The first time it happened, I was 21 years old.
I was living in New York City in my final year of college. I was majoring in photography at a Fine Arts College, while also working with a non-profit organization I’d participated in as a teenager called City at Peace. Mostly, I documented their process, photographing the teenage participants as they created a full length musical based on the stories and experiences of their lives.
One Saturday afternoon during rehearsal, one of the teens in the program said to me, “Miss, when is your baby due?”
At the time, I was still struggling with an active and debilitating eating disorder. I was also caught completely off guard because I was 21 and I never imagined that would be a question someone would ask me. These teens were used to younger women and girls being pregnant – many of their friends and family had gotten pregnant in high school or in their early twenties, so it seemed like a reasonable question to ask.
Instead, it sent me into a tailspin.
I don’t quite remember how I responded but I know that I spent the next couple of weeks limiting my food intake and doing more intense workouts. Eventually I rebounded a bit, but that question haunted me. So did the eating disorder, which lasted for several more years.
I have a fairly pronounced lower back curve, so when I am standing naturally and without thinking of alignment, my lower back moves forward causing my belly to pop out and give a rounder appearance, not unlike how it would look if I was about 15 weeks pregnant, give or take a week.
This is what caused the question when I was 21. It was a combination of my own physiology plus poor posture plus cultural conditioning.
After that first time, I actively worked on adjusting my posture.
I’d stand with my pelvis titled back as much as possible.
I’d suck in my belly.
I did a ridiculous amount of crunches every day.
My posture changed slightly, but not radically enough to dramatically change the look of my belly.
The next time someone asked if I was pregnant, I was working at the yoga studio where I did my first teacher training. I was behind the front desk when a deliveryman came in with some things for the studio. He asked me when I was due. I asked him, “due for what?” He awkwardly apologized.
I still to this day cannot imagine what prompted him to assume I was pregnant. I was standing behind a desk. My body wasn’t easily visible.
My friend who was with me at the desk that day assured me I didn’t look even remotely pregnant.
I felt awful anyway.
The worst part is that when someone asks if you’re pregnant, it’s usually because they’re genuinely excited for you. They want to celebrate the possibility of new life and the joyfulness of children.
The second worst part is when you have to tell them that, no you’re not pregnant. You just happen to have a considerable anterior tilt of your pelvis, which makes you look pregnant all the time. They feel all kinds of guilty. They try to make amends and walk back what they said, which sometimes doesn’t go so well.
As angry as I am each time this happens, I also feel a little guilty too for making them feel bad for asking me.
Many years later, after the birth of my first child, it happened again. Not once but 3 times within the space of a few months.
Once after a yoga class I was subbing at a studio where I occasionally taught, a woman I knew came up to me and started chatting with me. She told me I was looking really good. I was a little surprised by the comment but appreciative. Until I realized where the conversation was headed.
I thanked her for the compliment and then explained that I wasn’t actually pregnant. The look of shock in her eyes was quickly followed by regret and an apology, followed by an explanation that because I am a smaller and generally a slimmer woman and I wear spandex for a living, which is one of the least forgiving fabrics known to humankind, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Before my daughter was born, I’d gotten much more fit due to running several times a week, plus also running in longer distance races, plus daily yoga. I was probably the healthiest I’d ever been in my life and in really good shape physically. I was thin, but I wasn’t restricting what I ate. For the first time in my life I felt like I had finally kicked my eating disorder and body image issues to the curb.
After my daughter was born, I struggled to lose the weight and struggled to be ok with it. I wanted so desperately to anchor into the body positive movement that I so believe in, but I couldn’t. At least not for myself.
It took me 2 years to not only feel stronger in my body than I did before my pregnancy, but also to feel comfortable again in my own skin.
And then I got pregnant again.
The funny thing is that I actually love being pregnant. I love the way my body looks pregnant. I am proud that I was able to grow and carry 2 babies within my body, despite all of the abuse I delivered to myself for so many years.
I loved feeling my babies move inside my body.
I loved feeling them grow bigger, discovering the contours of their heads and heels as they pushed against my ribs and pelvic bones.
I even loved pushing them out. Nothing is more satisfying than pushing a baby out of your body.
And I was grateful. I know getting pregnant and sustaining pregnancy is not easy or even possible for everyone.
