Monday, February 28, 2011

Further Belly Thoughts

About a month ago, I published a post called Belly Thoughts that was quite controversial to some people. 

I've been writing a follow-up for a while, but I've been working on a big project at work and have had sick/injured kids, so I have had a hard time finishing it. I have also been struggling to clarify my dismay and surprise over people's response to that post. Honestly, the response upset me and I thought it best to wait a bit before replying so I could make a more measured response.

But I think it's time now to continue the discussion.  Forgive me if it's a bit rambly.  It's just time to get it out there, imperfect as it is, so we can discuss it and then move on.

Trigger Warning: Frank discussion of body image issues and body ambivalence will follow.

First, thank you to those who commented, even if I didn't agree with you or like what you said.  Dialogue is important and it's not always a bad thing to hear dissenting voices.  It generates discussion and can clarify issues or further the conversation. Obviously, this topic provokes some strong feelings, and I think that's an important point to explore. 

One complaint that was made was that the post needed a Trigger Warning.  With some reflection, I can see that point. I thought about putting one in the original post, but I thought it was not needed because I felt I was pretty clear in the intro paragraphs what was going to be in the post.  However, I can appreciate that some people in their journey need a really clear and obvious warning about these things. So that point is noted and I have already gone back and added a trigger warning to the original post and to this one as well.  My apologies to anyone who I inadvertently triggered.

Some folks objected to the Shamu word. That may have been a bad choice, but I was actually being ironic, and I think folks missed that. I see people on the feed mockingly use words commonly used to deride us (like "deathfat" etc.), so that's where I was going with Shamu, but the ironic intent may not have been clear enough. I was trying to point out the tremendous irony of worrying about what I'd look like at 9 months pregnant and then not looking pregnant at all. By using the term Shamu, I thought it made for a better, more pointed bit of irony. But alas, I think the term is so emotionally loaded for some that they didn't see an ironic use of it. I'm sorry it caused bad feelings for some.

One thing I think it's important to clarify is that what I was talking about was body ambivalence, not body loathing.  No, I don't always have perfectly happy loving feelings towards every part of my body 24/7 (who does?), but sharing that does not mean that I hate my body or am engaged in fat-based self-loathing. It only means that I have mixed feelings towards parts of my body sometimes.  It doesn't mean that I don't have good feelings towards my fat body at times, or that I've been hiding secret loathing behind a facade of fat acceptance.  It's just body ambivalence, not body hatred.

Perhaps I wasn't clear enough in the post that most of the time, I'm pretty at peace with my body ─ a lot more than a lot of the thinner women I see around me, in fact.  But not 24/7/365, and some parts are more challenging to love than others, you know?  I was just trying to be up front about that, because I think we NEED more of this kind of honesty, especially among mothers, and especially among mothers of size.  But it wasn't about hating myself, just my struggle to love the changes that pregnancy has wrought.

Before pregnancy, my most difficult part to love was my chest, because I'm very well-endowed and that has all kinds of physical and emotional burdens attached.  After pregnancy, once breastfeeding worked out, that actually was the part that experienced the most positive self-image improvement.  The part of me that had previously only been a burden before suddenly was responsible for nourishing and protecting my babies for  months ─ years ─ on end, and my babies certainly loved that part of me, so why couldn't I?  I just had a totally different take on my breasts after that, even as I still sometimes struggle with loving them fully.

My belly was a different matter, much to my surprise.  Before pregnancy, I was pretty much fine with my belly.  But I was really surprised how much challenge I had with it during and after my pregnancies ─ especially after multiple pregnancies.  It does take a toll on your body shape and your body image, and I was just trying to articulate how that challenged me in my fat-acceptance and body-acceptance process.

So folks, if you were worried about me loathing my body or that I was suddenly revealing secret reservoirs of self-hate, please be reassured that most of the time, I'm pretty self-accepting.  But I don't think it's a problem to share that I'm not always that way, or that certain things really challenge my body image more than others.  I think a combination of pregnancy and recent aging-related changes of perimenopause gave rise to more reflection than usual on that, that's all. 

