up their body or eating or exercise with you (after all, it’s probably dominating their thoughts), you certainly don’t need to play the eating disorder-affirming game of good foods and bad foods, fat clothes and skinny clothes, hot bodies and ugly bodies.

Don’t comment on their appearance. “You look good,” or “you look healthy” were horrible swords thrown at me by well-meaning people. Sometimes I used these comments as reasons to be proud of horrible things I had done to myself. Other times I would use them as proof that I needed to punish myself further. You simply don’t need to comment on their appearance. Stay out of it. Comment on and compliment them for who they are, not what they look like or what they are eating.

Don’t participate in trigger activities. Your loved one may most want to suggest activities that serve their eating disorder, such as exercising, going for a long walk, trying on clothes at the mall, baking a batch of cookies (maybe only for others to eat, a common eating disorder behavior), or going to a buffet to eat. Not lecturing them about these activities would be good, but that doesn’t mean that you need to participate. Find other healthy things to do together.

Do support them getting professional help. If your loved one has an eating disorder, support them in getting professional help. No, you don’t have to be the enforcer, but you can support them by scheduling fun group activities at times when they are not going to therapy, not disparaging therapists or anti-depressants and similar drugs, and the like. Further, if they haven’t taken that first step yet, you can share with them names and telephone numbers of places where they can get help and assure them it’s strong, not weak, to reach out for support.

Good luck and I am so sorry for the experiences that have led you to read this.

A Body (Image) Changed: On Pregnancy, Breastfeeding And Eating Disorders

From a self-image standpoint, taking my maternity clothes out of my chest of drawers and putting my old clothes back in has been the hardest part of my pregnancy, childbirth and new mothering journey. This might have been the same if I hadn’t had anorexia, but I don’t know.

My body has changed. My old clothes don’t fit the way they used to. I am larger, rounder and my softer spots gather in different places. Do I have a pouf above a flat spot because I had a cesarean section, or is that the way my body processes any manner of birth? I don’t know.

To put away the maternity clothes ends the imprimatur of “a wild time” when my body was doing something rather than simply being something (me). I was mostly okay before. In response to overwhelming pressures pregnant women and mothers get to engage in body image negativity, I could clutch an ancillary detail and say: Fuck you, I’m pregnant. Or: Fuck you, I’m having a girl. Or: Fuck you, I had a baby. Or: Fuck you, I’m feeding a baby. But now it’s simply time to survive as a mother, a woman, a human being. In this paradigm my best choice is to look at that belly fat, those lines around my eyes, this body I’ve never had, not in this way, and say: Fuck yeah.

It’s fun.

Putting away the maternity clothes forced me to face the facts. My body doesn’t look different today because I’m pregnant, or because I just had a baby. My body looks different today because it is different. Accepting this, the difference of a new day with a body, versus a comparison to an ideal of what a person thinks her body once was or someday should be, is both difficult and joyous. For me, having this baby forced this issue.

What I wouldn’t have predicted is this: Breastfeeding is the second-best thing that has happened to my body image, just behind recovering from my eating disorders years ago. Yes, breastfeeding. Not getting through pregnancy. Not getting through childbirth. Breastfeeding.

To watch my daughter cry when she’s hungry and eat only until she is full. To think about how I treat my body directly impacting how well she will be able to feed. To, unlike pregnancy, see the results every day.

She is growing. She is healthy. She is happy. She is thriving. She is strong.

And, fuck yeah, so am I.

How Much Weight Have You Gained? On Pregnancy And Fat Talk

“How much weight have you gained?” If I gained a pound for every time someone has asked me that question during the course of my pregnancy, I would beat everyone at see-saw for the rest of my life. Instead, I generally answer with, “I’m not going to answer that question,” because I believe in granting anyone listening permission to rethink the appropriateness of this common routine. It’s okay to refuse to answer a personal question you didn’t invite. It’s okay to not ask women to recount statistics about their bodies in lieu of asking how to support their experiences within them. It’s okay to opt-out of fat talk, including pregnancy-specific strains of fat talk. Fat talk is a profane part of the lives of women and girls.

