Body image in and after pregnancy

The feeling of having no control over your body as your bump grows can be pretty frightening. For mum-of-3 Eliza Frazer, it triggered a return of an eating disorder…

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Spend 15 minutes in any playground and you’re almost certain to overhear mothers of all ages, sizes and backgrounds talking about 3 things: their kids, their husbands and the size of their thighs, bottoms or tummies. Yep – the obsession that most of us have with our body shape, size and general wobbliness doesn’t disappear when we find ourselves up the duff. For many women, in fact, it promotes new worries.

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This is hardly surprising: pregnancy causes the body to go through enormous changes in a remarkably short space of time. What’s more, these changes are completely are completely out of our control, leaving us feeling like an alien inhabiting someone else’s body – and yet we are meant to ‘glow’ and love this new ‘inflated-balloon’ look. If this isn’t going to trigger some kind of body issues, I really don’t know what is!

Hidden problems

I became pregnant for the first time when I was 23. However, I had suffered from serious body image problems since I was a teenagers, including bulimia. Despite being more common than anorexia, little is known about bulimia: it is rarely talked about or admitted to, and it’s almost impossible to spot a sufferer. Even during the worst periods of my illness I appeared to be well and happy, and I doubted anyone knew of my secret life of binging and purging. Bulimia isn’t just about body size, and nor is it just about making yourself sick after eating. It is a serious illness, and at it’s most extreme it’s a deep, overpowering sickness and compulsive obsession, which can kill you. It’s often all about control – and it certainly was with me.

Happily, the bulimia went away for a while after I got married and, perhaps surprising, I really enjoyed my first pregnancy, barely worrying about my expanding waistline and disappearing muscle tone. I was happy, calm and maternal, and I associated the change in my body’s shape with the pregnancy. All of the expansion and ‘dropping’ seemed right – and anyway, it would all ping back into shape after the birth…

After I had the baby however, things got complicated again. I naively assumed that my body should be getting back to normal pretty quickly, and that a wobbly, stretched woman would stop staring back at me from the mirror every morning. But despite my efforts to shift the baby weight by jogging in three maternity bras after the morning feed, breastfeeding for months and drinking slimming tea (yuk!), I found it very hard to return to the shape I’d known before getting pregnant – to go back to being me. I was very unhappy living in this new body, and it wasn’t long before my eating disorder returned.

Odd one out

I found this surprising and worrying: wasn’t it terrible and irresponsible to have an eating disorder when I had a baby to look after? All the other mothers I met seemed so relaxed in their bodies, while I felt fat, shapeless, and just, well, strange.

When I felt the problem becoming more serious again after my second child was born, and things seemed uncertain and out of my control, I went to see my GP. What followed was a year of counselling and a course of antidepressants. I took the pills reluctantly, but knew I couldn’t recover without a break from my poor confused mind and working things our rationally. The result was miraculous: it was like pressing a giant pause button, and the whole world fell in manageable, understandable order. The bingeing stopped, and I began freelance writing.

After coming off the antidepressants for two years and being more or less well, however, things started to slip again when a third (planned) pregnancy came along. But having children in the house brought new concerns: I had to stop this obsession for their sake. Annoyingly though, beating bulimia is complicated by an obvious fact: we all have to eat. We don’t have to drink alcohol, take cocaine or other addictive drugs, so going cold turkey can work – but eating is something we can’t just stop doing. And eating one mouthful of food had become so strongly associated with bingeing that that it was almost impossible for me to stop, despite desperately wanting to.

No going back

In the end, it took a real scare to make me kick the habit for good. It happened 3 years ago, soon after my third child was born: I was ‘purging’ when my heart started skipping beats. I couldn’t breathe, the room went white and I almost passed out. I honestly believed I was going to die, and the thought that I might not be there for the children was terrifying. That was the last time I made myself sick, and I’ve never wanted to since. It’s over, like a switch being flicked and it feels fantastic. My mind is clear and I feel strong, healthy and happy.

When I was ill, I always felt like I was the only mum going through it, but after 10 years on the baby block, I’ve realised that I wasn’t alone at all. Every mum I know has been on a weird programme at some point in her post-childbirth life. What’s more, I’ve learnt that eating disorders, both during and after pregnancy, are far from rare – yet admitting to them is still taboo. Why?

It seems only natural that the huge changes motherhood brings are likely to cause body issues. After all, a woman’s entire body frame can change after a pregnancy, as her rib cage and hips become permanently bigger – fighting that is impossible! To make matters worse, we are constantly buying, cooking, or feeding food to our children, we often finish what’s left on their plates and we spend more time at home near the biscuit tin. The messages we receive from the media are utterly confusing and it’s almost impossible to know what’s normal and what’s not. So losing post-baby weight can become addictive, and this can manifest itself in different ways. I know mums with anorexia, mums who have had bulimia at one time or another, mums who have signed up to Weightwatchers and mums who have organised morning jogs to try and shift some baby weight together.

We are all in this body image thing together, so we might as well join forces and tone up en (grande) masse! More importantly, we should feel able to speak about these issues and help each other. Within a few months of recovering, I sent a book proposal to a literary agent and two months later I found myself looking at my first book deal. If writing about my experience helps only 1 woman, then it has all been worth it.

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I am now as happy with my body shape as any mother can be – I’ve been at an unwavering 8 stone for 2 years. I have lumps and bumps and I work hard to keep everything as fit and toned as it can be after having 3 kids, but I no longer worry about it, and rarely look down and hate what I see. I feel more at home in my own skin than ever.

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