Weighing the Options

As I waddled out of the locker room, I thought, How can I look less fat and more pregnant? Maybe if I lean back when I walk. Yeah, that’s it. At the gym, impressions can go either way. People can wonder how far along I am or just think I’m there to work off this enormous belly and butt. I want everyone to see that I’m pregnant, not just fat, but this time around the belly looks pretty proportionate. I never lost weight after having Rose. My plan was to use Rose as my personal liposucker, but breast feeding didn’t work out and then neither did I, for two years. I started working out again right before I got knocked up, and then, thanks to exercise and morning sickness, I lost 10 pounds. But now it’s back. And since pregnancy is the only socially acceptable state of obesity, and this is my last chance for body acceptance, I want people to know I’m pregnant, not just fat.

But why is it so important to me? How is it that 63 percent of the country is overweight or obese, but society still scorns fat people? If most of us are overweight, why do we strive to be the thin minority? How do we let the diet industry rake in $40 billion a year? Why does despising extra pounds account for such degradation of our personal happiness?

“But extra pounds are unhealthy,” you’re saying. “Obesity is bad for your health.” Sure it is. But how many of us really diet for our health? Face it. We diet for a number of reasons, but if we’re honest with ourselves, the sight of our butt in jeans ranks much higher than any words the doctor uttered. These days, girls are starting to worry about body image in preschool (that’s right, preschool). If your four-year-old says, “Do I look fat?” do you applaud her for being so health conscious?

Our obsession with body image is crazy and it has to stop. We talk about accepting and celebrating diversity, but that only covers ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Insulting fat people is still socially acceptable. And that’s because we learn from the very beginning that fat people are worthy of blame, and jokes about weight are funny.

I have never been the same size as everyone else. In grade school I was chubby – not very chubby – just enough to attract peer torture. Fortunately, I found some chubby friends, and some “normal” kids who didn’t care about my weight accepted me as well. But that was school. At home my mom would offer me a big piece of cake after school, then call me fat by dinnertime. During one big fight at age nine, I said I was leaving to play with the neighbor girl. She said, “Good, go play with the other pahia [fattie]!”

Although my mother was one of those people who could never gain an ounce (bless her heart), her bias had much deeper roots. Appearances took priority over everything in her world. She told me that every time she and her sisters left the apartment, her father insisted on inspecting his girls’ dresses, hair and makeup. They couldn’t go out until they met his approval. Later on, my mother spent most of her money and time buying clothes, for herself and for me. On high school mornings, I’d come down the stairs with a new outfit and if she liked it, my mother would say, “Jim! Jim! Get the camera!” My mother was so impressed with my appearance that we had to make it a lasting memory.

Appearances were rooted so deeply in my mother’s psyche that, once during a manic episode when I tried to check myself into the hospital, my mother came to talk me out of it. My Uncle Gus’ family’s imminent arrival (see “Some Things You Can’t Forgive”), the event that triggered the episode in the first place, took priority. “What am I gonna SAY to them about where you are? What am I gonna SAY?” she kept asking. The pull was so strong that I did check myself out that day, and stayed at the neighbor’s house for the duration of the visit.

And then there’s my father. Last pregnancy, I paid him one last visit before moving cross country. I was six months along, and I’d gained only 16 pounds. (Just for reference, that’s pretty freakin’ impressive.) I was a size 16 at the time. A week later, my father called me at my office to ask if I had a doctor. Unfazed by the odd question, I said, yes, I saw my doctor once a month. He said, “Well next time you see her, ask her about your back. I read that obese people can have back problems when they’re pregnant.”

“You think I’m obese?” I said.

“Just ask her about it,” he said.

Our conversation tumbled downhill from there. That was one of the worst arguments we ever had, and it ended when I hung up on him. The next time he called, I told him I’d decided not to talk to him until the baby was born, because he upset me every time we spoke.

And it all started with weight. I’ve since told my father that my body is neither his problem nor his business, but that doesn’t stop him. Last time we spoke he asked how the pregnancy was going and I made the mistake of mentioning some back pain. “Well, you’re carrying all that extra weight around!” he said. I pretended he was talking about the baby weight and let it go, but I know that’s not what he meant.

So it’s no wonder I’m self-conscious, even in the sixth month of pregnancy. And I haven’t even touched upon the effects of emaciated supermodels or the media’s weight obsession on my self-image. Let’s just take those as a given. I enjoyed the legitimacy of my size during my last pregnancy. It was about the only thing I enjoyed at the time, so I tried to focus on it. I know that I’ll never be thin. I’ve achieved thinness twice in my life and both times, the weight came barreling back. I hadn’t stopped watching my weight, it just got easier and easier to see.

We all have a natural, comfortable weight and mine doesn’t approach skinny. I don’t think that my current weight is my body’s ideal, either, but once I have the baby, I’ll be able to find a happy medium, and if that medium turns out to be an extra large or a plus size, that will be ok with me. I don’t anticipate becoming a fashion model or a jockey, so my weight will rank low on the priority scale.

What will matter is how I see myself. And more important, how my self-perception affects the people around me. If Rose can accept her body as she grows, no matter its shape, I’ll consider Operation Body Image a success. If my son can appreciate that people come in every shape and size, another success. And if I can accept my body, enjoy food without shame and ignore society’s unrealistic ideals for women, my happiness will far outweigh any dissatisfaction with my butt’s appearance in jeans.