Defined simply, fat talk is a negative “my body sucks” conversation that takes place between women. It is a game of one-downwomanship that often goes like this:

– “I can’t believe I ate that.”
– “No, look at me, I had [this bad food] and [that bad food] last night.”
– “No, no, no, I’m so bad, I haven’t been to the gym in [a certain length of time].”
– “Yeah, well look at my ass in these jeans. I am so fat. No wonder I’m single.”
– And on, and on, and on, women saying horrible things about themselves that most would not say openly to their worst enemy’s face.

As someone who is pregnant and has a history of an eating disorder that nearly killed me, and someone who is thinking very deliberately about the kind of behavior I want to model for my future daughter and her friends, I experience pregnancy fat-talk as a one-two ladle full of bullshit punch:

In a social context, how much weight I have gained is irrelevant to my experience of pregnancy. If it were truly relevant, a doctor would have pointed it out to me, and if I wanted help from others in gaining weight at either a slower or faster clip, believe me, I would ask. Just like I would ask for your help if I thought you were the right person to help me avoid a urinary tract infection, a yeast infection or any other issue related to my reproductive health.

In a statistical context, how much weight I have gained is neither an accomplishment nor a tragedy. I am having a baby. My body is, amazingly, doing what it needs to do to pull off this particular pregnancy. My pre-pregnancy weight, my post-pregnancy weight and the so-called time it takes to “get my body back” — one of the most offensive of all fat talk frames placed around pregnant women, for I’m certain this is my body now and will remain mine in any and all shapes it takes — these are like toxic body culture baseball card statistics for women. Except unlike baseball cards, the statistics don’t revolve around our accomplishments as pregnant women (not throwing up during the meeting! continuing to experience physical strength! dodging bigoted lawmakers who want to regulate our every move!), but disembodied numbers that encourage judgement from others and worse, ourselves.

Like lots of women on the brink of having a daughter, there is so much I want to give her a chance to experience. Near the top of that list is comfort in her own skin, in spite of what I have experienced painfully and personally as a toxic body culture that is especially awful for young women. In a study recently covered by The New York Times, 93 percent of college women said they engage in fat talk.  I hope that all little girls will grow up not feeling the pressure to trash themselves on the basis of food behaviors and body measurements that say nothing meaningful about their experiences and worth as human beings. I hope that instead all little girls will grow up proud to share their accomplishments and experiences with one another, seeing this practice as a source for joy and collective strength, rather than bragging or an attack on the status of others. We have so much power that can not be pinned to a number, or a shape, or whatever the latest ridiculous comments are about Kim Kardashian’s appearance as a pregnant woman.

It is for the little girl who will soon be mine that I am refusing to participate in pregnancy fat talk. It is for the friends she will someday have. Also, proudly, it is for me.

Swapping Oppressions Is Bad Organizing: Why “Fitch The Homeless” Is No Good

Let’s say the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch explains that his stores don’t sell clothing for larger women, while they do for men, because they only want to market to “the cool kids.” This is outrageous and worthy of action, something many of us have done (myself included — here’s my open letter about eating disorder culture to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch).

Action is applying pressure to a decision-maker to bring about a change. There are many ways to take action. In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, a corporation dependent upon success in the consumer market, some of the most obvious routes to change include letter writing, petitions, demonstrations and meetings — basically direct “look at me here” actions targeting the company itself. Public pressure of this kind makes sense not just because Abercrombie & Fitch makes its own decisions about what clothing lines it will carry, and what kind of CEO behavior they are willing to tolerate, but also because it is motivated to have a brand that sells.

Successful organizing often entails not angering your natural allies. You want the focus to remain on your cause, not on a newly created controversy of your own making. This is why a recent viral effort called “Fitch the Homeless,” a campaign where some disgusted with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch started giving away his clothes to homeless people and videotaping it in order to allegedly tarnish his “cool kid” brand was so off-base. Using homeless people as props is simply offensive. It does nothing to dispel eating disorder culture. Further, it does not help homeless people with issues they are facing (in fact, one of the larger issues in helping the chronically homeless is establishing trust — and how does forcing them to become part of a viral video campaign in which they are expected to play part of a joke do anything but erode trust toward those who say they want to help?). Finally, it alienates potential allies who are justifiably angry with the dangerous and as-yet unrecanted words and policy of an eating-disorder culture promoting CEO.

