Erin Matson weighs in on eating disorders and pregnancy, kicks ass

Erin MatsonErin Matson, baller feminist advocate and organizer and former vice president of action for the National Organization for Women, is pregnant.


Matson is also an eating disorder survivor.

Being pregnant with a history of an eating disorder can make things… complicated, even for Matson, who has been completely recovered from her ED for more than a decade. She certainly isn’t alone. At some point or another, many of the 24 million Americans who suffer from an eating disorder will become or are pregnant, and it won’t always be helpful to recovery. In a nod to the obvious, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders notes that “Weight gain and body changes [during pregnancy] may intensify body image concerns.”

Matson’s own demon raised its ugly little sphinx head in Old Navy:

Recently I had an epiphany in, of all places, a dressing room at Old Navy.

I was there trying on maternity clothes for the first time in my life. As an eating disorder survivor there is no question I’ve had some Lifetime Shitty Moments in dressing rooms. When I was recovering from anorexia, if a negative thought cropped up I talked back to it: “Shut up, you’re trying to kill me.” Ultimately after professional intervention … it became those seven words to myself, over and over, that built my life back.

But those magic words were not helpful in Old Navy. This was totally new. I had to simply feel uncomfortable, and think some more about feeling uncomfortable. This is my body. I need to accept my body and myself for who I am. Not who I was. Not for what I might become. This is now. It is what I have.

The collision of my eating disordered past and my pregnancy today is a confrontation of the profane and the sacred.

The profane pushes itself forward during pregnancy, which is disturbingly conflated with body image plenty for even those women without a history of body image issues. In fact, pregnancy is a prime time to develop eating disorders. According to a study released in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in 2011, of the 4.1 percent of pregnant women who are binge eaters, nearly half of them developed their eating disorder when they became pregnant.

It’s not hard to imagine why. As anyone who is alive may have noticed, our world is as fixated, if not more fixated, on women having a “perfect” body while pregnant than when not. It’s not being a size 4, with lithe arms and perky ass, no. When pregnant, women have to have a perfect pregnant body. They must glow. They must radiate motherhood.

In our world, there is a right way to be pregnant, at least when it comes to weight and physical appearance. If you are “normal weight” when you become pregnant, gain 25-35 pounds. If you are overweight, gain less. If you are underweight, gain more. Don’t gain an ounce more than the doctor prescribes, otherwise you will NEVER get your pre-pregnancy body back. And don’t gain your pre-prescribed amount of weight too fast because then even if you do get your body back, it will be RIDDLED with stretch marks forever and ever amen. Exercise through the fatigue because it will help you get your body back faster. Pay for prenatal pilates because it will help you get your body back faster. Kill yourself calorie counting and keep a nutrition diary on a pregnancy app to gain just the right amount of weight during pregnancy at just the right pace and in just the right places so that you can have the perfect pregnant body and then you can get your body back faster.

Wait, whose bodies are we trying to get back? In an interview yesterday, Matson pointed out that the language of pregnancy fitness and fashion magazines is not terribly dissimilar to that of the anti-abortion lobby.

Are they our bodies now? We know in many contexts pregnant women’s bodies are treated as public property or wards of the state. And now even pulling the right-wing birth mania aside, it’s not even yours? Whose body? So strange. This is my fucking body now. It makes me mad when “my” body or a pregnant body is framed only as a thing of the past or future.

… I think my history has put me in a place where I can more clearly see the body shaming, the external lens of others, the media or even myself, as profane. Completely profane. Tied in with the broader disrespect of women and especially pregnant women in this country and around the world.

In our world, for 10 months, our bodies are no longer our own. In our world, precisely two pregnant bodies are acceptable: 1) The you-don’t-look-pregnant-anywhere-except-your-adorable-bump! body and 2) The OMG-you-look-amazing-like-you-were-never-pregnant! body. There are no other options. There is no 3) The oh-hey-some-crazy-shit-is-going-on-in-there-let’s-quit-objectifying-women’s-bodies-and-making-judgement-on-their-appearance! body.

