Although each person has their own unique, often painful relationship with food and their body, my story goes something like this: I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where body image and food were never discussed. I also had a naturally thin frame, and my wish for curves in high school made it so that I never thought twice about scarfing down a bag of Goldfish crackers or an entire pint of ice cream after school. If anything, maybe I'd finally get hips and fill out a b-cup bra.
Then college hit, and everything changed. Between eating all my meals in a dining hall and the introduction of alcohol as a food group, I started gaining weight. I was suddenly surrounded by women who were talking about their bodies nonstop, informing me of how many calories the meal on my plate had with alarmingly accurate precision. In a matter of months, my breezy relationship with food went out the window and a a very complicated one took its place.
I spent the next decade in a frustrating cycle. I'd spend a period of time depriving myself and over-exercising, then I'd lose all my willpower and start overeating instead. I would have blessed periods of freedom where I didn't really care, but then I'd be right back to wear I started.
But eventually, something would inspire the cycle to start all over again: Realizing my jeans were a little tight, seeing a photo of myself where my arm looked "flabby," a big event coming up where I wanted to look—or as I told people to mask my vanity, feel—my very best. And just like that, I was chained to calories again.
Then I got pregnant.
When I got pregnant in January of 2019, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn't have any of those nightmare-ish first trimester symptoms you hear about. I was pretty energetic, and barely experienced any nausea. But I noticed something early on that set off alarm bells: If I went too long without eating, I would start to get dizzy. Suddenly, calories weren't the enemy—they were the thing I needed to help my baby grow and stop myself from passing out.
Even as my belly grew, my dedication to eating enough and newfound view of calories as my friend didn't waver. Every time I went to the doctor and found out I had gained weight, all I felt was relief: The baby was growing.
Now, my daughter is eight months old. And what I thought would be a desperate race with myself to lose the baby weight is, so far, nonexistent: I need to eat enough so I can produce enough milk for her and have the energy to play with her. If I realize too many hours have gone by without eating, I stop whatever I'm doing to cook myself a nourishing meal.
"It can go both ways," Dr. Juli Fraga, a psychologist at Coa, told me when I asked her about this phenomenon. "For some women, pregnancy shifts body image and their relationship to their body in a positive direction. Food takes on a new purpose and instead of seeming ‘dangerous,’ calories are fuel that helps the baby grow and develop."
Meet the Expert
Dr. Julie Fraga, Psy. D., specializes in women's health concerns with a focus on maternal mental health. In her work, she helps clients explore and understand the myriad identity transitions that pregnancy and new motherhood bring.
For others, though, pregnancy and the postpartum period can be more challenging, which I've been careful to note. "Feeling out of control, some women resort to familiar, eating-disordered behaviors, such as counting calories, restricting and over-exercise," Fraga explains. "Our culture feeds the notion that women need to return to their pre-baby body and weight, which is a false notion that breeds shame."
For me, though, it seems I've finally arrived back at that pre-college attitude I had toward food. Although a long career in health journalism hasn't left me quite as gung-ho about the processed and sugar-filled snacks I enjoyed in high school, I get so much joy out of eating these days and feel grateful for every calorie.
When I expressed to Fraga that I worried I'd fall back into old thought patterns around calories eventually, she encouraged me to journal on my new attitudes and feelings around food. "Ask yourself what you notice. How can your experience shift the narrative around food? What will you need to maintain your new relationship?"
While it's hard to know for sure what the future holds for me and my relationship with food, one thing's for sure: As I raise a daughter, I will work hard to maintain my current relationship with food not just for me, but for her.