When Someone Asks If You’re Pregnant … And You’re Not

Yesterday, I was checking out at the vet when the receptionist smiled. “I shouldn’t ask this,” she said, looking at what I thought was my wallet. “Is that a baby bump?”

“No,” I said.

Where is my dog? Bring back my dog. It’s time to get out of here. 

The dog came back. I played it cool, smiled at the receptionist even. The dog wagged her tail as we walked to the car.

And then I cried for thirty minutes in stop-and-go traffic, on my way to pick up my daughter.

Apparently I’m fat, I thought. And then my thoughts got very, very ugly. I used to have an eating disorder — anorexia nearly killed me. Since yesterday afternoon I have encountered the ugliest body-image thoughts I’ve had in more than a decade.

On this blog I have written extensively about my experience with pregnancy after an eating disorder and related concerns. Less than a month ago I served as a keynote speaker and did a workshop on pregnancy and postpartum concerns at an eating disorder recovery event hosted by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt. I spoke honestly, as a person in recovery who has been doing damn well for a long time.

It is because of this, in part, that I want to be honest. Recovery is not always easy, and things can come up and bite you in the ass out of nowhere. Living in recovery means confronting those inconveniences at inconvenient times.

What happened yesterday hurts me so much.

I cried another round telling my husband later last night. I was ashamed to tell him, for fear he would see me differently.

Shame is the dominant emotion I feel, which raises a flag. Shame is what is causing me to write about this incident openly and honestly now. I have long felt that unmasking shame is at the heart of the feminist project, that when we talk about shame it loses its power to keep us down.

It is shame telling me my body is not acceptable, when I know perfectly well that my body is healthy and a gift and powers this amazing life that is mine. It is shame telling me to feel bad personally, when in reality we should all feel bad about a culture that deems it acceptable to comment on women’s bodies and make pregnancy (actual or presumed) a spectator sport. It is shame telling me that you will look at me differently after reading this post, staring at my stomach and judging me, when in reality if that is true I should grab my dog and get away from you as quickly as I can.

A good piece of what has made me cry so hard is being forced to have the ghosts of my eating disorder engage in open combat with my political beliefs of today. I know better, and I also want better; being forced to contend with a reality I very much don’t like — being the weight my body wants to be, getting assessed and confronted by others on the basis of how I look, considering the civil rights implications of presumed pregnancies — is unpleasant.

Another piece revolves around my daughter. She watches everything I do, even when I think she’s not, and mimics my behaviors to hilarious precision. If I hate my body, I am teaching her to hate her own. If I let an idiot comment stop me from moving forward, I am teaching her to do the same thing.

I refuse to do that. Not just for her. For me. And frankly, for all of us.

In Response To A Reader Who Calls Herself A Pro-Life Feminist

Recently, I had a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post: A pro-life feminist? There’s no such thing. In this letter I argue that “Feminism is an action agenda to secure the social, legal and political equality of women. Supporting policies and practices that help that agenda is what makes a person a feminist. The concept of a pro-life feminist is untenable because restrictions upon abortion deny women their agency as moral decision-makers and dignity as human beings.”

In response to this letter I received an email from someone who does consider herself a pro-life feminist. I would like to respond to her message seriously, and so I’m quoting her letter in full:

Dear Ms. Matson,

In your letter to the editor in the Washington Post today you stated that it is impossible for a person to be both pro-life and a feminist. Since I am both please allow me to explain my thinking. I believe that the unborn are human beings and therefore should not be deprived of life. (I don’t believe I need to make the case that slightly less than half of all unborn babies are female to support my self-labeled feminism.) I would ask that you not deny me my ‘agency as a moral decision maker’ and accept my definition of myself as a pro-life feminist. I contribute to organizations and schools which provide education for historically poorly served populations of girls and young women so that some day they may achieve financial security, be able to afford reliable family planning and enjoy motherhood free of fears about supporting their children. I consider it a feminist action to support the education of these young women and girls.

Thank you for this opportunity to express my thoughts.

I am grateful for this letter. While it does not disprove my argument, it does represent another point of view and I’d like to use it as an opportunity to dig deeper.