One thing I was very much troubled by was the fact that some folks questioned whether my posts belonged on the Fatosphere.  That in particular really shocked me, considering all the work I've done in Fat-Acceptance over the years.  Heck, I've been in the Fat-Acceptance movement for longer than some of my readers have been alive.  I'm not just talking the talk, but have been actually walking the walk for many years, and have been writing, researching, publishing, and presenting at conferences on the topic of fatness and pregnancy for more than a decade.  I've been a quite vocal and active FA-advocate, and have been a member of NAAFA for years.  To be questioned in my own backyard about my "FA-ness" was quite distressing.

Let me be clear.  I don't see my post as contrary to the purpose of the feed at all, or to Fat Acceptance in general. The Fatosphere is SUPPOSED to be a place where we can work through a lot of our feelings, good and bad, about our bodies. In my view, it's not a "you can only express positive things about your body no matter what" place.

Certainly, I surely see a lot of body ambivalence on other blogs. Why would my blog be exempt from being able to talk about that? The fatosphere is supposed to be the one place where we CAN talk about these things without being judged. And yet, there I was, being judged for some pretty normal feelings, ones extremely common to mothers after pregnancy, and I wanted to talk about how that interacted with my self-acceptance beliefs. I see that as very much in concordance with what the Fatosphere is supposed to be about.

I'm also very frustrated with the idea that I can't express ambivalence about the droopy baby belly, the "flap" if you will. Nearly all mothers have some ambivalence about this ─ it's very normal in women of all sizes, and I think it's intensified for many women of size. Why is this okay for women of average size to talk about ─ but not for us as women of size?  We all have to process it; it's a very normal feeling.  Some people experience the belly flap more than others, but we all have to process body changes to some degree.

It's not like because we are fat-accepting, we have a magic shield against negative feelings from body changes.  We have these issues too, and it may be intensified in those with previous body image issues.  Even those of us who are pretty far along on the fat-acceptance spectrum can still feel challenged by these things ─ and that's okay. And it doesn't mean that we are now body-haters and full of self-loathing and about to sign up for surgery.  It means we're processing normal feelings.

My whole point is that the changes in my body (and specifically my belly) resulting from several pregnancies, lipedema, and age are challenging my fat- and self-acceptance in a way it's not been challenged in a long time, and I continue to struggle with that. I think being honest about these kinds of struggles is absolutely VITAL to the fat-acceptance discussion. What are we here for if we can't discuss that kind of thing?

I'm not telling others how THEY should feel about their bellies. If you came through pregnancy perfectly positive about your belly, more power to you. I'm simply trying to express that even in me, a VERY self-accepting and fat-accepting person, dealing with this pregnancy after-effect has been quite challenging, even years after my last pregnancy, and how surprising this has been to me as an activist.

I certainly think that postpartum feelings about your body (and the unique challenges that might bring to fat women) is an appropriate topic for my blog, don't you? I KNOW a lot of other women of size have struggled with the same feelings because they've written me about it. I was articulating my own struggles as a way to not only help me with my own ambivalence, but to help others explore their own.

It was such a shock to me, how pregnancy challenged my fat-acceptance in so many ways. For example, as I've written about before, I went from a take-no-guff-from-doctors FA person to a meek little sheeple who got railroaded and frightened into a whole bunch of unneeded and fat-phobic interventions in my first pregnancy. It took me quite a while to get past that, but working through that and empowering myself enough to question the doctors led me to create my website and my blog. The journey was worth it ─ but it didn't happen overnight, and it took a lot of emotional processing to get there.  Sharing that is helpful to other fat women struggling to figure out what interventions are needed in their pregnancies and which ones are questionable,  what choices they really have in birth, and cutting through the anti-fat rhetoric that surrounds so much of the information out there on pregnancy and fatness.

