Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Body Image, Pregnancy, and Obesity Stigma

I’m sixteen weeks pregnant and I have officially given up on all my non-maternity pants.  In a fit of nesting, I bought a bunch of clear plastic storage bins and stowed away all my too-tight pants under the bed.  The bin was nicely labeled, and I think that come October or so when I may fit into those pants again, I will remember where they are.  I would like a sticker, please.

Maternity pants are awesomely comfortable.  I had no idea pants could be this comfortable.  I especially like this one pair of jeans that have an elastic waistband rather than the huge elastic panel (though I know I am destined for panel-pants-land eventually).  The only problem with these pants is that I am constantly hiking them up.  Hence, long comfy maternity shirts.  Bingo!  As an added bonus, I got almost all my maternity clothes from a friend, who was clearly on the purge portion of the gather/nest/purge cycle.

I’m digging the new pants.  I am digging my “baby bump,” (though I agree with Lake Superior University that this phrase should be banned http://www.lssu.edu/banished/current.php). I’m enjoying constantly palpating my abdomen to locate the firm edge of my uterus.  (Do pregnant people who are not medical students do this? I don’t know.) 

Other than the debilitating heartburn, I am feeling pretty good about the whole situation.  Until I read an entry on one of my favorite blogs, The Underwear Drawer, whose author, doctor-mother-extraordinaire Michelle Au is sixteen weeks pregnant with her third child.  The blog post contained one of those ubiquitous belly-shots, which you can see here: http://theunderweardrawer.blogspot.com/2012/01/16-weeks.html.

Michelle is tiny, and in pregnancy seems to be remaining tiny.  Or maybe before she was pregnant she was actually translucent.  In any case, it made me feel like a giant pregnant whale.

Then my “What To Expect” week-by-week pregnancy guide tells me, “It’s hard to watch yourself gain weight during pregnancy, even when you know there’s a wonderful reason for it.”

Is it?  Should it be?  Why do I feel chastised by another woman’s belly shot? Why are we so concerned about gaining weight? 

We’re concerned about it because we have internalized the societal stigma against overweight people.  Studies on weight stigma have shown that people are more likely to judge the obese to be lazy, unintelligent, and incompetent.  

I suspect that the embarrassment of gaining weight during pregnancy comes from a desire not to be confused with “those people.”  You know, fat people.  Especially in early pregnancy, when you know people are debating whether you are “with child” or “with Chipotle.”  We want to represent ourselves accurately, “I’m not lazy and unintelligent, I’m just pregnant!”

Um, fat people aren’t actually those things either.  Fat people are no more likely to be lazy, unintelligent, or incompetent than thin people.  (See my master’s thesis on Obesity Stigma for full details, you know, as soon as I finish writing it.) 
Rather than carving out a social exception for ourselves (“I’m not fat, I’m pregnant,” we should be questioning why society judges fat people so harshly.  We should be questioning why it is socially acceptable to disparage people based on weight in ways that it is no longer to disparage groups of people based on race or sex.  (There are tons of examples of this, and I will get to them in a later post).

I am making it my goal during pregnancy and afterwards to eat well, exercise, and just not worry about what I weigh.  And I am also making it my goal to examine my attitudes towards others and challenging those attitudes when they are based on stereotypes and prejudice.

Andreyeva, T, Puhl RM, Brownell KD.  Changes in perceived weight discrimination among
Americans, 1995-1996 through 2004-2006.  Obesity Journal. 2008;35.

Puhl, R. M., Andreyeva, T., & Brownell, K.D. (2008, January). Perceptions of weight
discrimination: prevalence and comparison to race and gender discrimination in America.  International Journal of Obesity.  1-9.

Puhl, Rebecca, and Brownell, Kelly D.  Bias, discrimination, and obesity.  Obes Res

Puhl, R. M., & Brownell, K. D.  (2006, October). Confronting and coping with weight stigma: an
investigation of overweight and obese adults.  Obesity, 14(10), 1802-1815.

Puhl, R.M. & Heuer, C.A.  (2009). The stigma of obesity: a review and update.  Obesity,
17(5), 941-964.

Puhl, R.M. & Latner, J.D. (2007).  Stigma, obesity, and the health of the nation’s children. 
Psychological Bulletin, 133(4), 557-580.

Roehling, MV.  Weight-based discrimination in employment: psychological and legal aspects.
Personnel Psychol. 1999;52:960-1017.

Rothblum, ED, Miller CT, Garbutt, B.  Stereotypes of obese female job applicants.  Int J Eating
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  1. I used a pair of mens elastic braces (http://www.google.com.au/search?q=mens+elastic+braces&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=JaExT6qYJISjiQf53O31BA&biw=1280&bih=618&sei=KKExT4SvFuKPiAeTmN39BA) to hold up my elastic band maternity trousers. Worked a treat.


    1. Thanks Joolz! I was thinking about getting some of those. I'm curious, where are you from? I have never heard them called "elastic braces" before, around here they are "suspenders."

    2. *being an internet stalker*

      Joolz has a .au email address so I am guessing Australia. I know the Brits call suspenders "braces" so that makes sense.

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