No More Dying to be Thin
Pregnancy seems to help some who suffer from eating disorders
By: Corilyn Shropshire
The recovering anorexic spent years fighting the urge to lose weight.
Then she got the news. After several unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization, she was pregnant with twins.
“I didn’t stop thinking about food, I always think about food,” said Helen (not her real name). “You don’t let it go, it just doesn’t control you in the same way.”
The quest for perfection and control sought by roughly 14 million American women diagnosed with eating disorders is well chronicled. Rarely mentioned are the women like Helen. During pregnancy, they have to cope with their fear of food and weight gain while sustaining and nurturing their unborn children.
Leslie Goldman, author of Locker Room Diaries: The Naked Truth About Women, Body Image and Re-Imagining the “Perfect Body, says pregnant women with eating disorders can be divided into two camps.
Pregnancy is a tremendous relief for some, says Goldman, a health writer who lives in Chicago. Newfound pride in their protruding bellies, expanding hips and swelling breasts trump their fear of food and getting fat.
“They realize, ‘Wow, my body is more than looking good in a pair of skinny jeans.’ “
Pregnancy can be a nine-month breather from self-hatred and doubt, adds Houston psychologist Margo Maine, who has been treating patients with eating disorders for more than 30 years.
It’s not that the new moms are exactly cured, Maine, Goldman and other experts say.
But they will stop depriving themselves, Maine says. They don’t think they deserve to feel better, but they would feel guilty if something happened to the baby.
In the other camp are pregnant women who can barely tolerate the weight gain that comes with their condition.
Goldman calls it the “basketball on two sticks” mentality.
These women, she says, have a hard time differentiating between being pregnant and being fat. In their minds, any weight gain should be confined to that basketball in their mid-sections.
Those distorted views of pregnancy are made worse by a celebrity-driven culture that glorifies the virtually fat-free pregnancies of thin Hollywood icons such as Nicole Kidman, Nicole Richie and Angelina Jolie. It doesn’t help that tabloids and gossipy magazines regularly skewer famous women for being too fat or too thin.
“It’s pretty frequent that women try to gain as little as possible,” Maine said. She adds that it’s not just the celebrity culture to blame but also the medical establishment.
“Physicians get so concerned about obesity, they focus on weight loss and weight control, but they don’t educate their patients on how to eat well,” she said.
Women considered to be of “normal weight,” should gain between 25 and 35 pounds during pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Women carrying twins should gain between 35 and 45 pounds, according to the National Academy of Sciences. Ideally, they lose that weight fairly effortlessly by nursing and watching what they eat.
Maine and Goldman said some women with eating disorders are able to kick their problems after their babies are born. Others revert back to their old habits, and still others are marginally better.
Helen added a total of 30 pounds to her 5-foot, 10-inch frame by the time her twins were born.
During the pregnancy, she expanded her diet beyond 16 Wheat Thin crackers a day. She didn’t punish herself by swallowing an entire box of maximum strength laxatives if she regretted what she ate.
“When you’re pregnant you kind of kick them [anorexia and bulimia] out the door,” said Helen.
At the same time, she worried endlessly about empty calories. She fretted about taking the pounds off once she delivered the twins.
Today, Helen says she and her spouse have been careful about what they eat. They dine on fish and vegetables and save the wine for weekends.
“You never quite get past wanting to be smaller than you are,” she said.
The twins are 5 months old now.
Helen is two dress sizes smaller than she was before she got pregnant.