What does it say about a culture if when a baby’s born, the mom’s tummy size gets as much attention as the baby?
The British magazine OK! came under fire earlier this summer for running a feature story on Kate Middleton’s “post-baby weight loss regime.” Even as moms around the world tweeted and blogged their appreciation of Kate’s post-baby appearance, in which she seemed not to make any attempt to disguise her postpartum tummy, OK! magazine, like any good tabloid, tried to appeal to readers’ venality by promising details of her “diet and shape-up plan” and a (supposed) interview with Kate’s trainer, quoted on the cover, saying, “She’s super-fit—her stomach will shrink straight back.”
Another British tabloid, The Daily Star, recently reported the story of a London woman, Holly Griffiths, who gave birth to a healthy baby after a frighteningly thin pregnancy; Griffiths, who was diagnosed with anorexia at age 13, posted pictures of herself online weighing just 114 pounds at 8 months pregnant. Several years ago, an American woman, Maggie Baumann, restricted her weight gain so severely that her baby suffered intrauterine growth restriction and, after birth, seizures and attention deficit problems, which her doctor suggested “may have been linked with poor fetal nutrition.”
It’s impossible for me to reflect on the cultural phenomenon of ‘skinny pregnant’ without reflecting on the place I currently live: Malawi, Africa. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a maternity clinic not far from my home. As I toured the small but well-equipped facility, I noticed, as I always do, how the women looked. Nearly always, they look too thin, and even the ones who gave birth just that morning have barely a belly to show for it. I stepped in close to peek at one woman’s freshly-born baby; we caught eyes and she grinned. I was stunned at the whiteness of her gums: a sign of severe anemia. Because a woman’s need for iron doubles during pregnancy—and because getting enough iron in the diet is a constant problem for most women in Malawi—she was depleted. Health experts have identified anemia as a major risk factor for maternal mortality, so it’s really no wonder that here it’s a compliment to tell a pregnant woman that she’s looking good and fat.
I’m not sharing this as a guilt trip; the grown-up pregnancy version of “Clean your plate because kids are starving around the world.” (“Gain lots of weight because pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa can’t!”) I tell this because here, the reality that life is short and often difficult is rarely varnished over with distractions.
Several months ago I sat with a group of women on the floor with a mother who had buried her newborn baby that morning; it was a ritual they were all too familiar with. At home, my own children ran around the yard, playing and laughing, and I realized with a start how quickly the time had passed since they were babies. Any time I spent worrying about what having them would do to my body was wasted time, I realized.
Life—the baby’s life, the mother’s life—is too good a gift to be frittered away fretting over the shape of the body that so miraculously brings it forth. Care for the body, but celebrate that life.