pregnancy

'Please stop commenting on my pregnant body.'

Late in my third trimester, I walked into a furniture store and held the door for the woman coming in behind me. 

"Oh, I should be holding this for you! How far along are you?" she asked.

"35 weeks," I said. "Almost there!"

"Well, you look incredible," she said, eyes darting up and down my body. "So... compact!"

"Thank you," I sighed, accidentally letting the door slam behind us.

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As she walked off, she continued to eye my pregnant shape from different angles, smiling and shaking her head as if to say, "Yep, still looking good from this angle too, well done you!"

This wasn’t an isolated incident. 

I’d been getting it a lot since I had been well enough to leave the house.

I know this sounds like a lovely thing to hear from strangers and I know these people are well-meaning. Who doesn’t want to be told they look great, right?

The problem is not in the compliment, it’s what the fixation on appearance-based approval works to erase.

Because despite all appearances suggesting the contrary, at the time, I was incredibly sick.

At 14 weeks, after months of not being able to stand up or keep food down, I was finally diagnosed with Addison’s disease.

A rare, incurable autoimmune disease affecting the adrenal glands, rendering them unable to produce cortisol along with other life-sustaining hormones.

From the moment of diagnosis last year, my life was a flurry of specialist appointments, vital sign monitoring, trips to emergency, and of course, the odd antenatal scan to see how my poor, precious baby was growing amongst the madness.

At the time, I had 10 separate alarms on my phone that went off from the moment I woke to the time my head hit the pillow, each reminding me to take a reading or a dose of medication.

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Each a well-timed hand reaching out to pull me from anything I might be doing back into the land of the sick.

This strict regimen of biofeedback is emotionally exhausting.

But how can I expect those around me to understand what I’m going through when my body appears perfectly healthy from the outside? 

Well, I’ve told them. I’m not keeping any of it a secret. 

Yet I’m still often met with a refrain of comments like, 'Well, you look fantastic' and, 'But you look great though'.

There is a lot wrong with our culture’s impulse to reduce our assumptions about someone’s physical health down to their appearance.

More and more, people in the public eye are setting firm boundaries around appearance-based comments.

There was Jonah Hill, who took to his Instagram to post a respectful yet firm request for no comments on his appearance, good or bad. 

And there was Demi Lovato, who spoke out about complimenting weight loss from the perspective of an eating disorder survivor. 

But it was the comments that Chadwick Boseman received during his battle with colon cancer that really illustrated the significance of this issue. 

His weight loss was scrutinised, assumptions were made about his 'choice' to change his body so significantly, and a spotlight was placed upon our culture’s inability to separate a person’s physical appearance from their assumed health status. 

My pregnancy wasn’t the first time that my thin body was mistaken for exemplifying inner health. 

Throughout my battle with anorexia, my thinness was celebrated, envied and championed as an example of health personified.

Again, I had never been less healthy in my life. 

These stories should be enough to stop us in our tracks the next time we go to comment on another person’s body.

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But in case anyone needs further convincing, there is actual scientific evidence showing us that our body size does not match up with our health status. 

The Health At Every Size (HAES) movement is based on the growing body of evidence that demonstrates that our physical appearance is not a reliable indicator of our overall health. 

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A study from The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine shows that our habits have a greater bearing on determining health outcomes than our body size. 

And this study from 2005 demonstrates how a HAES approach is far more successful at improving health outcomes than weight-loss diets.

Of course, our desire to comment on women’s bodies goes into overdrive when pregnancy is involved. 

We can’t help ourselves. 

"Oh, you’re so small, you’re how many weeks?" 

"Wow, look at that belly!" 

"You look so beautiful!" 

"Gosh, you’re huge, when are you due?"

As a pregnant woman, stepping out the front door entitles you to a constant stream of unsolicited body commentary.

Some of it seemingly complimentary, some of it downright rude, and some of it just par for the course, like "you’re glowing".

The thing is, all of it can be harmful when it’s received by someone who’s struggling. 

Pregnancy is a time when our focus should not be on the way a woman’s body looks but on celebrating its function.

Even in perfectly smooth pregnancies, constant unsolicited comments on women’s bodies during this period can serve as potent reminders of how integral our beauty is to our worth in society.

So, what does all of this mean for us? Can’t I tell my friend when I think she looks nice? 

Well the answer is, it really depends.

For most of us, this is new terrain, and it doesn’t call for an immediate embargo on all appearance based conversation (unless expressly requested, like in Jonah Hill’s case). 

But there’s no denying that a move towards a reduced emphasis on outward appearance is a move in the right direction. 

Maybe it’s as simple as remembering what our parents tried to teach us all of those years ago, "It’s what’s on the inside that counts".

Hannah Vanderheide is a writer, actor, and voice artist with a beautiful new baby boy. She's also a body-neutral trainer, eating disorder survivor, and wellness industry sceptic who loves to write about the sensible side of health.

Feature Image: Getty.

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