When I was pregnant, my body became the topic of a lot of unsolicited conversation from friends, family, distant acquaintances, and even strangers. Of course this included the usual friendly questions about things like the baby's sex and my due date, but there was also tremendous commentary about the way I looked.
I didn't show very much, so I often heard questions and comments like, "Where are you hiding the baby?" and "You're so lucky you don't need maternity clothing." At other times, people commented on how big my bottom had become and that my breasts were "fantastic!" It seemed nothing was off limits.
It's no wonder we are all obsessed with how pregnant women look. There's no shortage of media coverage on dressing your best to highlight your baby bump or getting your pre-pregnancy body back in the shortest amount of time.
But as a specialist in body image and eating disorders, I understand how these kinds of comments (however well intentioned) can be detrimental to a pregnant woman. For me, being constantly reminded that I was barely showing made me feel anxious about the health of my baby. For women who are more obviously pregnant, remarks on their size can prompt fears about how much weight they have gained and concerns about whether that could negatively affect them or their baby. And frankly, few of us want our appearance to be the focus of every conversation we have – pregnant or not.
And there's evidence that this fixation on a pregnant woman's physical appearance can have real negative consequences: In a 2003 study on weight and pregnancy, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that 21 percent of the women engaged in weight-restrictive behavior during their pregnancy and fasted before prenatal appointments. For some women who have a history of eating disorders or struggles with body image, the added scrutiny of pregnancy can trigger old behaviors, which could be dangerous to their health and developing baby.
In my personal and professional experience, I have found that people make comments to pregnant women in an attempt to share the excitement and experience of pregnancy. After all, it is amazing and inspiring to watch someone grow a human being inside her body. Unfortunately, there is little direction to guide attempts at connection in a way that is positive for everyone.
Follow a pregnant woman's lead
Talking to a pregnant woman shouldn't feel like a minefield. There are so many relevant topics of discussion and other ways to support a woman during pregnancy. For example, "How do you feel?" "Can I help you with anything?" or "Are you decorating the baby's room?" are all great questions. These let a woman know that you are excited and interested in her pregnancy yet allow her to share as much or as little information as she likes.
These types of questions also help you figure out where to take the conversation. It's not always inappropriate to comment on a woman's pregnant body or her pregnancy, but it is always important to be sensitive. And that sensitivity comes from paying attention to the pregnant woman and following her lead.