By Hilary Kinavey, MS, LPC
This happens to me pretty often.
I have a round, up-front belly. It was round and up front before I was fortunate enough to carry my children in it. It was round and up front after too.
Most recently, at day camp drop off, another mother asked me “if I was carrying another?”
“No”, I said, “This is what my body looks like.”
Another time I was at a retreat center facilitating a workshop. I had just walked up to the dining hall and as I took off my coat, a woman said loudly “Hey, is there a baby in there?”
“No”, I said, “this is all me.”
Sometimes it happens more subtly, like at the grocery store checkout, when the checker asks me if I want help out and, when I say no, they look at me and say, “are you sure?” in a knowing and somewhat protective way.
“Yes, I am really sure.”
There are a lot of things about this nonsense I’ve become sure about.
Being asked if I am pregnant (when I am not) used to send me into a shame spiral that would strip me of my own presence and trust for many, many days. I thought being asked this question presented absolute evidence that my body was definitely a big problem to be solved. I thought to be free from this stigma I had to change something quick. Maybe you too have had years in your life that were dedicated to attempting to eradicate your belly? Precious years. Distracted and difficult years. I first noticed my belly when I saw second grade class picture, and I think that may be my first visceral memory of shame. I really wished there was something I could do to not be seen. For much of my life my belly was my proof that something was really wrong with me.
I’m clear now that is not the case. Now I just see my belly as a part of me, with every right to exist. I’m pretty neutral about the whole thing. No more shame spiral. I’m actually pretty proud of that.
Part of what has helped me heal is that I know that this happens to women all of the time. Way more than you would expect, in fact. This question is asked of women in smaller bodies and women in larger ones—and everywhere in between. These stories come up a lot at Be Nourished—with loads of shame and self-blame permeating the narrative. The teller usually is afraid that they are the only one this has happened to because these stories are rarely shared and normalized.
The other thing that has helped me heal the shame is to understand that these occurrences are the product of a living in a weight biased and diet-normalizing culture. We’ve been taught to equate belly protuberance only with pregnancy and not with body shape. We almost forget bellies exist. They aren’t “bumps” as the celebrity-obsessed media would call them. We accept the grossest of mixed messages, don’t we? Pregnant bellies are beautiful. Fat bellies are not. Nonsense. This is what we have been taught to believe—nonsense.
The healthist gurus know picking on bellies is a particularly advantageous (for them) focal point for instigating widespread body blame that sells things. We have been taught to associate eating wheat with having a belly thanks to the popularity of that Wheat Belly book (this is shaming). I remember a conference session, years ago, rudely titled “It’s better to eat an apple than be an apple”. The dangers associated with waist circumference and visceral belly fat can be recited by the masses, further denouncing and denigrating the rightful and ample existence of bellies.
The size and shape of a person’s body is not a crystal ball for medical professionals and health gurus. Nobody can tell your health future by looking at your shape. Bellies have been around for a long while. They are here to stay. Looking like an apple is not a problem, per se. Not being able to claim one’s body as worthy and whole due to weight bias is.
And frankly, I don’t really look like an apple or a pear. I look like me.
It is essential that we move in the direction of understanding how asking another person about the state of inhabitation in their belly is not really okay. I’m suggesting we draw that boundary.
If we could trust one another to hold a weight inclusive and reverent stance regarding the belonging of all bodies as they are, I think we could ask strangers about their possibly pregnant bellies. But we can’t (yet). So don’t ask.
Don’t ask because it can be shaming. It has a potentially harmful impact.
Don’t ask because pregnancy status is not public domain. People’s bodies and health status are also not public domain.
Last weekend, two speakers were introduced at a conference I attended. When they came out on stage they were greeted with cat calls because they were both pregnant. They ignored this and went on with their talk. It wasn’t a necessary discussion point.
There were a couple of weeks in my life when I sequestered myself to my basement to avoid talking about my belly. I was, in fact, pregnant at the time. I had learned, at 22 weeks along, that the baby I had been carrying in my belly was not going to survive. My pregnancy would be ending soon. For those two weeks I dreaded and grieved so many things—and I did not want to field questions about my due date, corresponding size or baby at the f-ing grocery store.
But, in truth, when would I ever want to?
We don’t live in a 1950s sitcom. Pregnancy is complicated. Not everyone is ecstatic about their pregnancy. They may be struggling. Maybe they lost their previous pregnancy or child. Maybe they are thrilled. Allow others’ lives to be more complex than the quick stories we make up about them. This is one of the most inclusive things we can do. If they want to make small talk about their belly, they will. Otherwise, stay out of it.
We KNOW we live in a time where bodies are regularly stigmatized. This bias is given a pass. Over and over again. If you care about people and want the bodies they occupy to be safe, it’s time to change how we approach them. You lose nothing if you give up talking to people about this. Nothing. Not every round belly is carrying a person. Nor does anyone’s belly (or body) require explanation.