Body Image, Meet Baby

Illustration for article titled Body Image, Meet Baby

About four years ago, after half a lifetime of irregular cycles, a new gynecologist identified the shadowy barnacles invading the ultrasound screen. “They’re cysts. It’s going to be very difficult for you to have children without intervention,” she said casually as I buttoned my jeans, “but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”


Crossing that bridge was not in my immediate plans, but I’m not one to leave things to chance. I quickly earned a Google PhD in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), mentally cataloging the ominous statistics on bookmarked medical websites. Hormone therapy, IVF and adoption were next on the list of search terms. I couldn’t control my ovaries, but I could set in place Plans B, C and D for when they would inevitably fail me.

Before Richard and I were married last September, we’d talked a lot about what we would do if (when) pregnancy wasn’t in the cards. As we unpacked suitcases filled with honeymoon souvenirs, I made some offhanded comment about trying anyway, before we set up appointments with fertility doctors. Three weeks later, I woke him with a positive pregnancy test, waiting for his half-opened eyes to register the news. It felt like a nod from the universe. All of the worrying, the planning, had somehow short-circuited fate, and my body was conceding: “You put so much effort into managing the what-ifs that I’ve decided to cut you some slack.” After being subjected to years of mistreatment, it was extending an olive branch.

Most of my adulthood had, until that point, been spent in New York. It was a decade filled with high-pressure jobs, abusive relationships and an eating disorder. Picky eating and extreme diets had evolved into full-blown anorexia by the time I was 14, but in my early 20s starving myself felt as normal – and addictive – as working until midnight or being shoved down the stairs in an argument. Therapy helped, but flexing my willpower by restricting calories was always more satisfying than any steps to recovery. It wasn’t until I caught my live-in boyfriend in bed with another woman (figuratively; I didn’t find out until she blogged about his dick using his real name) and was told that my company’s US office would soon close that I began to rethink my life.

Faced with finding a new apartment without a job, I did what any neurotic perfectionist would: I made list upon list of my options, analyzing each move and its potential repercussions. Somehow, a year later, I ended up in Beirut, Lebanon, living with the man who would become my husband.

It turns out that in my particular case, environment is everything. Moving to a place where women are encouraged to eat and the workday ends promptly at 6pm had an immediate effect; so did finding a partner who doesn’t sling the nickname “fat ass” during fights about money, or ever.

Beirut is a city that thrives on chaos – ranging from daily electricity blackouts to the looming threat of war – and best of luck trying to obsessively manage anything in it. Rather than fight the bedlam, I talked myself into rolling with the punches and (much to everyone’s surprise) it worked. In a new city, in a new relationship, I finally felt free. I felt like me. I felt like eating.


Some extra padding and a new pant size were tolerated side effects of my new outlook. I took up cooking – the kind of cooking that requires butter and cream and that people actually want to eat. I began exercising in that abundance of post-work free time, but limited my sessions to a reasonable 30 minutes because I also really like happy hour. As my body-image situation downgraded to “slightly conscientious,” everything was in balance but still, technically, ruled by self-discipline. Should my muffin top or bra cup suddenly runneth over, I’d cut out beer or up my gym game for a few weeks. By my wedding day, I was able to look at my reflection and think, “I may not be able to breathe in this dress, but all that pre-wedding cake sampling was worth it.” A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.

Because I felt good about myself – or not not good – pregnancy was supposed to be an image-affirming experience, my body’s way of proving its innate strength and natural beauty, or whatever spiel appears on parenting sites. I looked forward to seeing my belly stretch and grow to accommodate a tiny human, to gaining weight (and making dessert mandatory) for the sake of my baby. That second blue line was meant to signal the official end of my eating disorder.


With just a few weeks to go, being able to say I haven’t relapsed is a relief. But I look back and cringe at my assumption that carrying a baby would be the magic bullet. As it turns out, I’m beyond excited to become a parent, but I don’t like being pregnant.

Aside from three solid months of morning sickness, the experience has been wholly uneventful. And yet I still can’t reconcile how this body is mine. Standing naked before the mirror, I see an abstract rendition of a pregnant subject, two mismatched breasts, a melon-shaped belly, the area I can only assume my vagina still occupies, and one (one!) red, swollen ankle staring back at me. It’s not unattractive, per se, but I feel swindled by the Pregnant Goddess image I was sold by a few smug moms.


Anorexia is, at its core, rarely about looks, and I’m more fascinated than distressed by my constantly evolving shape. What’s become problematic is how I feel. I wake up each morning genuinely perplexed by how to get myself out of bed. Every joint and muscle hurts, down to the soles of my feet. A sudden change in my center of gravity has resulted in falling over, anytime, anywhere. Putting on socks requires a Wimbledon-worthy soundtrack of grunts, and sneezing without pissing myself took weeks to master.

This body that obeyed me for so long, dutifully shrinking and expanding in proportion to my happiness, is finally telling me to fuck off. No amount of planning or restraint is going to change that. I would be lying if I said I don’t feel betrayed.


And yet, this is just the lesson I needed. To prep for parenthood, I read Bringing Up Bébé and subscribed to mom blogs, watched birthing documentaries and took classes with a midwife (old habits die hard). The loudest message in my pre-baby research? From this point on, I have little control over anything.

My baby will arrive when she’s ready, whether my hospital bag is packed or not. She’ll eat when she’s hungry, even if it interferes with my one opportunity to shower. I know that these last few weeks of pregnancy mark the end of sleeping in, making last-minute dinner plans and reading entire books in an afternoon – my life as I know it – at least for the foreseeable future. With my due date fast approaching, I finally see pregnancy for what it is: not a cruel physical deception, but my body’s way of easing my brain into motherhood, one lopsided boob at a time.


MacKenzie Kassab is the editor-in-chief of A Magazine.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.



I hate being pregnant. First I had hyperemesis and was in and out of the hospital for months, and then once I could eat again, the nausea remained and with it came heartburn and constipation and all kinds of things they never tell you until you’re actually pregnant and then they’re like “oh yeah, that happens.”

But somehow if you don’t enjoy the process, if you’re not blissfully pregnant, you’re doing it wrong.

Screw that. I have no doubt that I will love my baby when it’s born, but I don’t have to love the process of getting there.

Also, and I have to say this: if you have one swollen ankle, unless you know for sure that’s been caused by a sprain, please get that checked out! It can be a sign of a blood clot in your leg. Swelling on one side isn’t normal!