I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and discussed fetal homicide laws, cohabitation, and women in the military:
Feminism, Writing, Activism
I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and discussed fetal homicide laws, cohabitation, and women in the military:
I get asked if I’m pregnant on the regular. At first this shit made me cry. But it’s happened so much that I’ve had to get used to it.
Sometimes I still cry.
My stomach sticks out. It has stuck out for years. I am not pregnant. I gave birth to a creative, healthy, playful girl five years ago. Today I have a tight stitch where a C-section once happened, and there’s a pouf above it that reflects my love of wine, cheese, and life.
Your reassurances that I am not fat do not help.
I have noticed that friends feel compelled to insist I’m not fat. Just because you say that I don’t look pregnant does not mean I don’t get asked this question, on average, a few times a month. Just because you say I’m so skinny doesn’t mean I won’t get asked about the baby I’m not expecting sometime real soon.
I have created a new rule:
Every time I’m asked about my pregnancy, I post a selfie to Instagram.
I love it.
It puts me back in the driver’s seat of my life.
No matter what I’m wearing, how I’m made up, or what I’m doing, I take a picture of myself and share it with people who know me, mostly in real life. I admit forthrightly what just happened. And then I move on.
When I do this, I no longer remain the person whose body is being reviewed and assessed by others. I become the person who has this body right now, and is living her life anyway.
If you get asked if you’re pregnant a lot, my recommendation is to find something to do immediately that feels good to you. Then keep doing it. Having something to draw upon that does not require thought can be helpful when hurt slaps you in the face, as it did in the comfort of my own home (indeed, no place is sacred) twelve days ago.
I’m not pregnant. My stomach sticks out. This is my body. I have survived anorexia and now, your question.
A few years ago I was asked if I was pregnant when I wasn’t, and I cried. I am open about my recovery from eating disorders, and while most of the time I can smile and tell anorexia and negative self-image to go shoe-shopping in hell, I think it’s important to acknowledge that recovery can come with bad days.
I don’t think I looked pregnant two years ago. This time, it is more likely I do. In recent weeks I’ve been asked several times if I’m pregnant by a variety of people who mean well (all of whom apologized profusely).
The reality is that my stomach protrudes. Compared to some pregnant people, I probably do look pregnant.
It’s not practical to walk around sucking in all the time. I’m not particularly interested in giving up my cute, form-fitting clothes. Most important, I don’t want to go on a diet. I know that, for me, the words diet and death are too close for comfort. And so, I’ve had to learn how to deal with people thinking I’m pregnant without turning knives into myself.
I’m not pregnant. My stomach sticks out. This is my body. It takes up space. My body takes up space in ways that some people do not readily understand.
Loving yourself is a radical act. You can hate oppressive systems and the self-doubt and presumed right to question that comes with them. You can forgive the people who push the buttons that are supposed to hurt you (though refusing to forgive can be righteous, too). You can find transcendence. I am choosing to forgive others and myself, while working to change the culture. I am finding transcendence.
The best gift I can give to myself, my activism, and the people who love me is to move on. The radical gift I have for all of us is to share this information without shame.
So you found a girl with really deep thoughts
What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts
Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon
How’s that thought for you
– Tori Amos
My period began as annoyance, embarrassment, and pain. I was a late bloomer. After years of wondering what the hell was wrong with me, my period finally came at age 15, shortly after the last bell rang on the last day of middle school. Of course I was wearing white shorts. Of course there was a pool party the next day.
Over the years, my period has represented many things to me. Growing up. That thing I don’t want on Spring Break. Black underpants. A signal that I won and anorexia lost. A wedding day menace. Crying, ecstatic relief that I’m not pregnant. A discreet circle in a paper calendar.
A way out of the broken condom and the morning after pill I picked up from Planned Parenthood (forever devotion and thank you). An app on my phone. Erin, Unplugged: No birth control! Now with more cramps!
A week without it, a near-barf in bed, and a plus sign on a white stick. One daughter and several months of blood in maxi pads. 17 months of nursing and one delicious break.
People ask me if I’m going to have another kid.
This is the weirdest question. In my experience, people feel much more comfortable asking if you want to have a second kid versus asking if you want kids when you have none. Apparently we are open books once we have given birth (and remembering the undignified way I was splayed out in mortal pain, there’s something to that).
But the question is harder to answer now. I have seen the awe-inspiring, knock-you-on-your-knees love that comes with parenting. I am frankly addicted to babies. But I’ve also lived the endless exhaustion, the sleepless nights, the high-octane screams, and the daily responsibilities that fall on me with greater heft, even with an egalitarian husband who kicks ass.
I have a career I love, I have a daughter I love, and I have a husband I love. Our life is ridiculously fortunate. There are two dogs that can be more work than the kid, and a cat who has stuck with me through every phase of my adult life.
I love babies. I want more babies.
I love my life. I don’t want more babies.
I love my work. I don’t want anyone to know I have a conflict about babies and discriminate against me.
It is love that drives my conflict about my fertility, but more practically it is time. I am 35.
Every 28 days my period comes and I don’t know whether to be sad or throw a celebration. I go to the OB-GYN and ask her if her practice is willing to accommodate vaginal birth after caesarean and also how I can get an IUD inserted next week. I find myself angry that there is no forum to talk about these feelings, that there is so much silence about the ambivalence a woman can feel about her fertility.
Perhaps what I find most unsettling during the autumn of my childbearing years is the near-intolerance our culture exhibits toward a woman who isn’t 100 percent sure what she wants. After all, telling women what to do is practically the great American pastime, and watching our bodies and judging our sexuality is a sport with millions of male and female referees. If we’re not trying to tell women what to do, we hate-pity them instead. Oh it’s so sad she can’t figure it out. Hope she finds a way to deal with it.
It’s not just social bullshit; vocal ambivalence about fertility has economic consequences. It’s no accident that many driven young women (including me once) loudly declare that we are not going to have any children. No matter how earnestly this may be felt, and I do not discount someone who says it for a second, saying you don’t want kids comes with a significant professional bonus. Women who say they aren’t having any kids or any more kids are more attractive colleagues and potential hires no matter what those pesky laws on the books say.
Honesty about ambivalence is fraught with risk.
What if I were to start trying for more children, and tell people? Would others participate, and gossip, and evaluate my body and my sex life in telephone conversations with others? Would professional contacts write me off?
What if I were to close that door, or my body were to make that decision for me? Would you tell me I should have another, for the sake of my daughter? Would you celebrate my devotion to my work and my family, and those few shreds of time I have for myself?
Would you cry with me anyway when my period stops?
I don’t want to be judged. I don’t want advice, either. I will figure this out and continue living my best life, even in a world that can be hostile to women, hostile to mothers, and perhaps inclined to shit on me for being honest. I have a great family and a great life. I am trying to break stigma.
It is astonishing how much we talk to women about fertility, without giving us space to talk, and be messy and contradictory, just the way humans are.
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.
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.