I think a similar journey is worth it on the whole belly ambivalence question too. Pregnancy (and especially post-partum) totally challenged my FA-ness, and I still work through it. I don't think talking about that is in opposition to the fatosphere at all. I think it will help other women on their journey, which is why I talked about it in the first place. People are at all different points on their journey to fat acceptance, and I think it's extremely helpful to see someone else struggle with that journey too. To have my FA credentials questioned because of that is extremely frustrating to me.

Another thing that frustrated me was that while I discussed my belly ambivalence very frankly, I also made a real point of bringing the question back to positiveness at the end of my post. I made a point of honoring our bellies anyhow, even in the face of ambivalence, and acknowledging the incredible work they did. I thought I made that point pretty strongly, using my words and my belly-painting pictures, because it's very much how I feel. So it's upsetting to me to have that conclusion ignored or negated. Yes, I talked frankly about belly ambivalence and the challenges I've experienced, but then I brought the discussion back to a positive conclusion. That's an important point that got ignored by some.

Furthermore, it makes me frustrated to feel censored in what I'm "allowed" to talk about as a "good" fattie. Ambivalent feelings are part and parcel of the journey to FA, even for people well along on that journey. Other people can talk about this on the feed (and do), but for some reason it created a lot of reaction when I did it. Perhaps it's harder to hear it in relationship to pregnancy (society really tends to discourage expressing negative or ambivalent feelings about pregnancy).  Or perhaps it's hard to hear someone who doesn't usually express much body-ambivalence actually express some.

But the whole point was that this is a NORMAL and VERY COMMON response to pregnancy and post-partum body image in women of all sizes, and that it's often intensified for women of size and we should be discussing that.

Expressing that doesn't make someone anti-FA. It just acknowledges a common feeling among many women of size, something many of the women in the comments commiserated with, you'll note.

The fall-out from all this is that right now, I don't feel safe choosing topics for the blog, and that alarms me. I was planning a big series addressing the risks of pregnancy in women of size, because the fat-phobic doctors contend that a pollyanna approach ("everything will be fine") to fatness and pregnancy is misleading and intellectually dishonest. Research is clear that there are more risks for certain complications in women of size in pregnancy ─ the problem is that doctors DISTORT that information and use it as a scare tactic or a way to pressure women into questionable interventions. I want my series to look at the research dispassionately, acknowledge what risks there are, make sure people understand these potential risks, discuss how we can be proactive to lessen those risks, and make sure people understand that, though there, these risks are still generally small ─ that most fat women will have healthy babies just fine.

But now I'm questioning whether I should even attempt such a series, whether this will be seen as too negative or not "FA enough" for some. Yet I think not doing that series would be a tremendous disservice to women of size.  The whole purpose of my website and my blog is honest and accurate information, not just rah-rah cheerleading and a polyanna approach.

Women of size NEED intellectually honest discussions about the research, good and bad, along with primers for understanding it and using it to help improve our outcomes and experiences.  We don't need more "everything will be just fine" or "oh my God you're going to die" extremism.  We need a more nuanced approach.

I just am frustrated with the idea that we should only be fat cheerleaders and never be allowed to go beyond that.  Fat Acceptance is a journey, and I think it's important that we be allowed to fully process our feelings, even the ambivalent ones, along the way, without people jumping to conclusions about our FA-ness. 

Okay, so now I've vented a bit and expressed my concerns too.  Feel free to discuss in the comments section.  Just please be respectful and polite, even if you disagree and need to argue a point, okay?  I'm feeling particularly tender and touchy on this subject right now and would appreciate some delicacy, even as I know that dialogue is important.

But I don't think the discussion ends here.  This is of necessity a rather negative post, and I'm okay with that up to a point.  I think the frustrations needed to be aired and perhaps some good will come of the dialogue.

However, I prefer to bring the discussion back to the positive whenever possible.  So I decided to put the negative things in this post and do a whole different post next time that focuses things a little differently, a little more positively without being false, that puts things back on a more constructive footing. 

I'd like to propose a Belly Blog Carnival next time ─ more on that soon!!


Emybloom said...

