Weight gain in pregnancy

Pregnancy has literally taken a curious curve over the years.

Thankfully those living in the land of the elasticised waistband now have more than muu-muus to choose from.

However the trend to "let-it-all-hang-out" also leaves a lot of women feeling rather exposed Carla Grossetti discovers.

From cries of"Oh my God, you're massive!" to comparisons to "a friend who is six weeks' ahead of you, but not even showing!" it seems our society's obsession with being skinny does not stop when a woman is pregnant.

Yes, the media has a lot to answer for in terms of how it portrays beauty and "the bump". But according to Dr Susan Maushart, author of What Women Want Next and The Mask of Motherhood, medical professionals must also accept a large portion of the blame.

Dr Maushart, who is a senior research fellow in the School of Communication and Cultural Studies at Curtin University in WA, and a mother to a blended family of six children (three of whom are hers), said her own obstetrician never stopped "harping on" about her weight gain during her first pregnancy.

"He made me feel guilty every time I ever saw him. His line was, ‘If you gain the weight now, you'll never lose it'. In reality, I lost 90 per cent of the weight within three months. Now I'm told there are a lot of doctors who don't even bother to put a healthy women with no risk factors on the scales. They just sort of eyeball you, which is a lot more sensible," Dr Maushart says.

Dr Maushart adds there are probably a lot of pregnant women out there who fail to marvel in the magic of all things maternal. But as for what that says about our society, she suggests, simply, "that it just means we're human".

"We are all subject to ordinary human vanity... and just being a mother doesn't suddenly confer sainthood," she says.

"I expected to go all earth-mother and revel in my gorgeously fecund womanhood, but the reality was I found my changed shape so disturbing and the whole experience of pregnancy so vastly uncomfortable that, in the end, I felt grateful to have survived the nine months, let alone exulted in it," she says.

Although there seems to be a bit of a taboo surrounding the subject of weight gain during pregnancy, not everyone in suburbia is silent on the matter.

Alex Higgins, of South Cronulla, is eight months' pregnant and a mum to two-year-old Sophie. The 29-year-old children's therapist swims 6km a week, eats organic produce, does yoga and pilates, and is the picture of health. But although she knows she is doing all the right things in terms of her diet and lifestyle, Alex admits she often succumbs to feelings of negativity associated with her expanding waistline.

"Unless you look like a celery stick with a bump, pregnant women are often made to feel overweight and disgusting," Alex claims.

"Pregnancy highlights one of society's biggest problems; that is, women have to be eternally thin in order to be accepted, so instead of [pregnancy] being something you embrace and celebrate it can be something you despise," she says.

So what's a girl to do if she is feeling pregnant and physically under-par? Well, according to Alex, try and ignore the images that the media tries to portray as being normal.

"Everyone's body shape and body type is different and you can't expect that you will look the same as someone else while pregnant. The media plays a big part in piling on the pressure to be thin before, during and after pregnancy," Alex says.

"The media is obsessed with talking to actresses who get back to their pre-pregnancy weight in record time and you think, "How on earth do they do that?', but this so-called ideal image is really unrealistic for a lot of us to feel without the help of a personal trainer and dietician," Alex says.

Alex says that although she often rationalises what she is feeling is a reaction to society's rather vacuous obsession with external appearances, she admits that she often feels "fat and foul".

"Because of this all-pervasive pressure to be thin many women are robbed of the right to enjoy what is happening to their bodies in order to sustain another life," Alex says.

"Historically, being pregnant is one of those rites of passage whereby the woman is described as being ‘radiant', ‘glowing', ‘and beautiful'. Today, with the cult of the body beautiful, do you think women are made to feel that way? No way. But when you are pregnant you are talking about someone else's life and so some women are on dangerous ground here if they subscribe to that," she says.

"I know of women who limit their diet so they don't put on an ounce more weight than they need to... when often they are actually underweight to begin with. It's so sad because ultimately women who give in to these feelings have been taught that society is to be feared over the health and safety of their child. So the fear of how mankind will judge them has outweighed the nutrition and development of that child," she says.

Michelle Peters, of Carlton, agrees with Alex's assessment. As well as being patted and prodded by perfect strangers, Michelle says she often has to endure unwanted comments about her body shape and size.

"I guess before I got pregnant, I had this ideal of what I was going to look like. You sort of think, "Oh, I hope I'm really skinny with just a tiny bump', but as the pregnancy progresses you soon realise that you don't have any control over what is happening to your body and it will take shape according to your genetic make-up," Michelle says.

The 28-year-old freelance TV and radio editor, who at the time of writing, was four months' pregnant, claims she has received a barrage of comments about her body weight, many of which she feels are far from positive.

"I've had a lot of people tell me I'm huge - from good friends to shop assistants who ask me how many months I am and then say, ‘Wow, that baby is going to be huge. You look massive', and that makes me feel very depressed," she says.

In response to such comments, Michelle says she often feels like reacting with a spiky jibe, but reveals she usually goes home and has a good cry instead.

Like Alex, Michelle says she wonders why women don't let themselves celebrate the miracle of impending motherhood. "Everyone is so different and we don't let ourselves celebrate that. I felt so much affirmation when I went to the midwife recently and I had had everyone tell me how huge I was and she very casually measured me and said I was normal. I was so relieved and it's what I've grasped onto ever since," Michelle says.

Michelle agrees that the constant exposure to images of glamorous women plays a big part in many women feeling less-than-perfect while pregnant. "Everyone seems to want to be one standard size, but really, that's ridiculous. The rational side of me knows that, but, still, it's really hard not to buy into the whole weight-gain thing while pregnant because everybody is constantly reminding you of the fact that you have put on weight. And apparently ... despite the fact that you are meant to be nourishing another life, that is still not acceptable," she says.

Midwife Kat El Karout, whose work contract precludes her from commenting on behalf of the birth centre that employs her, says she often suspects a lot of women hide their obsession with their weight while pregnant.

The 33-year-old, who is about four months' pregnant herself, says she sees a lot of women who exercise obsessively and won't slow down despite the fact they are heavily pregnant.

"I'm a midwife, but I'm also a woman and while I know that it's healthy to put on weight while pregnant it can also be a shock for women who have never gained much weight before," Kat says.

"Your body goes through so many changes and it's a lot to take on board. While some women use it as an excuse, and say ‘Sod it, I'll eat what I like' we do often suspect that there are women who might lie about their history and try and hide the fact that they are not gaining a healthy amount of weight," she says.

As for how much weight is too much? Well, according to Kat, opinions vary. "I've read that anywhere from 7 to 20 kg is acceptable. But the most important thing is how the woman feels and if she is feeling healthy. I will only ever put a woman on the scales when I am worried about how much weight the baby has gained," she says.

As for where this obsession to have a basketball-sized bump comes from, Kat concedes it lies largely to do with the cult of the celebrity and the angle the media takes when portraying pregnant women. "Take Britney Spears. She has always been known for being a bit sexy... yet you only see pictures of her wearing clothes deemed unflattering under headline banners that say ‘I feel so fat'. My advice to women is to eat healthily, exercise moderately and try and focus on the baby that you nurturing and giving life to. That is what being pregnant is and should be about."