Sarah Ann Noel did not plan to be pregnant at 26. And she didn’t think it would make her feel so terrible. She and her husband were excited and happy about the unexpected news, but Noel struggled with thoughts that pregnancy had robbed her of her carefree mid-20s. Plus, as her body started to change, Noel felt unattractive, unhealthy, and totally out of control. And she managed her emotions with food.
“I’m an emotional eater, and I pretty much ate my feelings by ordering a side of fries with every meal,” says the Denver resident, who gained about 60 pounds in nine months. “In a sense I was rebelling against what I thought was the healthy thing to do. I thought, ‘If I have to be pregnant, I’m going to do it on my own terms.’”
It became a vicious cycle: She ate because she felt depressed, and as she gained more weight, her depression deepened. Noel considered seeing a therapist, but worried about how other people might react. “I didn’t want them to think less of me or my ability to be a mother. And it seemed like I was the only [pregnant woman] who felt this way.”
But Noel was far from alone. Plenty of moms-to-be experience body-image issues in the months leading up to (and after) giving birth. “They’re excited and nervous and scared about changes in their body. There’s a lot of anxiety about what to expect, and all of that’s pretty normal,” says Jodi Rubin, a therapist in private practice in New York City. “How you feel is going to depend a lot on your relationship with your body.”
For Tiffanie Wong, a 39-year-old marathoner and triathlete from Orlando, not being able to exercise during pregnancy changed the way she saw herself. “Running was such a big part of my life,” says the Orlando mom. “But I wasn’t prepared for how exhausted I would feel and how scary pregnancy would be.”
When she did run, Wong worried she could hurt the baby, so she stopped completely – and her self-esteem took a dive. Even though her husband was supportive, she felt her body was not the same. “I didn’t feel sexy or attractive anymore, and I think that continues even now, almost three years later,” says Wong.
Yes, there are women who love being pregnant, says Rubin, but many have a hard time: They weigh themselves more often than they normally would, struggle to fit into the same clothes as they grow, and worry obsessively if a doctor or friend suggests they might be gaining too much (or too little) weight.
It’s not uncommon for women to feel that their bodies have turned against them, says Rubin. And several studies have found that pregnant women with negative body images are more likely to become depressed or gain excessive weight (more than what’s considered healthy) during pregnancy.
If you find yourself feeling bad about yourself or how you look during pregnancy, you are not alone. And there are steps you can take to feel better:
Surround yourself with support. Be open about your feelings – either with close friends or with a medical professional. It’s important to have a strong support group of people who won’t try to compare your unique situation to their own or to anyone else’s.
Stay active. Moderate exercise, such as walking or prenatal yoga, can help you connect with your body and feel better about these big changes, says Carrie Gottlieb, PhD, a psychologist specializing in body image in Manhattan: “It helps you think about what your body can do and how it feels versus how it looks.”
Find news ways to bond with your partner. If you’re uncomfortable about the prospect of intimacy, Gottlieb recommends taking the pressure off the act of intercourse itself. While it’s normal and healthy to have an active sex life during pregnancy, other ways of connecting, such as hugging and touching, may feel better to you right now.
Pamper yourself. There are ways to help yourself feel beautiful without focusing on your weight. Gottlieb suggests treating yourself to a haircut, pedicure, spa treatment, or new outfit. Even just putting on makeup and getting dressed up for a date night with your partner can boost your self-esteem.
See a nutritionist. If you find yourself overly concerned about gaining weight, Gottlieb recommends seeing a nutritionist. “You can talk about what diet and exercise should look like during pregnancy, and what normal weight gain should feel like,” she says. “An ob-gyn can do that as well, but often they don’t have the time to really walk through the details and the emotional aspect of it all.” She advises looking for a nutritionist who specializes in prenatal care or body image, rather than one who focuses on weight loss or dieting.
Know when to get help. It’s time to reach out to a therapist if negative thoughts about your body begin to interfere with your ability to have a healthy, happy pregnancy. For example, obsessive thoughts about what you’re eating, how much you weigh, which clothes fit, or whether you might be hurting yourself or your baby are all signs you need help.
A mental health professional can help you get in touch with the underlying issue that’s keeping you from embracing your body’s changes – whether it’s anxiety about health complications, feeling disconnected from your partner, or a history of an eating disorder.
Ask friends or your ob-gyn to recommend a therapist who specializes in body image. Women with a history of an eating disorder or who are concerned they may be developing one can also research treatment options on the websites of the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center or the National Eating Disorders Association.
Many women do not seek counseling during pregnancy, but Noel, now 28, says that after having her first child – and after experiencing a much healthier and happier second pregnancy only a year later – she realized that therapy could have helped her deal with her fears and unhappiness at the time. “Just being honest with yourself, whether you’re seeking professional help or talking with friends or your spouse, can help you cope. It will make you a better person, and parent, as well.”