Pregnancy is weird. I’ve never felt particularly in control of my body, but pregnancy amplified that sensation; suddenly, it seemed that my body was doing all sorts of things I had no idea it could do, all on its own. Although I found pregnancy to be difficult and uncomfortable, I couldn’t stop admiring my body. While it may be cliche to reference “the miracle of life,” pregnancy really is amazing. For the first time, I loved my belly. Pregnancy allowed me to have a big round belly that was deemed acceptable. I suddenly found myself wearing ruched shirts that highlighted my belly, a far cry from my normal fashion. The bigger my belly got, the more I loved it. I photographed it every week and used an app to compare the size of my baby to a fruit or vegetable.
For many years, I deeply believed that I was worthless because of my belly. I completely bought into all the messaging that constantly bombards us, messaging that claims thinness as a moral imperative. I hid my stomach whenever possible, clutching throw pillows when I sat on a couch and making sure that my shirts weren’t too clingy.
Healthism is the idea that the effects of everything we do can be measured in our health, that we have control over our health, and that everything we do can be classed into good or bad behavior based on the perceived impact to our health. Healthism is what drives the food industry to shout about the benefits of coconut oil, real or imagined (I know you saw that study that says, just kidding, maybe coconut oil isn’t so good for you after all). It is why strangers think they can tell whether you are healthy or not based on your clothing size. It is why people track calories and water intake and steps. Healthism is the medicalization of our lives, and it feeds into several industries (weight loss, fitness, beauty, etc).
Healthism was a huge part of my pregnancy experience. One nurse told me that if I didn’t come to extra monitoring appointments and watch my food intake that I would be increasing the risk of “fetal death.” At every turn, I was hammered with information about the risks of pregnancy: don’t eat anything because LISTERIA, don’t sleep a certain way, don’t drink coffee, don’t ANYTHING. While I did have a high risk pregnancy and there were legitimate health concerns, what I’m talking about here is the messaging around health and pregnancy and the extreme lengths that pregnant people are expected to take in order to achieve a “healthy” pregnancy, when in reality some of that is just beyond anyone’s control.
And it’s total bullshit. Here are the main problems I have with this understanding of health:
- Health is NOT entirely within our control. People get sick despite whatever preventative care they do. Health is really complex and scientists don’t understand all the factors and how they relate.
- Health is not a judgment of our morality. Healthy people are not inherently good and unhealthy people are not inherently bad.
- An individual’s health is personal. It is not a public statement and it has nothing to do with you.
- There’s a lot of popular science at the core of current beliefs about health. People are so sure of their beliefs, but there are so many misconceptions and misunderstandings, or bad health reporting. The data can be confusing, and when boiled down to sound bytes, it can be overly simplistic.
- When it comes down to it, companies make money off of healthism. It’s an industry that makes us chase after the next super food or fitness tracker.
It took pregnancy for me learn to admire my body. I’m not pregnant anymore (hi baby!), but I find that so many weeks of photographing my belly has impacted me. I love my belly. It’s soft, it’s big, it’s part of who I am. It may or may not have anything to do with my health – but that’s really not the point.