If you find yourself struggling, there is help.
When I was 15, I developed an eating disorder. Of course, the habits of said disorder began months (even years) before.
At 6, I was slipping on spandex and working out alongside my mother. My blonde locks bounced as we dancercised, improvised, and did crunches with Jane Fonda. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I was playing. We were just having fun.
But it was my first lesson in what women’s bodies were “supposed” to be.
Those VHS tapes taught me that thin was pretty and desirable. I learned my weight could (and would) determine my worth.
I began working out more — and eating less. I used clothes to conceal my imperfections. To hide myself from the world.
By the time I started counting calories, I was already bony-knee deep in what doctors would later call EDNOS (an eating disorder, not otherwise specified — now known as OSFED, other specified feeding or eating disorder) and body dysmorphic disorder.
The good news is that I found help and “recovered.” By 30, my hips had widened, my thighs had thickened, and while I didn’t love my body, I didn’t hate it either. I used food and exercise in a healthy manner.
But then I got pregnant, and my long-dormant disorder flared back up.
Biweekly weigh-ins shifted my attention back to that damn scale.
Of course, the correlation between pregnancy and eating disorders is fairly well-known. According to Mental Health America, approximately 20 million U.S. women have a clinically significant eating disorder, and the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) notes that some of these disorders are triggered by pregnancy.
“The incessant counting, comparing, and measuring that happens during those nine months and beyond can tap into some of the very vulnerabilities that are linked to eating disorders and food and weight obsessions,” NEDA explains. “Perfectionism, loss of control, feelings of isolation, and memories of childhood often bubble… to the surface.”
These things, coupled with an ever — and quickly — changing body, can be toxic.
According to the eating disorder treatment facility, Center for Discovery, there’s a higher risk of relapse during the prenatal and postpartum periods if one is struggling or has struggled with an eating disorder.
Ironically, my first pregnancy went well. The experience was magical and empowering. I felt confident, sexy, and strong, and for the first time in 3 decades, I loved myself — and my new, fuller form.
But my second pregnancy was different. I couldn’t button my pants by 6 weeks. I was showing by 8 weeks, and people regularly commented on my appearance.
“Wow, you’re only 5 months?! Are you carrying twins?”
I poked my expanding abdomen. I worried what the rapid increase meant for me and my post-baby body, and I did everything I could to control it.
I walked, swam, did yoga, and ran. I kept my calories limited — not substantially but enough. I would not allow myself more than 1,800 calories each day, and I began regarding foods as “good” or “bad.”
After delivery, things got exponentially worse.
Breastfeeding became an excuse to restrict both calories and food. (My babe was tied to me, and — as such — I was tied to the couch.) And my doctor’s okay to exercise 2 weeks postpartum justified my physical activity.
I was healing and being “healthy.”
Make no mistake: I am a work in progress. Recovering from disordered behaviors is a lifelong process. But if you find yourself struggling with your body there is help.
Here are several things you can do to support your recovery during and after birth.
- Tell someone you’re having a hard time, preferably a doctor, fellow survivor, or supportive family member or friend. You can’t get help if you hide your symptoms, and admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery.
- Schedule a prenatal visit as soon as you learn you’re pregnant, and inform your healthcare provider you’re struggling (or have struggled) with an eating disorder. If they’re uncooperative, unhelpful, or invalidate your feelings and fears, find a new doctor immediately. You need a OB-GYN who will work for and with you.
- If you don’t have a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or certified nutritionist, get one. Many are trained to specifically handle eating disorders, and a good clinician can help you create a pregnancy “plan.” This should include a tangible and healthy strategy to gain weight and a way to cope with the sudden gaining of said weight.
- Attend pregnancy, prenatal, and birthing classes.
- Locate local support groups or online chats. Many recovering from eating disorders find group counseling helpful.
- Find a way to honor and treat yourself without fitness or food.
Of course, it goes without saying, but it’s imperative you get help — not only for your well-being but for that of your child.
According to Eating Disorder Hope — an organization that provides information and resources, and aims to end disordered eating — “pregnant women with active eating disorders are at a much higher risk for delivering preterm and[/or] low birth weight babies… [they are] at greater risk for having a Cesarean section and[/or] developing postpartum depression.”
Postpartum eating disorders can make breastfeeding difficult. Anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal ideations, and other psychological impacts are also common.
But there is help.
There is hope, and the most important thing you can do is remain honest: Your baby deserves the chance to be happy and healthy… and so do you.
To find a clinic in your area, check out Eating Disorder Hope’s treatment finder. You can also call the NEDA Helpline for support and resources at 1-800-931-2237.
Kimberly Zapata is a mother, writer, and mental health advocate. Her work has appeared on several sites, including the Washington Post, HuffPost, Oprah, Vice, Parents, Health, and Scary Mommy — to name a few — and when her nose isn’t buried in work (or a good book), Kimberly spends her free time running Greater Than: Illness, a nonprofit organization which aims to empower children and young adults struggling with mental health conditions. Follow Kimberly on Facebook or Twitter.