Feeding the Pregorexia Epidemic
I was back in my regular jeans almost right away, which elicited almost as much praise from some people as did my new son himself. With that kind of reinforcement—and with the proliferation of products and programs aimed at helping postpartum women get their bodies "back"—is it any wonder that women go into pregnancy trying to keep from "losing" them in the first place? What if it isn't the pregnant woman herself who's failing to be hospitable, but the larger culture?
I was a single college student drinking coffee at Starbucks and quietly doing my assigned reading when a small domestic explosion went off right next to me. A woman, tall and blonde, with a hint of belly, carried a car seat into which was bundled a newborn. She settled herself down with a piece of cake and a latte, and seemed radiant and happy, gazing at her baby, until her husband sat down and made a half-joking remark about whether or not she really should be eating cake, what with wanting to get back into her regular clothes and all. The woman fled the table in tears, and, though it's been over thirteen years, I've never forgotten it.
Even then, in those disordered years when I would have had to think hard about whether I would rather die or gain 20 pounds—I was horrified and disgusted at the husband's words. I wondered how many women went through the nausea and heartburn and back pain that is pregnancy and all the hard work that is childbirth only to meet with the expectation that she should immediately look as if nothing at all had happened to her.
It's impossible for me to reflect on this cultural phenomenon without reflecting on the place I currently live: Malawi, Africa. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a maternity clinic not far from my home. As I toured the small but well-equipped facility, I noticed, as I always do, how the women looked. Nearly always, they look too thin, and even the ones who gave birth just that morning have barely a belly to show for it. I stepped in close to peek at one woman's freshly-born baby; we caught eyes and she grinned. I was stunned at the whiteness of her gums: a sign of severe anemia. Because a woman's need for iron doubles during pregnancy—and because getting enough iron in the diet is a constant problem for most women in Malawi—she was depleted. Health experts have identified anemia as a major risk factor for maternal mortality, so it's really no wonder that here it's a compliment to tell a pregnant woman that she's looking good and fat.
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