I put on 30kg when I was pregnant with my first daughter. My morning ritual was to eat a cracker in bed so I didn’t vomit and then get up and weigh my hideous bulging body. Some days the number on the scales would make me cry. Every day the number made me feel like a failure.
I had read all the literature, studied the books, and listened to “experts”. Many times I read warnings to mothers-to-be not to use pregnancy as an “excuse” to “eat for two” – as if we were all gluttonous pigs just waiting for a socially acceptable reason to stuff ourselves. Pregnant women, they said, should increase their calorie intake by the equivalent of half a sandwich per day.
I knew that starting off with a BMI in the “normal” range I should gain between 11.5kg and 16kgs. And as a first-time mum with a Type A personality, I was determined to do every aspect of pregnancy and motherhood according to best-practice.
My body had other ideas.
It turned out that mainlining crackers and chips was the only – the only – way I could stave off nine months of debilitating nausea. I ended up hating eating. And I could barely stomach the sight of crackers months after I gave birth.
In spite of what my body was demanding, my food consumption and weight gain during pregnancy was presented by some doctors, midwives and in the pregnancy literature as a simple choice. All I had to do was find some willpower and self-respect, and continue eating as normal; as if I wasn’t pregnant and didn’t have an insatiable appetite and chronic nausea.
This way of thinking clearly hasn’t changed in the eight years since I failed at being a successful pregnant woman. According to researchers from Monash University’s Faculty of Medicine, three quarters of pregnant women are gaining the wrong amount of weight during pregnancy.
The study, published in the JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Associationconcluded that about 50 per cent of pregnant women gain too much weight, and 23 per cent of women don’t gain enough.
I’m not a doctor, but if my research showed that three quarters of women’s bodies are doing pregnancy wrong, I might wonder if perhaps the problem lay less with women’s bodies, and more with the criteria being used.
The suggestions of how to deal with “incorrect” weight gain were just as unhelpful. Research lead Professor Helena Teede told the Sydney Morning Herald: “[A]t the moment, we don’t give [pregnant women] enough information about what the targets are, we often don’t weigh them in pregnancy and give them the info they need”.
The notion that any woman living in our culture isn’t already acutely aware of weight gain is, to put it politely, absurd. We’re drowning in information about weight. It’s a national obsession.
This applies doubly to pregnant women. As a pregnant woman, you can’t leave your house without your body being policed. Walk into any supermarket or past any newsstand and you will see examples of the way pregnant women are shamed and humiliated for gaining the wrong amount of weight. Kim Kardashian, anyone?
Online forums of pregnant women are filled with anxieties about weight gain. Weight gain and food consumption are a constant topic of discussion. No generation of women in history has been as aware and paranoid about what goes into our mouths while we are pregnant.
My experience with pregnancy was extreme, but it isn’t that unusual. As a friend who is currently pregnant said: “I’ve gained way more weight this time, not because I lost brain cells and forgot the f—ing food pyramid, but because eating was the only way to function. And I’ve basically had a cold for three months, meaning I haven’t done my usual exercise.”
For her first pregnancy, my friend was one of the lucky ones who sailed through without complications. She gained only 9kgs during her entire pregnancy and weighed less than her pre-pregnancy weight four weeks after childbirth.
Second time around, she’s already gained 8kg and she’s not even at the halfway mark yet.
“Same food knowledge, same metabolism, same good intentions but a revolting dose of extended morning sickness – for which none of the prescription drugs worked – means salty snacks on the hour, every hour, is the only way to survive a day at work,” my friend said.
When I hear researchers say that “preventing weight gain is really very easy” all we need to do is “just follow the good ol’ food pyramid, it’s not complicated,” I can’t help but wonder if they need to start listening more closely to the experiences of actual women – and to trust women’s bodies – rather than relying on abstract number charts.
After all, women have been making babies for a touch longer than researchers have been making medically imprecise generalisations based on BMI measurements.
And as one of those pregnant women who despaired over every kilogram I thought I shouldn’t have gained, “expert” recommendations such as increased education and more weighing, is not only useless, it’s insulting.