Takeaway for organizers: Don’t take advantage of vulnerable people to make a point. Trust that your message is strong enough to stand on its own two feet — introducing one oppression to end another doesn’t work.

Update: Response To Open Letter About Eating Disorder Culture To CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Late last night, I received the following response to my open letter to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch about his comments that larger women aren’t part of the “cool kids”, and that’s why his stores sell larger sizes for men and not for women:

(bolding mine)
Erin,
Thanks for emailing into Abercrombie & Fitch.
While I am unable to escalate this letter straight to our CEO, we understand that what our CEO said has offended many of our customers and we are taking all feedback for review. I will make sure your feedback is reviewed by the appropriate business department.
Akira
Customer Service
Abercrombie & Fitch
Check us out!
This means comments are being heard, and change could be in the offing soon. The more pressure, the more likely we are to see a change. Please take a few minutes right away to write your own letter to Abercrombie & Fitch. It matters. The link to write your comment is here. Thank you!

Please Don’t Promote Eating Disorder Culture: An Open Letter To The CEO Of Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie & Fitch
Mike Jeffries, CEO
6200 Fitch Path
New Albany, OH 43054

May 8, 2013

Dear Mike,

As an anorexia survivor and a soon-to-be mother of a little girl, I am writing to request you recant your statements explaining why Abercrombie & Fitch offers sizes XL and XXL for men, but won’t carry larger size clothing for women:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

As you know, your market is primarily “kids,” or young adults who are at an age most specially prone to eating disorders. As many as 10 million women and girls in the United States alone suffer from anorexia or bulimia — and 95 percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26, the core of your target market. These facts make your statements particularly heartbreaking.

I’m writing because I believe your statements hold dangerous power, more than you may realize. For many but not all young people the Abercrombie & Fitch brand is an arbiter of cool. I’ve been a babysitter before, and seen how important it is to many tweens to have your labels showing. How devastating for a young woman who hates her body, as too many do, to realize that your store doesn’t sell larger size clothing because you say she’s not cool, she can’t belong, she’s a loser.

In high school and early college I fought tooth and nail for my life. During one hospitalization, a fellow patient went out on a day pass and won a modeling contest while she was still wearing her hospital bracelet. That’s not “cool,” that’s cruel. To send her a message to keep up the good work killing yourself! To send others a message that the most beautiful woman in the world is a corpse. While it’s impossible to expect the entire fashion and modeling industries will change tomorrow, it is quite possible for you to make some positive clarifying statements about the humanity and inherent worth possessed by people of all shapes, sizes and bodies.

It would mean a lot. Thinking about your comments nearly brought tears to my eyes. During one of my rougher periods with anorexia, I was not eligible to participate in my physical education class but still had to show up in order to graduate. There was a gymnastics routine that everyone else needed to complete in front of the entire class. A larger girl was forced to do somersaults across a room in front of 30 classmates, several of whom audibly laughed and called her a “fatty” and “loser” and “whale.” I remember going home that night and sobbing to my mother, my decrepit body shaking with fury. “How could they do that to her? Don’t they know what they are doing? And why didn’t I speak up?”

I wasn’t ready to speak up then. I am now, and I welcome you to join me. Not creating larger size clothing for women, while creating it for men, is discriminatory. Making negative statements about larger people, especially larger women, and most especially larger women who fit in your target market of teens and young adults, is part of an eating disorder culture that kills.

I know you can do better than this, and look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Erin Matson

Why I Am Not Posting Pregnancy Photos To Facebook

I am a pregnant woman. Never in my adult life have I had fewer rights under the law, more intrusive comments and questions from people in the public space. I don’t need to be objectified any more than I already am. This is not a body for you to glance at, scroll down, expand the window, draw your own conclusions about and “Like.”