I personally loved both these posts - I think sometimes FA goes a little too far into the 'you must be positive at all times' and forgets that we are human and do need to talk, read and discuss the negatives as well as positives.

Please do write the planned posts - I think it's really important that there is some unbiased information on the web which does talk about the risks for an obese pregnant woman without going overboard in one direction or another. I either read that I'm going to get GD complications a C-section and potentially die, or that it's all bunnies and rainbows - I'm pretty sure there are more risks due to my weight and general health just the same as my friend who has battled with anorexia had issues in her pregnancy.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm a new-ish reader to your blog and I really enjoyed your post last week. As someone who is pregnant for the first time, and has struggled with my weight for my entire life, I like reading your thoughts on body issues and motherhood.

My personal opinion about this is that you should continue to follow your gut and keep writing what you feel. Kudos for you for keeping an open mind and being willing to change (ie: add a Trigger Warning), but in the end, it's YOUR blog. I can't think of ANY blog that I read where I agree with every single thing they write, but I still read them. Actually, I enjoy it when a blogger I really love posts something I don't agree with... it makes me question my own beliefs.

Finally, my mom used to tell me that if I lose some friends because I act like myself in front of them, then they weren't really worth having to begin with. Same thing might go for readers?

Keep up the awesome blog!


I read the original post but not the comments and found it really enlightening. I have not yet had children, but plan to. I love this blog - I get so much info that I would not get anywhere else! I found your discussion about your belly very "real" and not at all anti-FA. Pretending that these feelings don't exist doesn't make them go away; talking about them and working through them does.

My two cents: keep doing what you're doing. I, for one, am looking forward to your upcoming series about dealing with doctors and the reality of risks as a plus sized mom. I want to be as prepared as possible when the time comes to avoid joining the scared "sheeple". It's the same, thing, really. Pretending the risks that go along with being a plus sized mom-to-be don't exist, does not produce better outcomes. Just because doctors overblow it, does not mean we shouldn't know the real deal.

Everyone comes to this blog from her own perspective and looks at it through her own lens. That, you cannot control. Sharing this information from a place of integrity is all you can do. How it is received is not within your control. That being said, we all want to know that what we do is being heard, and hopefully, being appreciated. That's why I'm chiming in to say that it truly is. Thanks again.

karesara said...

i appericate that you do these blogs. i am a 31 year old woman that will in the near future be trying to start a family. being on the plus size i am looking for all the info that i can get.

nopinkhere said...

Please do post your series!
One of the things I liked about my midwives is that they would warn me about certain conditions being more likely because of my weight, but then they would put them in perspective a bit. (words to the effect of "Yes, there's a higher likelihood but that's still a very small chance") They also were good about monitoring without exploding small changes into giant mountains.
Not every woman has care providers with decent perspective and your series will help them find it on their own.

Also, I'm reasonably happy about my post-pregnancy belly currently, but I definitely can't promise to be as happy about it in a decade. Gravity happens. I'm disappointed at the comments you had; I read that post before there were very many comments.

Issa said...

I hope that my comment on the original post didn't add too much to your dismay. My similarly flabby pregnant belly isn't a touchy point for *me*, and I loved seeing your photo of yours, but I do understand ambivalence about and even dislike of certain body parts. I don't have any worries about my fat, but I've got other body appearance issues (hello chin hairs!) and I'd hate to feel like I couldn't express my feelings about that.

I'm a new commenter, but I've enjoyed your blog for a long time and it's factored into my pregnancy preparation, so I hope you continue to write what seems important to you. It's important to many others as well!

AllyMumtobe said...

I liked both your "belly thoughts" posts. I read the original and it was the first time i'd actually thought about what I may look like after i start having my babies. i've been reading your blog for a year and love it. i'm surrently TTCing and its made a difference reading your blog instead of the " you will die" articles i find on google.

I didn't find your post negative and the website it was linked to was another eye opener for me. and I even planned to send in some pics of me once i'm rpegnant to share my plus size belly which i'm hoping i love but i know i might not so thankyou for your blog and i hope you do write all your planned posts becasue i will read them!

