Body image is not a foreign topic for women with chronic illnesses. Women of all backgrounds, shapes, and sizes engage in the topic and are talking about their experiences, how people receive them, and challenge our beliefs and assumptions about beauty and how women’s bodies look.
Women with all sorts of illnesses and disabilities are part of that conversation. This is my contribution to the conversation.
After my first back surgery, I was instantly three inches taller. My ribs also stuck out a bit at an angle from my back. When I lay on my back, my ribs rise up and block my view of my stomach.
However, the way they stick out also means that my stomach looks like it sticks out more than it would on someone without my surgeries (it would have been easier to write normal or healthy, but if my time in academia has taught me anything, word choice matters and has power).
I do a lot of strengthening exercises, but as a result of my fusions and rods, it’s very hard for me to do exercises that target and actually get my abdominal muscles to move. The rest of my body compensates, so that my stomach muscles are weak and flabby.
I’m not thin, but I’m in the acceptable range for weight for my height.
Whenever I ask my doctors what I need to do to be healthy and keep my skeleton and joints in good shape to prevent degeneration, I’m told to take calcium pills, do strengthening exercises and not gain weight. I’m doing my best on all of those, and generally feel pretty good.
However, that doesn’t prevent me from feeling sensitive about my stomach. The worst has been that occasionally acquaintances or complete strangers ask me if I’m pregnant. It’s a punch in the gut (metaphorically).
All my self-confidence and contentment with my body withers at the thought that I might look visibly pregnant (because if someone asks if you’re pregnant they probably don’t mean two or three months and barely visible. They probably think five or six. Or more?). It makes me never want to wear a bikini or a form fitting dress ever again.
At a beach wedding, the bride and groom had arranged for guests to get ten-minute back massages. I went with a group of girls to get a massage and was the only girl asked if I was pregnant.
Running into a friend after a gap of a couple months, he asked me if I was pregnant. I gave away the dress I was wearing after that. Getting hit on by a man at the airport, the first thing he asked was if I was pregnant. Only after I said no, did he inquire into my marital status.
None of these people are trying to make me feel terrible or body shame me, but they do. I don’t know how to respond or what to say, besides a simple negative. I believe that no one should ever ask a woman if she’s pregnant, because it’s something a woman should have the right to offer if she wants to, no one should have to discuss their reproductive choices or current health status.
Additionally, postpartum women, or women with bloating (from a whole range of conditions) women of different body sizes or shapes, and women like me are all at risk of being mistakenly asked and it hurts. It’s a way of punishing women for not meeting a societal standard for body size and shape, for being sick or disabled in some cases, even if it’s not done on purpose.
Because how do we feel afterward? Awful, like we need to lose weight or do exercises to get abdominal muscle definition so no one will ever ask us that again. The responsibility is always on women to change, not society.
I’ve been shamed into silence by these questions. I have been too embarrassed to tell many people. I’ve asked maybe two or three close friends over time if I look pregnant. I’ve cringed during these exchanges in front of friends and my partner.
I have trouble talking about what just happened, because it’s never funny to me. The only cure is being reminded by my partner that I’m beautiful or using my body to walk across town or hike a mountain.
Doing these things reminds me that I’m strong and my body allows me to do many things I want to do. Strong is beautiful and not diminished by a pouchy stomach.
So please, never ever ask me if I’m pregnant. If I am and I want you to know, I’ll tell you.