That is why I am not posting pregnancy photos to Facebook.

We, as a culture, live in public. I, as a human being, made a strategic decision to live in public several years ago. I believe that a woman telling her story has the power to change society.

That is why I rely strongly on personal narrative, because I want you to know I’m proud to be pregnant and pro-choice, I’m proud to be pregnant and an eating disorder survivor, and I want you to be proud to be whoever you are and tell your stories without shame — whether you relate to my experiences or not.

So why am I drawing the line at pregnancy photos?

Because I want to share my pregnancy in the way I experience it and choose to share it, not in a way for others to see it and choose to interpret it.

Because carrying a wanted pregnancy is an act of immense love and sacrifice that is, at its core, an astonishing and sacred experience of beauty. For me. This time.

Others’ experiences are, I’m sure, different.

I am fortunate to have, to be able to have, a loving spouse with whom to share doubts, fears, glee, joy and stomach troubles during these most private of times.

I am offended to imagine breaking the spell of our intimacy as a couple and family, and my integrity to sense of self as seen fit to share by posing, anticipating others looking at me and calling it “cute.”

A number of friends have begged for photos. I know you mean well. I know you want to share this time with me. I am happy to “Like” your pregnancy photos if you choose to share them with me. I encourage you to be happy that I am sharing this time in my life on my level.

If you are itching to honor me during this time, or do something quick online to lift my spirits because I’m pregnant and my back hurts, I will point you directly to the Meet the Press website where you can, in solidarity, share your alarm that recently they had one token woman against reproductive rights and four men discussing the new six-week abortion ban in North Dakota, the most restrictive abortion law on the books. By presenting reproductive rights as a matter of public morality, mainly as judged by men, rather than the lived and incredibly visceral experiences of individual women, the mainstream media is colluding in the massive infringement of my civil and human rights.

When the silencing of people like me in mainstream media and public policy is so extreme, it is hard for me to get excited about the voyeurism of cutesy pregnancy mania on social media. It is hard for me to believe the pressure to perform for the camera and the pressure to keep my mouth shut about my human rights are not interconnected.

Maybe if we all get together socially and “Like” one other’s pregnancies it will be okay. But it’s not. One of us might find ourselves pregnant and in the wrong place at the wrong time. And then, in the name of someone else’s abstract notions of morality enforced by the state, one of us might die. Or have a forced C-section. Or be incarcerated or detained because we were pregnant.

I refuse to be a smiling snapshot of this awful era for pregnant women. Opting out is my act of difference. Speaking out is my act of defiance.

Podcast On Pregnancy, Eating Disorders, Body Image And Feminism

I did a new podcast with Fully Engaged Feminism on pregnancy, eating disorders, body image and feminism.

I first spoke out about my experience with Pregnancy After An Eating Disorder on this blog late last year, and in response the lovely feminist writer Amy Choi interviewed me for Feministing and added her insights.

I’m not done speaking out. I’m not going to shut up. When I first started researching resources for pregnant women who have struggled with eating disorders or body image issues, I found very little. There is a bit of medical management information for those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and actively have an eating disorder today. But little about pregnancy after an eating disorder, or even negative self-image struggles.

I’m not shutting up because I know there are tons of women out there like me — women who are in recovery, who don’t need medical support to manage the pregnancy, who don’t see much out there on the Internets acknowledging our existence. Some of us want to know how to stop the old Body Image Beelzebubs from coming back. Some of us want to know how to tell them to be quiet. Some of us don’t need a “how-to,” necessarily, but simply want an acknowledgement that body shame is a) real and b) sure becomes a focal point during pregnancy.

Given the lack of information out there, I intend to keep speaking up and sharing my experiences, and encourage others who feel comfortable to do the same. Sometimes we need to create the thing we wish already existed.

Anyway, check out the new podcast. We had a terrific time and I’m so grateful to Laura for having me on. She also made a sick good pan of vegan brownies and taught me how to make a podcast. Gratitude.

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