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you got such negative comments--as you said, other people have posted similar stuff on the Fatosphere feed. I really enjoy your blog and your willingness to discuss risks critically and hope that you feel better about everything soon.

Heidi said...

I have other things to say about this but don't have time at the moment (am trying to listen to a class lecture online and type at the same time) but I did want to say this - the fact that your page exists (the plus size pregnancy resources) made me an advocate for myself and for my child when I was pregnant. I read it religiously and it made a huge difference in how I viewed myself in pregnancy and how strongly I advocated for being able to birth on my own schedule.

One vaginal birth, and a healthy child later, I will never be able to fully tell you how much that meant to me. Thank you for your voice on the Fatosphere!

Anonymous said...

I've never been pregnant and don't plan on being so, but I must say I very much admire the research and advocacy you do on the subject.
The connotations of Shamu and deathfat are different. "Deathfat" is an ironic term invented by a fat person as a sarcastic, non-euphemized way of saying morbidly obese. "Shamu" is usually used by fat-haters to imply that we're something non-human, like beached whales. I am CERTAIN that this is not what was meant, and I take full blame if I even implied such. Just saying that's why "Shamu" comes across like a slap and "deathfat" does not, even though you were QUITE clearly just referring to your own feelings.
The problem these days is that so many negative feelings that someone might feel are expressed as "feeling fat" rather than "feeling out of control", which are not the same thing.
Whether negative or positive, the important thing is that you put matters in perspective where others don't.

Janeen said...

People will read and take different things out of what you write. Some found your last post on this issue upsetting but I found it helpful and reassuring. Fact of the matter is, there are very few women out there who do not have some issue with their bodies. Thank our wonderful society for that. And we're definitely also harder on ourselves than on others. I wonder at times myself why I'm so negative about my own body and looks and others I'm not even those who are the same size as me. It's very strange but I do believe it is somewhat normal (though not something that should be normal).

I think the series you mention would be good. I'm glad I was able to read your blog and website during my pregnancy. It was very reassuring at times when I felt doubtful due to articles I read online and talking to you after that disastrous meeting with the first OB especially was helpful because she almost had me doubting myself but I knew too from the resources I had at hand that something was being blown out of proportion but I wouldn't have known that had I not had access to both your blog and website so I am very grateful and recommend it to any plus sized woman who is pregnant or looking to become pregnant.

nsv said...

I will join everyone else in thanking WRM for her consistently excellent research and writing on fat and pregnancy. I depended on the plus-sized pregnancy page when I was planning my pregnancies, and this blog has always been thought-provoking and supportive.

I also find that FA is a little more nuanced now than in the early days. There was more of a need for un-critical cheerleading back then, when we were surrounded by bad messages and lack of accommodation for our size. Now, I think, the movement has matured, and we are able to take on some harder questions: What do we do when our perceptions change as our bodies change? How do we acknowledge that our fatness may, in fact, in some respects adversely affect our health? How do we deal with people who are comfortable being fat to a certain degree, but no fatter?

I think it's a mark of how FA has evolved that we can now address these issues. I beg WRM not to stop, and to - once again - be in the vanguard of the movement with her work.

Cheryl Fuller said...

The younger of my two kids is 31 so I am well past childbearing age, but the belly flap lingers on as a souvenir. I am glad you posted about it.

It bothers me that so much of the fatosphere takes a "seldom is heard a discouraging word" attitude and becomes blind to the reality that ambivalence is very much a part of life, and not just for those of us who are fat. Ambivalence doesn't equate to hatred or self-loathing, at least not for me. And accepting my body does not mean that I don't wish that some parts of it were different.

C.G. said...

Please do write the planned series! As a super sized mama, your website and blog have meant so much to me through both of my pregnancies. It's so important to have accurate information available when we are bombarded with so much that is conflicting and confusing.

Kim said...