Before addressing this letter directly I feel it’s critical to raise the broader context in which this discussion is taking place. We live in an age when a primary form of outright opposition to feminism is a systemic and contradictory strategy to redefine feminism.

The first common iteration of an argument to support this strategy says feminism is worthless because equality has already been achieved and any woman who says otherwise is a weak and self-victimizing whiner.

The second argument keeps the basic idea that equality has been achieved but serves to support the status quo by, paradoxically, declaring feminism a good thing and then co-opting that definition to turn it into an identity for individuals, frequently ‘strong conservative women,’ who work against equality and justice for women as a class through support of things like corporate deregulation, assault weapons on demand, and religious fundamentalism masquerading as ‘institutional conscience’ (as opposed to the whining women who are working for laws, policies, and culture shifts that will empower women, such as raising the minimum wage, ratifying an Equal Rights Amendment, and ensuring access to health care — including reproductive health care — as a basic human right).

Briefly, these two claims are untrue and rest on wildly faulty premises. Equality has not been achieved. Feminism is a movement and not an identity. Opponents of equality and justice have a strong investment in painting feminism as an individual characteristic; it’s much easier to demonize feminists as man-hating harridans than it is to praise white male supremacy.

Yet a third common iteration of this strategy to undermine and redefine feminism accepts that equality has been achieved, or is at least theoretically achievable immediately, if only women would make smarter choices and stop being their own worst enemies. This is an area where in particular the anti-sexuality fundamentalists love to flutter their batons. Of course women are equal, they argue. They just can’t have sex unless they are prepared to have a baby or pay for their own contraception, because that’s the way the world just works. It’s about personal responsibility!

We live in an age where pregnancy is viewed as a consequence of something you did to yourself. While this personal responsibility frame may appear gender neutral, it is women as a class who are disadvantaged. Men are free to have their health care needs recognized as health care needs rather than something “extra.” Women, on the other hand, have the specific health care needs related to their sexuality and reproductive health consigned to questions of “morality,” or “difficult social issues,” or even the supernatural — mystifying the basic truths that pregnancy is produced by heterosexual sex and a baby is produced by a woman giving birth.

These attitudes feed into discrimination against the accessibility and coverage of reproductive health care that must be available to women as a necessary precondition of their social and legal equality. Let’s repeat that again, because it’s important: Women cannot be equal without access to and coverage of all forms of reproductive health care, whether or not they use them. 

This view that pregnancy is something you did to yourself also feeds into a bunch of seemingly unrelated bullshit social narratives – that women as a class make less money or occupy fewer positions of power because they are individually “deciding” to have children, that women as a class are more subject to dependence on public assistance that must be made less available by government because otherwise women are too individually “licentious” or “slutty” and won’t keep their legs shut, and overwhelmingly that women as a class can rise above a world largely run by white men and white male dominance in their capacity as individual women by being good girls and making bomb-ass choices.

We can’t gloss too quickly over the fact that men are largely free to engage in heterosexual sex without these consequences. We should carefully pause on arguments that the unique reproductive capabilities of the female body come with unique responsibilities that must be borne by women, rather than accommodated by society as routine human needs in the form of health care.

In essence, the freedom of men to have sex without being consigned to a second class social, legal, and economic status, coupled with the freedom of men to have their bodies accepted as bodies and part of medicine rather than vessels of sin and consequences is the screaming, blinking reason why there is no such thing as a pro-life feminist. You can’t mystify a woman’s body and disrespect her decisions and be a feminist. Even if you are a woman  yourself.

Back to the letter-writer, though. I want to be sure to respond to her distinct points:

I do respect her ability to self-define and especially make her own decisions, and, as I said in the original letter she was responding to, it is possible to never have an abortion yourself (or even swear you would never have an abortion yourself) and still be a feminist; the issue lies in your approach to other women.

Self-definition is not rooted in the control of others. Furthermore, feminism is not rooted in the control of women; coercion around the issue of pregnancy is pure and naked control of women. Ultimately, however, this is not an issue of self-definition.

Whether or not the letter-writer agrees, she is appropriating the label of feminism so long as she continues to believe that individual women should not be respected in their decisions around sexuality and pregnancy.

