Written by Erin Matson, originally published at her blog. Cross-posted with permission.
Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth.
Maybe this is easy for you. Maybe you like it. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have no experience with an eating disorder, or its aspirational cousin, negative self-image.
A summary of my situation is as follows: Near-death experience with anorexia, full recovery changed my progressive activism into feminist activism, now I’m pregnant.
I want to situate my first story about the intersection of my pregnancy with my history of having an eating disorder in a broader context, because I was in Arizona in October, and nobody knew I was pregnant, and a woman shared her story with me and it was not just any old day. Here is what I had posted on Facebook:
The 10th anniversary of Senator Wellstone’s death is emotional for me, and more so because I have spent the past two days on a community college campus talking with thirteen classes and passers-by at outdoor events about body image, self-esteem, cultural representations of women and how truly radical it is to love and accept yourself as you are, whether you are a man or a woman. I have talked about how loving yourself is a key within the broader political struggle for women’s rights and human rights, to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. I have spoken with countless students who have come to me in tears, accepted an opportunity to get help for the first time in their lives, told me they were going to work for the basic right to respect and justice for all, smiled through sunglasses saying they had tried to commit suicide but backed out and were so glad they had. I have hugged so many strangers, beautiful and strong, sometimes hurting, men and women, in the past 48 hours and if that’s not professional – who cares. Paul Wellstone said he emphasized “self-esteem, self confidence, and dignity, not as an ideal, but as a test of organization.” He also told us to “Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” Before I could vote, before I was a feminist, before my life taught me how important and political and essential it is to have compassion for yourself and not just for others, I was a progressive and I was an organizer. Paul Wellstone was responsible for that.
One of the women who walked up to me asked if I had done any work on body image after having kids. With pain on her face, this woman explained that she had given birth to four children and was so ashamed of the skin on her stomach that she had stopped wearing bikinis. Perhaps this sounds innocuous if you don’t know she had a pool at home. She wanted to wear a bikini but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her body image was stopping her from enjoying herself when no one else was looking.
I thanked her for her honesty with me. I told her that sounded like a horrible feeling. I meant it.
People dismiss eating disorders and negative self-image as shallow, trivial, pathological all the time. They say it’s vanity or fluff. It’s as if people who feel bad and admit they feel bad are then supposed to feel bad about feeling bad.
This you-better-do-it-but-don’t-speak-up logic makes sense when it is gender roles too limiting to encourage all we have to offer that are being expressed and enforced.
Body image has everything to do with gender roles, and oppressive expectations and painful lived experiences with our bodies often vary widely based on not just gender, but race, disability, sexual orientation and size.
I accept that my experience with overcoming anorexia is not relatable to some women who have struggled more with their hair, or men who have struggled more with their muscles, or activists who are in a difficult and righteous struggle to end fat discrimination. But while experiences are different and should by no means be declared the same, I also believe we are fighting a common monster among many.
For more than a decade I have been free of pills, treatment, I am able to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full, I don’t binge, I don’t diet. I have over the years felt a little rebel yell when my stomach gets a little bit more of a roll to it. It has come to feel sexy to me when that happens – it’s not just body business. It’s sexy and radical and transgressive to take up space you’re able to fill.
But at the same time, I won’t lie that being pregnant has forced me to confront what I have long thought was my full recovery in a new way. You see, my post-recovery weight has gone up and down over the years like any normal human being, but it has distributed evenly. I’ve never started growing a stomach that sticks out like a bumper on an old Saab. I’ve never anticipated, much less experienced, such a drastic change in my body.
Recently I had an epiphany in, of all places, a dressing room at Old Navy. I was there trying on maternity clothes for the first time in my life. As an eating disorder survivor there is no question I’ve had some Lifetime Shitty Moments in dressing rooms. When I was recovering from anorexia, if a negative thought cropped up I talked back to it: “Shut up, you’re trying to kill me.” Ultimately after professional intervention (please, if you have an eating disorder and are reading this, contact a professional and don’t try to self-help your way out), it became those seven words to myself, over and over, that built my life back.
But those magic words were not helpful in Old Navy. This was totally new. I had to simply feel uncomfortable, and think some more about feeling uncomfortable. This is my body. I need to accept my body and myself for who I am. Not who I was. Not for what I might become. This is now. It is what I have.
The collision of my eating disordered past and my pregnancy today is a confrontation of the profane and the sacred.
While many of these confrontations happen in a year, much less a lifetime, this is not one I will be able to ignore. It is the expectation of a harsh lens upon a human being, whether viewed by self or others, versus the actuality that is a human experience with its own rhythms, rules and swerves. To smile considering the times you have acknowledged, as they are, the unworthy stereotypes in your life.
I can accept: Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth. In fact I thought I could accept it going in. It took me two laundry cycles after the Old Navy trip to accept buying low-slung yoga pants that almost (do they really?) make me look a little bit pregnant.
Erin Matson is a national leader in the struggle for full reproductive justice and women’s human rights in the United States. She has developed and led several legislative and cultural advocacy campaigns on contraceptive access, abortion rights, HPV and cervical cancer prevention, body image and cultural representations of women, and the long struggle to ratify the U.N. Convention on All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Erin has held a variety of positions in the National Organization for Women, including serving as a founding member of the national Young Feminist Task Force, the youngest state NOW president in the country (Minnesota NOW President) and the youngest national executive officer (NOW Action Vice President). Once, she debated Phyllis Schlafly.
Erin is an expert in comprehensive advocacy campaigns, online activism, social media, organizing demonstrations, media strategy, public speaking, and writing and messaging. She is a nationally sought speaker and has appeared frequently on television, including MSNBC, CSPAN, Al-Jazeera English, ABC World News and BBC World News. Her blog is available at www.erintothemax.com.