I really enjoyed these posts. I hope the detractors don't deter you from posting in the future. People can be overly critical at times (and way too many people don't get sarcasm).

These posts have helped me immensely. I'm going through IVF (now in the two week wait) and your blog has been an inspiration to me.

Margherita da Fiorenza said...


I will add my voice to the chorus asking you, please DO post that series of posts. I am a "supersized" woman with PCOS and hypothyroid, and I cannot express the comfort and hope I have taken from your blog. My first GYN actually told me, "don't you DARE get pregnant until you lose weight!" as though I was a naughty child- this was when I was a virgin and not even remotely interested in having a baby yet, and had TOLD HER this. I found another GYN, and his constant harping on my weight made me feel so bad I just stopped going to the GYN and had pretty much given up on the idea of having children. Now, in large part because of your website and your blog, I have found a new doctor who is size-accepting, have had a well-woman exam for the first time in 3 years, and have an appointment scheduled next week to discuss my fertility and how I could have a healthy pregnancy at my current size.

You are making a positive difference to me and so many other women like me, who want to have children but are told at every turn "don't you DARE."

So... thank you.

E. B. said...

I was also very shocked at how my body changed after having children (and I'm not 100% done yet), I think it was fine to speak of. Shouldn't be censored, no matter what. So long as you put warnings up for someone who might need them, I don't see a problem at all. Thanks for bring the issue of pregnancy while fat up. Before I found your site (five years ago, when I was fat, scared, and newly pregnant!) there was nothing on being queen sized and pregnant (other than DON'T do it!!!) and it was nice to find.
Personally, I don't care for NCB philosophies though, so it would be nice to see some pro-med/mainstream tech. information (some of it IS positive, I swear. It saved my life, and my inductions were pretty nice. So long as you have a compassionate care-giver and hospital, it's not a bad deal at all...)

Kristen said...

Just wanted to weigh in and say that the world could always use more honest and nuanced thinking. Yours is a site that I have recommended to doula clients, and it is because of this mix of honesty and nuance that I recommend it so highly.

Unknown said...

I've been reading your blog awhile, because it's great to finally have someone who is on the side of the not-so-little people. Who says "Guess what, there are lots of larger women out there having babies and are totally fine" instead of all the other literature about getting down to that ideal weight before having children. It's better for Mommy and Baby, sure, but it's not mandatory.

To have so much negative attention drawn to the fact that you, yourself, have the occaisonal PMS-ish day where everything makes you feel like you look huge or that you just want to rip that hanging flap off (believe me, if that were an option I would do it to myself in a heartbeat) is kind of ridiculous. We are women. It doesn't matter what size we are, there will always be a point in time where you just don't feel great about the way that you look. It's part of our genetic make-up for some reason.

I definitely would like to read the planned posts. As a larger woman who is going to start trying for a family within the next couple of months (!), I love reading this blog and finding out facts.

Anna Geletka said...

I've never been pregnant (desperately want to be, but we can't afford it yet), so I don't have the same perspective as some of your other readers. Yet, your "Belly Thoughts" really spoke to me. I recently stepped on the scale again after months of abstaining, and all those negative feelings I thought I had gotten rid of rushed back in.

I'm exactly on the line between overweight and obese. I believe in FA, but I still feel these negative feelings about my body and I still struggle to accept it. It makes me feel like a terrible feminist and a terrible FA member, especially when I see much larger women apparently loving their bodies without reserve.

We can't pretend that we don't hear the negative societal messages about our bodies, that we don't all have some moments of doubt and pain. To know that you, an FA blogger that I respect very much, still has these moments - that meant a lot to me.

Anonymous said...

I applaud you for your honesty. This blog is your space and your words and feelings are your own. They may make some uncomfortable, but that's life, and part of "getting past" whatever hang ups/struggles we all experience is facing the ugly bits.

This is my very first time to visit your blog, though I've heard about it from several friends. Honestly, the reason I checked out your blog was for those nice planned posts. I thought if I'd find that info anywhere it would be here. So I hope that you do write them.