I am grateful the letter writer donates to education for women and girls, and retain hope that she may someday open her heart, mind, and even wallet to the inherent dignity and humanity of other women — even if they are sexual, and even if they may not make the same decisions she does.

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…

Video: June 2014 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on a recent episode of To The Contrary, and discussed home births, Pope Francis offering advice to have more children, and the World Bank and advancing progress for women worldwide. You can watch a video of the show here or here:

Also, I recently appeared on the awesome podcast Fortnight on the Internets, run by my hilarious and incisive friends Alison the Business Casual and Alpine McGregor. We discussed online misogyny and #YesAllWomen. You can listen to that here.

 

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.

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.

I Had A Baby

He is seven paces in front of me when I realize he is too far away. The pain and fear take over my body, move toward each other, join into one awful spot in my back. I stand still, hoping nobody will notice. We have been through this routine so many times, moving wordlessly through the grocery store, dividing and conquering. For the previous three nights we have also been in labor all night long, not sleeping, squeezing hands when a new contraction starts, breathing together, he timing, me moaning if it gets that bad, occasionally crying or screaming or swearing, having the dog lean against my leg and breathe meaningfully as if to coach me along, and unfortunately, not really dilating. It is hell.

The contraction passes. I catch up to him. “Don’t walk away from me,” I say, allowing the panic to show on my face, hoping only he can see it. Being overly pregnant in public has its issues. People make jokes (are they jokes?) that they don’t want to be on an elevator with you, “just in case.”

He asks if we need to go home. “Nothing is going to happen,” I say, frustration creeping into my voice. “We know that nothing is going to happen. Just stay close to me.” We stand close together for several contractions throughout the store, choosing cereal, juice and pasta. In the space between the deli and the cheese I realize this is getting serious again. This isn’t the daytime labor I’d been hiding through conference calls that week, the kind where you can close your eyes, press your back against the chair and push your palms flat into the table. This is evening labor coming back, the almost-real deal, with contractions strong, long and close together. They play by the rules of when you are supposed to go to the hospital. And then I get nothing.

Standing in front of a display with ready-made dip I realize this isn’t going to work, although it — playing it cool, getting the groceries, having a baby — has to work. I am terrified. The pain is strong. When will this end? He stands with me, we try to make it look natural, I murmur that we are going to need to pick up some deli food for dinner to keep it simple, okay, I am indecisive and having contractions that stop us so it takes awhile but we do that, and then we leave.

In the car, I begin to cry. I have never loved my husband as much as this terrible moment. I was alone in public, but I could trust him, and so then we were alone in a bustling fucking grocery store, standing there, two statues waiting for the wind to blow.

Having been through three nights of it, the evening is, predictably, a nightmare. Some screaming, some crying, mostly resignation, a “k” coming out of my mouth or a squeeze from my hand when it is time to start the timer. By this point I am not ready to trust my body to direct us to the hospital unless there is a tiny hand sticking out of the cuff on my pants. I believe there is no way this baby is going to come fast, by the side of the road, although I wish.

By 3:45 a.m. we are downstairs with the lights on, “watching” a TV show to the extent that is possible. Finally I break down. We call the doctor again. He explains that he knows I have not been dilating, but less than five minutes apart and over a minute long is a big deal. (Believe me, it felt that way the last three nights.) The only way we can know is to go to the hospital. We draw out leaving as long as we can, and at 5 a.m. my husband suggests we just try lying down to see what happens. We haven’t slept since Sunday night. Exhausted, we lie there holding hands, squeezing them through contractions, breathing together, and then sleeping for the three or four minutes in between them. It is sweet, sad and intimate. The sleep is too precious, and we call the hospital and let them know we’re not intending to come over just yet.

Around 9 a.m. we call one of the OB-GYNs we have been seeing. I try to talk, and then burst into tears, unable to speak. He takes the phone for me and communicates our questions. It is time to go to the hospital for the third time in five days. Here goes nothing, I think.

