Pregnancy loss and body image
There are parts of pregnancy loss that are so raw, so personal and so profoundly sad that even pregnancy loss advocates like me avoid talking about them.
One thing I rarely talk about is the new relationship I have with my own body.
After I lost my daughter Alex at 26 weeks the emptiness that I felt threatened to consume me. The physical sense of hollowness I experienced was an inescapable, constant, bodily reminder of all that was lost.
My body felt completely different; bigger, softer, and weaker. I’d still had to bear many of the physical effects of pregnancy and delivery, but without a baby to fill my arms and make sense of my new softness.
I know this is a sensation I share with many, many more of you and while I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, some of my best friends have had that feeling too.
We all have our own way of coping with it, some people exercise to regain a sense of ownership of their bodies. Some people get pregnant again as soon as humanly possible. And some of us eat to fill that void.
In my circumstances i.e., needing to care for my two children and to restore some normal routine after weeks of waiting for the stillbirth, cooking was a necessity. And somehow eating dinner became part of our family recovery, emotionally and physically. I found that I got some kind of primal satisfaction from feeding my family hearty, tasty meals and seeing them full and happy.
With hindsight I can see I was desperate to physically nurture them in place of my baby but at the time I was just following my instincts.
The weight gain that followed was a mixed blessing. On one hand I felt strangely, reassuringly, invisible in public. The anxiety that characterised my grief meant that I would go to extremes to avoid human contact and carrying extra weight on my frame made that easier somehow.
It also helped that I physically looked different because I felt so different, and I wanted people to recognise a change had occurred.
The flipside of that is the difference in the way I see myself and how I am treated by others. We live in a world that values thinness far more than happiness, contentment, or health. And like it or not we are all products of that world and we hold those expectations for ourselves as much as we do for others.
While I wanted to emotionally recover from my loss, it was very difficult to untangle the idea of recovery from the goal of weight loss and creating the appearance of ‘back to normal’
Even on the way to the hospital to deliver my dead baby I was planning my weight loss (“in 3 months it’s Christmas, I’ll be back to normal then”). The magazine I read while waiting for labour to start had a massive feature titled “What the Stars Really Weigh” I still have that magazine in a memory box upstairs with Alex’s clothes.
I have had everyone from family members to co-workers comment negatively on my new size and shape but the hardest part of it to navigate is my feelings towards my body. I have heard that one way to gain a healthy body image is to reframe your attitude towards your body to focus on how well it works, how strong it is, how lucky I am to be able-bodied etc. But that was a huge struggle when my baby died inside this body. I didn’t have faith in it to do its job anymore. I didn’t marvel at its ability to grow and feed babies. I didn’t have the comfort that these changes had all been worth it.
I still feel to some extent that my body can’t be trusted. A quick look at my search history would show my trajectory from the “ailment curious” into complete hypochondriac.
While there is some research on the effect of pregnancy on body image, there is very little specific to pregnancy loss, and even less conversation about it.
In one study mindfulness was used to help to improve women’s body image after pregnancy loss and I certainly found it useful.
Separating your own feelings from external criticism is helpful too. I achieve this by literally blocking out diet culture as much as possible. In the early days (or years) I curated my social media carefully, never bought women’s magazines and avoided conversations about weight loss for years. It’s amazing how rarely I spontaneously thought about weight or weight loss.
I might not have appreciated my body much, but I did acknowledge how much it had gone through. Four rough pregnancies, deliveries, and breastfeeding, including endless vomiting, slipped discs and a separated pelvis is no joke.
Lastly, I tried to imagine how I would treat a friend if she had gone through all that and show my body the same compassion I would someone else. What words would you use to describe someone you love. respect and empathise with if they had your experience? How would you feel towards them? This is a technique I use in lots of support group sessions and I think it really helps to focus on turning empathy inwards and show yourself some kindness.
If you struggled with body image after pregnancy loss how did you cope and what techniques helped? And if you are struggling and need to talk, we are Claire and Jen and you can find us at Vilomah.ie on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.