More Than Baby Weight: The Hidden Fatphobia in Pregnancy

By Priyanka Saju

Our 4-part series by Priyanka Saju explores her plus-size pregnancy—all in a pandemic.

After years of arriving to a place somewhere between body positivity and body neutrality, I have started to feel bad about my body again.

People often ask me what the most surprising thing is about being pregnant. Unfortunately, the answer I give them is not always as positive as they expect. After years of arriving to a place somewhere between body positivity and body neutrality, I have started to feel bad about my body again. Honestly, I really thought I had overcome my body shame narrative. For the most part, I am generally more concerned with my body’s health and wellbeing than its size. That is, until I got pregnant and gained insight into a whole new world of body consciousness and fatphobia. 

As a plus-size woman, the critique comes in many forms. Admittedly, we are no strangers to our bodies being treated as public domain for comment, but I never expected how much this phenomenon intensifies when you’re pregnant. One source of critique comes from some health care providers who maintain restrictive weight gain allowances. For example, for a pregnant person who is considered obese the recommended weight gain is only 11-20 lbs for the entire pregnancy (including baby). However, for a ‘normal’ BMI woman, that recommendation is typically between 25-35lbs.

I know I’m not the first one to point this out, but BMI is a wholly flawed metric of health. The BMI formula is based on racist and outdated science from a 200-year-old calculation by a mathematician, not a doctor or scientist. It does not account for diversity in body shapes and ethnicities, nor does it take into account a person’s overall health nor their body fat composition. Using this, and weight monitoring in general as a metric to evaluate and ensure maternal and baby safety, can lead to unnecessary nutritional restriction that can end up doing more harm than good.

This only fuels the discussion on pregnancy weight gain more. Apparently round bellies are only good when they come on pregnant women.

Moreover, weight monitoring, and often the implied shaming, of plus-sized pregnant people can be a constant source of negativity and stress. While I appreciate that medically, there is a stronger correlation between fat tissue and the likelihood of an onset complication like gestational diabetes or pre-eclampsia, overall weight is not an indication of health. Further, I know many straight-sized women in my life that have developed gestational diabetes without BMI ever being a factor. Healthcare providers can make a big difference in ensuring plus-sized pregnancies are handled with care and support by considering the specific composition, health, and histories of their patients. 

Another source of my newfound body consciousness comes from other pregnant people. These days, it’s more likely to come from an online forum than from a prenatal yoga class but it still stings the same. I read post after post where pregnancy weight gain is constantly compared, complained about, and dreaded. Mostly, these posts are from straight-sized women that are mortified that their bodies are not ‘cooperating’ with the guidelines and are gaining faster than they thought.

They write about feeling fat despite knowing that weight gain is a healthy part of the process of creating life. I am always particularly offended by these statements because, let me remind you, one cannot ‘feel’ fat. When someone says that, what they are really saying is any number of negative stand-in emotions – bloated, uncomfortable, unattractive, out of control, unworthy, lazy, etc. This is always particularly painful because these women share pregnancy weights and sizes that are often significantly smaller than I was pre-pregnancy. When they proclaim that their new ‘beached whale’ status is disgusting, what they are saying is that my body is disgusting. That I am disgusting. Now add pregnancy hormones on top of that and you’ve got a recipe for the type of body insecurity I haven’t felt since middle school. 

Now, I’m not wholly without compassion. I know that it can be really frustrating and scary when you feel like your body is growing out of control. That is, unfortunately, a feeling I know all too well. I know for many straight-sized women, who felt like their bodies were once ‘right, good, and obedient’, that this change can be quite a shock. What I don’t have compassion for, is the self-loathing language that very thinly shields their general feelings about being fat and fat people.

It’s not just straight-sized people either. Other plus-sized pregnant people can perpetuate their own internalized fatphobia. This often comes up in discussion on the shape and size of our pregnant bellies. “Good” bellies are often discussed as those where your stomach takes on a bulbous “D” shape. These pregnancies are easily identifiable by others and look more like our straight-sized peers. A “bad” stomach shape looks more like a “B” with a dividing line or roll that cuts through the middle. These stomachs tend to be less identifiably pregnant and so, don’t get the same love by society. This only fuels the discussion on pregnancy weight gain more. Apparently round bellies are only good when they come on pregnant women. 

I know that many of us have inherited our internalized fatphobia through society at large. I am not exempt from that and have been coming into awareness of all of the ways that this thinking has hurt myself and others. But here is my plea to other pregnant people out there: stop equating your sense of self-value with your size, because when you do, you are perpetuating a world where larger people and their experiences continue to be marginalized.  This can bleed over to how we are treated professionally, personally, and worse, by the medical system. This way of talking about your pregnant body has to stop. For the sake of your fellow pregnant community, and more importantly, for the next generation that we’re birthing. 

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