All of me

There'’s a reason for each pound you put on during pregnancy, but some women find the weight gain disturbing. Here's how to love that growing body.

Kelly O’Dea Landes, 35, a clinical social worker from Marion, Mass., struggled with eating disorders in her early 20s but, at 5 feet 1 inch, had leveled out at 98 pounds when she got pregnant at age 33. “I was running about 30 miles a week, and my obstetrician, who was conservative, told me to stop exercising, cold turkey,” she says. “He also told me to expect to gain more weight than the average woman because I was underweight. I thought, OK, so he’s telling me I’m going to be short and fat.” Landes gained a normal 30 pounds yet dreaded each weigh-in at her prenatal visits. “One time I stepped on the scale and had gained 9 pounds in a month. I just started crying. That day I went home, took a bath and thought I looked like a freak. I knew I was going to love my baby, and I was so excited to be a mom, but I hated what was going on with my body.”

{fear of fat} Glowing skin, full breasts — what’s not to love about being pregnant? Plenty, according to women who find the natural weight gain so troubling that pregnancy becomes an emotionally painful experience. For such women, normal belly growth is perceived as unwanted “fat” that makes them feel ugly, not beautiful. This phenomenon is a result of a culture that has an “out-of-control obsession with thinness,” according to Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute. For 16 years, Kearney-Cooke has helped women with eating disorders and body-image problems. “For the very first time, I’ve had women responding in a survey that they won’t get pregnant because they don’t want to gain weight,” she says. “Our culture has gotten so much into the development of an image rather than into the development of the self. This was not so much a worry in the past.” Even women who have never struggled with these issues can experience them during pregnancy, according to Diane G. Sanford, Ph.D., co-developer and president of the Women’s Healthcare Partnership in St. Louis. “It may be the first time in their lives when they feel no sense of control over their bodies,” she says. For many women, the early months are the hardest. Susan Pruitt, a 35-year-old Los Angeles mom, had never had a problem with weight. “At about four months pregnant, though, I felt awkward. My stomach didn’t show that much — I just looked fat,” she says. More important, however, was the prospect of having a baby in her life. “I was so excited to meet Wyler. The bigger I grew, the sexier, stronger and more empowered I felt. Toward the end, I felt very feminine and fulfilled.”

{past problems resurface} Pregnancy can also trigger negative feelings from the past. When Tracy Brennan was a teen-ager and a young woman in her 20s, she never felt thin enough or busty enough. But with the help of a therapist, she eventually learned to accept and even like her body — until she became pregnant for the first time at 30. “I panicked,” says the now 43-year-old owner and host of the St. Louis program “Radio Fit America.” “I was afraid I’d lose that sense of comfort about my body I’d worked so hard for. I would think, ‘I’m going to be fat forever, and I can’t do anything about it.’” What she needed, in part, was to remember that her growing body was nourishing a new life. “A friend made me look through a week-by-week pregnancy guide every single week of my pregnancy,” says Brennan. “I read about what was happening inside my body, and it really helped me feel connected to the baby.” After her baby was born, Brennan easily lost the 50 pounds she’d gained. She went on to have three more children, and with each pregnancy she became more comfortable with the way her body looked and felt. “With my first two pregnancies, I panicked about how I’d ever get the weight off. I’d start obsessing and eating more — that was how I dealt with my fear. I had a perpetual excuse to eat: ‘I’m pregnant, and I don’t feel good,’” she says. “But the fact that I lost all my weight between each baby was reinforcement that I could stabilize and not worry about it. I’d say to myself, ‘Honey, you’re OK. You worked your way through it before, and you can do it again.’ By my fourth pregnancy, I just accepted it.”

{do the right thing} Although Landes and Brennan struggled to accept their bodies, they did eat enough so their weight gains were healthy. Some women, however, go so far as to dangerously restrict their calorie intake, which can result in premature birth and an underweight baby. “Inadequate nutrition is associated with an increased risk of growth problems, or what’s known as fetal growth restriction,” says Bruce Shephard, M.D., clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa and co-author of The Complete Guide to Women’s Health (Penguin Press, 1997). This syndrome can be associated with neurological problems, learning disabilities and even cerebral palsy. And although poor nutrition is only one of many factors that may restrict fetal growth, it is still a significant contributor. Pregnancy is not a time to diet but rather to focus on the health of the baby-to-be. As Brennan says, “During my pregnancies, I gained weight in my face, thighs, arms — everywhere. At some point I realized my body wants all this weight.” It was the birth itself that caused Landes’ self-image to turn around. “I was a little shocked when I left the hospital and still looked five months pregnant,” she says, “but what surprised me most was that it was OK with me. I looked at my body and thought, ‘I’m really proud of this. This was for Benjamin, and it was really worth it.’” She feels now that if she was to get pregnant again, she’d be much more comfortable with her body. “Now I know how wonderful the reward is on the other side,” she says.