“I did not experience the freedom to eat for two; rather, I experienced the restriction of starving for two,” writes Maggie Baumann in her disturbing, frank account of experiencing eating disorders during her two pregnancies. Her first pregnancy triggered a strong compulsion to stay small, but during her second one the exercise and low-calorie diet became obsessive and life-threatening.
She delivered her low-birth weight daughter after gaining 18 pounds. At 5 feet 8 inches, she weighed 135 lbs at delivery. Her daughter was born healthy but later developed neurological problems that have been attributed to her mother’s anorexic pregnancy or “pregorexia.”
Pregnancy can sometimes have a very positive impact on women with a history of eating disorders; there’s an opportunity to redefine what a woman’s body is capable of doing. Also, pregnancy is often considered a time when a woman’s appetite is supposed to be robust. She can finally bring pleasure back to the dinner table. But eating disorders can persist even in pregnancy and sometimes become more severe.
Lately a new concern about obesity in pregnancy has revived some serious scrutiny of the pregnant body. I fear we’re heading back to the 1950s when pregnant women were prescribed diet pills to keep their weight down.
A woman in my childbirth class just last night lamented (and I’ll paraphrase), “I’m so pregnant, I can’t sleep, I’m working so hard, my husband won’t touch me, I am in a terrible mood, I have no outlet, I’m sorry if I have one small Kit Kat after lunch.” She paused, then added, “I may have eaten a little too much in the first trimester, but it was just such a relief to be able to eat and not worry about it for once in my life.” This is a woman who looks great, and to these eyes is nothing but pregnant. Maybe she gained a little more than the “optimal” amount, but she’s as healthy as can be. Still her doctor is on her about every pound.
Even just a few years ago the pregnancy culture was different. No one was told to “eat for two,” but there was a general feeling among pregnant women that the diet mentality could be dropped for nine sweet months.
“Pregorexia,” however, is different from an increased anxiety about gaining more than 25-35 pounds. It’s also bigger that the images of perfect supermodel pregnancies (though they surely can’t help) and doctors who scoff at an extra 15 pounds. As Ms. Baumann points out, “Pregorexia is a form of eating disorder that can be reinforced by comments about weight from friends and family, but the root of the disorder is more often based in control, perfectionism, or using the disorder as a coping mechanism to deal with difficult emotions or experiences.”
Eating disorders are hard enough on a woman’s body without pregnancy. During pregnancy there are potentially serious consequences for the mother and baby. Writing on this topic today, Jenn Savedge over at Mother Nature Network points out that the health risks for babies “include neurological problems, smaller head size, lower IQ, lower birth weight, birth defects, and impaired functioning later in life.”
When Ms. Baumann looked to the root of her control issues, she realized a previous abortion she never fully processed may have contributed to her feelings of being out of control. But she only started working through this stuff after her kids were born. Pregnancy can bring up a lot of emotions — people joke about how we’re “so hormonal,” but this is not just a physiological upheaval, it’s an emotional one. Pregnant women suffering from eating disorders can get treatment. It can be very hard to steer toward recovery, but group and individual counseling can help women get to what’s really going on with the pregnancy and the acute fear of getting big, and start to mend the problem from the source.
You can read Ms. Baumann’s story and see pictures of her pregnancy here.