We’re not even talking about the fight to keep the right to be pregnant or not pregnant and the wishful 4) The your-body-is-yours-and-it’s-awesome-do-whatever-you-want-with-it-pregnant-or-not! body.

It’s a minefield out there. But Matson has advice for pregnant women struggling with an eating disorder or even more mundane body image troubles. And it’s good.

First and foremost, tell your doctor about your history. You cannot self-help your way out of an eating disorder. I never want to give that impression. It simply does not work. Even to folks who have not had an eating disorder, who simply struggle with self-image, this is not something to be ashamed of speaking up about.

There is too much on the line with your health and your pregnancy to get caught in the multi-billion dollar beauty, diet and fashion industries’ attempts to make you feel awful about yourself.

But in addition to that, I would also say minimize your exposure to the crap. If reading a magazine or article makes you feel bad, stop reading it. There is no reason you need to read about people ganging up on Jessica Simpson for her baby weight.

Also, if the weight gain is getting to you, decorate your scale. Put empowering quotes on there. Turn it into a celebration of yourself. I did this when I was recovering from anorexia. That scale is gone but there was something like THIS DOESN’T MATTER or YOU ARE NOT ME that I had written on top.

Her baby is going to be fucking awesome. Thank you for your wisdom, Erin, and congratulations!

Join the Conversation

  • Stella

    Congratulations to Erin and thanks for covering this topic. As someone who has had body image issues and two (wonderful) pregnancies, I wanted to add a few things.

    Part of the obsession with pregnancy weight gain in the US is driven by our OB/GYN, hospital-based maternity care system which puts undue emphasis on a one-size-fits all approach to pregnancy weight gain and (sometimes) unnecessary testing related to this. Even at some of the “best” maternity hospitals in NYC, women are forbidden from delivering in their chosen ways because they have gain “too much weight” according to non-evidence based standards. In countries with better maternity care systems (meaning less maternal and infant mortality and morbidity rates), care is mostly midwifery-based and judgment based, meaning the care-givers can use their experience, judgment and the woman’s own specific circumstances to determine if she has gained an appropriate amount of weight. Hell, I declined to be weighed at all during both my pregnancies. My midwives (and I) were able to tell from looking at me, my general health and other data points that all was OK. So one of the ways out of the bad body image around pregnancy is for the medical system to stop pathologizing healthy pregnancies and treating all women’s pregnant women’s bodies as ticking time bombs that must meet arbitrary standards (while still providing top-notch, high tech care to those who need it.) Women interested in this should seek out midwifery-based care, which is available in most US states.

    Also, exercising and eating healthily during one’s pregnancy, and yes, keeping track of how one’s body looks and feels, is not necessarily pathological. Pregnancy yoga and pilates are wonderful (if you like them) and those of us who did (and teach) them are not necessarily feeding into big business or an “industry.” Mostly they are taught by other mothers who are hardly making a lot of money off the enterprise, but instead sharing a positive activity that made their own pregnancies happier. It is possible to use your pregnancy, and your birth, to transform your relationship with your body for the better (Ricki Lake has written on this topic). This takes a lot of effort, and you do need to tune out a lot of bitter folks. But it is possible.

  • Shannon Drury

    Oh Feministing, I’ve known Erin Matson has been fucking awesome for YEARS. But better late than never, huh?

  • Cindy

    It’s hard. I am more than a decade fully recovered from an ED, 9 months postpartum, breastfeeding, and a few pounds under my pre-pregnancy weight, yet just this morning I received a call from my mom letting me know that her friends received our holiday card and are commenting on how I’ve gained weight. It’s pretty hard not to feel shitty about that.

    But it also makes me realize that the best thing we can do for ourselves is to create and pass down a value system that is not based on the bodies we come in. Also, toss the scale.