Every time I see someone in the maternity ward I feel like we’re crashing a car into someone’s bedroom. There is a memory that continues to haunt me from 4:30 in the morning two nights before, a couple by the elevator.  Her husband trying to help. The sounds she made. The movement of her leg. The invasiveness of our presence, our pillows, our being sent home next to an illuminated elevator button not changing quickly enough. The day before, when we had been sent over for fetal monitoring after the doctor was concerned at a routine appointment and told us to be prepared for an induction on the spot, another woman had been standing by the entry desk. Uncomfortable and trying to play it cool like me. And with all three visits, exhausted and intense men darting out for supplies to bring back into labor and delivery rooms.

In the hospital, juice is served in a humiliating fashion, these tiny little cups that can never satiate you when you’re dehydrated. You need a straw and from the bed, attached to the monitors, the juice drips on your gown. Finally, this third day in the hospital, nurses sympathize with my totally terrible fucking “prodromal labor,” as I learn it is called. (Later, I will learn the total adventure was also back labor.) By this point I am swearing constantly, which I am assured is just fine to do. “Try to surprise us,” the nurses say. “We’ve seen it all.”

I have grown most familiar with the labor and delivery room beds. There is a digital LED clock moving needlessly slow in the upper right corner, drawing out the days. Fortunately upon arrival I am dilated 2.5 centimeters. I nearly cry with joy. We agree to induce labor around what would have been lunchtime if I hadn’t failed to eat the vegetarian sushi picked up at the grocery store the night before, and observe every other meal or snack interval following that. By 4:30 p.m. I am receiving pitocin, which will induce additional contractions on top of the ones my husband and I have been breathing through all day.

To speed things up, the doctor comes in and breaks my water after the pitocin begins to drip. It is a hot gush that keeps coming out with subsequent contractions. It is difficult to be bothered by the soaking and bloody pads I’m sitting on, because these contractions hurt like hell. For four hours my focus is so painfully narrow, on breathing and the pain. I start to get too frustrated and my husband knocks me back into shape. “Don’t get frustrated,” he says firmly. His eyes never stray, and when mine do he speaks up.

I need an epidural. In advance, I had planned to use pain medication only if I needed it. I need it. I tell a nurse that I need it at 7:30 p.m. and it doesn’t arrive until 9:36 p.m. Within five minutes my field of vision expands from the kaleidoscope that was the LED clock, my husband’s eyes and the pain. My nurse has light blue nail polish on. I compliment her. The epidural works. I can’t feel any contractions anymore, as strong as they are. We watch an episode of LOST on the iPad and then nap through the contractions until 2:36 a.m., when I wake up with a nurse standing beside me.

“Uh-oh,” she says. My husband is sleeping in the corner, calm on his face. Suddenly everything moves fast. The print out of my contractions shows dramatic lines strong and close together, whereas the fetal monitoring line has reacted in a way that makes the nurse nervous. She tells me so. I ask if she is going to slow down the pitocin. She says she has already cut it off. A doctor is in the room. I need to have the baby now. We are going to do an emergency cesarean section. My body is shaking uncontrollably. My throat begins to close. My husband wakes up and walks over. I cannot calm down. I am terrified. 40 weeks and six days pregnant. What if we lose her?

The shaking will not go away. The nurse says bodies do that sometimes when they are ready to go into labor. But beyond that, I cannot calm down. My husband tries to calm me down. He is trying so hard. We are both trying so hard. It doesn’t work. I stammer, “I need a logic puzzle, something else to think about. Help me.” We realize that going through the presidents of the United States, backwards, is what I can handle. When we exhaust those, we go through the states from north to south, west to east. He is holding my hand and helping me remember them as I am wheeled into the operating room, tears running down my face, no longer whispering, “I am so afraid.”

I am nauseous and alone in the operating room, behind a vertical blue sheet. Top 40 music is playing on the radio. My husband is gone for a few minutes that seem longer than my collective 34 hours staring at the labor and delivery room clocks, returning in scrubs and a face mask. I continue shaking. The C-section is not painful, but there is heavy pressure and pulling on my abdomen. It ends.

They tell us we can pull away the sheet to the right of my head. She is crying and flailing her arms. “I am going to throw up,” I whisper. There is a kidney-bean shaped yellow pan to the left side of my head. I turn, dry heaving several times as she screams. Finally I vomit, and I’m able to turn right again, lift the sheet once more and watch my little girl.