I felt lucky.
What I don’t love is postpartum body recovery.
I dreaded it both times.
Although the second time around, it felt easier to move and use my postpartum body, the weight didn’t come off as easily. Still, at 18 months postpartum, I have a little mama pouch.
The most recent time it happened was again after a yoga class I taught. 2 of the women in the class, who I absolutely adored, asked me after class if I was pregnant. To be fair, on the day they asked, I was wearing a particularly unflattering and tight shirt.
Of course I answered no. I am not currently pregnant. Just 18 months postpartum with my second child.
I felt so bad saying no because they clearly intended the question to have a joyful response. They were excited for me. When I said no, I smiled and tried not to let the hurt show.
I think the cultural conditioning is hard.
From a very young age, we’re taught that our bodies are not just our own. They are for public inspection and consumption and judgment.
We’re also frequently sent mixed messages.
In pop culture, celebrity moms are often back to pre-baby weight within weeks of giving birth.
Women who are not abnormally thin are usually relegated to “best friend” roles or comedic relief in movies, if they’re even represented at all.
Magazines frequently question whether or not certain actresses are pregnant based on the way their bellies are shaped. “Bump watch” is a thing.
On the other end of the spectrum, I also frequently hear these proclamations:
All bodies are beautiful.
Every body is a bikini body.
Strong is not a size.
These are the messages sent out by the body positive movement. I love them. I agree with them. I support them. I cheer them on. I fight to dismantle of the notion that there is only one way to be beautiful or healthy in the eyes of the world.
And yet, I don’t always feel this way for myself in my own body.
One of my friends said something about the mama pouch that I try to remember in moments like these.
She told me a story about how her daughter once poked at her belly asking why it was soft and squishy. She told her daughter that each time she was pregnant, her belly grew really big with her babies inside. And that after each time she was pregnant, they left a little bit of themselves in her soft belly so she would always remember carrying them there.
Or something like that.
It’s a beautiful idea. I try to remember it every time someone asks me if I’m pregnant or when I look at myself in the mirror or see a photo of myself with my belly popping out.
There are inroads being made.
In the yoga community, more and more all bodies are celebrated.
This doesn’t prevent me from comparing my own body to other yoga moms who not only have bodies I envy, but can do things with their postpartum bodies I couldn’t even do pre-pregnancy.
But it does give me hope.
My hope is that we stop commenting on other people’s bodies as a conversational tool.
That the appearance of both women’s and men’s bodies is no longer part of the general discussion or up for debate.
That we start redefining the images of what is attractive to welcome all bodies of all shapes and sizes.
That we as a culture start getting honest about what happens to a human body when it grows a human and that our expectations shift accordingly.
That instead of critiquing others or ourselves, we choose to be compassionate and grateful and loving.
That we stop placing such a high value on the way someone looks and instead measure someone’s worth by the quality of their actions.
As for myself, I feel like I’ve come to an uneasy peace with my body.
I so wish that I could be the mom who confidently goes to the beach wearing a bikini and proudly stating, “Every Body is a Bikini Body!”
Instead, I get a little self-conscious.
When I carry my kids, resting them on my hips, my low back arches and my belly get all squashy as it pushes forward.
Still, I am proud of my body.
I am proud of my resilience and strength. I am proud of my ability to expand large enough to be a safe home for both of my children. I am proud of my endurance and her capacity to heal.
I’d like to say that I am completely over my body image issues, but I’m not. I still have days when I look at my body in the mirror and I feel less attractive or frustrated with the way my body looks. I also have days when I recognize how much of a badass I am and feel like goddess. The pendulum swings back and forth.
I can say that pregnancy and becoming a mom did put my various eating disorders into remission. Nothing makes me want to be healthy and live more than being a mother and teaching my kids to love and respect their own bodies.
I don’t want my own daughter to grow up with the same body image issues that I have.
I try to show her what it looks like to love my body. To treat myself with kindness. To take care of my body with love and with respect.
I am careful to comment on her silliness and her strength and her kindness before I comment on her appearance.
And when she pokes at my belly and asks if there’s a new baby in there, I shake my head no and remembering what my friend said to her own daughter, I say “just a little bit of you and your brother left over to remind me of when you lived in my belly.”