Her story begins here, in a plastic tray surrounded by doctors as her parents watched from a short distance beneath a red clock that said 3:32 a.m. on Saturday, June 8, 2013. I suspect her story is and will remain much more interesting than mine, but that’s for her to sort out. Remarkably for me, I had a baby.

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.

Babies Exposed Online! Privacy And The New Mom

Tearing through the finish line is something you’re supposed to do with triumphant arms in the air, running as fast as you can, but this is me nearing the end of my pregnancy so I’ll take this this brief respite from waddling to the bathroom to blog about the pressure to post photographs of one’s baby online.

Previously, I made a wildly unpopular decision to not post pregnancy photos to Facebook, and to opt out of baby bump and pregnancy mania digital voyeurism in general. Now I anticipate virtually everyone who knows me and wants to see BABY PICTURES SO MANY BABY PICTURES OF A BABY IN A HAT AS SOON AS I GIVE BIRTH AND THEN ALL THE TIME FOREVER is going to look at the screen and scream once more, because I have some pretty negative feelings about the pressure to post baby photographs online.

Here are the issues, as I see them:

Encouraging and respecting individuality, individual expression and free will are some of my highest values, and this extends to my initial thoughts about parenting. As I see it, my baby is going to be her own person and it’s one of my jobs to create as much space as I can to encourage her to be herself. This is especially poignant to me as a feminist expecting a daughter in a world that objectifies women and girls. My contention is not her participation in digital culture itself: I understand that as she gets older she may pose for and post photographs online. However, I tend to feel that in a digital space those are choices for her to make on her own, not choices for me to make for her.

Social networking photographs are forever. It seems we are in an unprecedented time for digital representations of childhood. When I was growing up, there was no permanent search engine trail of photographs in the tub waiting to someday be discovered by a recruiter looking you up before a job interview, or someone trying to hurt you. This doesn’t mean people should hide from having their photos put online, but as a future parent I am concerned about making permanent digital mistakes on behalf of a child I want to be her own person. On a separate, but related note, political hero Krystal Ball famously said the following when racy photographs from Facebook were leaked online during her 2010 run for Congress:

But I realized that photos like the ones of me, and ones much racier, would end up coming into the public sphere when women of my generation run for office. And I knew that there could be no other answer to the question than this: Society has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere. Sooner or later, this is a reality that has to be faced, or many young women in my generation will not be able to run for office.

Granted, baby photos are not sexual, and I don’t plan on trying to restrict my daughter from using social networking sites when she is of age to do so. In fact I agree with Krystal: People have to face up to our pictures and our social lives online, especially women of my age and lower, and a societal inability to do so will lead to negative political consequences. But I draw a strong distinction between someone posting photographs of herself and having a digital trail created for you by someone else without your consent.

And how many people who look at your digital presence online would you invite into your home? During the early days of life, beyond the Internet, new babies are seen by the people closest to you. People you invite in your home. People you make an effort to go see. Social networking has changed this equation, and I’m not sure for the better, especially for someone like me who maintains an Internet presence for political purposes.

This is not an attack on people who post baby photos online, which includes most of my friends with kids. I don’t judge you. Further, this is not an attack on mothers in the style of anti-feminist troll Katie Roiphe, who suggested that moms who put their children’s photos on their Facebook pages are struggling with a toxic loss of identity.

This is concern that intrusions upon my privacy, which I have experienced by the barge load during the process of pregnancy, will soon extend to a baby I want to protect. I know this thinking is very unpopular, and it is probably impossible to have a completely non-digital baby, especially when good people I care about are already begging. In any case others will probably take and tag their own pictures whether I like it or not. And for all I know, perhaps the process of having a baby and parenting will make me want to share photographs online all the time. If there’s one thing I know right now it’s that I don’t know how I am about to experience parenting. I believe preferences and viewpoints can change and that ability is a sign of strength, not weakness. But at this moment as I waddle to the finish line, I can say:

It makes me sad that so much of pregnancy and caring for a newborn — incredibly private moments — seems to have turned into visual digital performance for other people, one that can easily be objectified and made permanent without consent.

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.

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