We live in an uber image conscious society that plagues us with different afflictions. So much that one of the reasons some women claim they postpone pregnancy is due to the fear of excessive weight gain. This worrisome sentiment isn’t completely irrational since it’s not easy losing that stubborn post-pregnancy weight or having to deal with the dreadful regret of eating for four during those ‘special 9 months.’

By Samineh I. Shaheem (Out of Mind)

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Published: Sun 18 Aug 2013, 12:15 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 6:43 PM

Women’s bodies in pregnancy is no longer a private affair so everything from their diet, fashion, exercise, types of delivery and weight gain seem to be open for discussion. The boundaries between pregnant women and community have become quite blurred to the point where random strangers feel comfortable putting their hand on her belly – cute or creepy? A discussion for a future feature perhaps.

While it may be true that many mothers-to-be try to healthily monitor their weight, there are some who go to dangerous lengths to cut the kilos. As the wave of body image pressure crashes down even on expecting mothers, there’s been a significant rise in women becoming dangerously obsessed with staying slim in pregnancy. Some of these women suffer from a disorder called pregorexia, which is an extreme form of controlling weight during the 9 months through diet, drugs or exercise.

After all, we’re not just taking about slight bodily changes – puffy faces, different shaped features, swollen legs and ankles, big bellies aren’t always easy to get used to. Psychologist Allison Keating says that ‘there are definitely some women who aren’t comfortable with the changes pregnancy brings … their weight is just going up and up – as it should – and some women can feel out of control. That’s when they really should seek help.’

The cult of thinness mentality isn’t the only contributing factor here of course. ‘An eating disorder is not about vanity,’ Bear, the director of the non-profit National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Toronto, said. ‘That’s really critical to express because there’s so much stigmatisation and with that stigma, comes discrimination against individuals with eating disorders.’ Bear said the expectant mothers suffering from an eating disorder feel a lot of anxiety and guilt. ‘They are extremely concerned for the health of their babies,’ she said. ‘It’s an extremely difficult struggle for them because physical and emotional changes can actually trigger anxiety … that they can only manage in disordered eating.’

So while designer pregnancy wear and the skeletally thin post-pregnancy celebrities don’t help, the problem, for many of the severe cases, usually stems from a past history of eating disorders.

There are some indicators of pregorexia, which can all have a damaging affect on the foetus, considerably affecting intake of nutrition, and these include:

> Focusing obsessively on calories

> Vomiting

> Taking laxatives

> Skipping meals

> Constant complaining about weight gain

> Avoiding eating in the presence of others

> Fasting

> Exercising excessively

> Speaking about the pregnancy in a detached manner

Dr. Micali, an expert in perinatal eating disorders at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, has been exploring this worrying trend. ‘A study that we published early this year, (the first one investigating the prevalence of eating disorders in a sample of about 800 pregnant women in London) found that 7.6% of all women we screen had symptoms consistent with an eating disorder and 23.4% had high weight and shape concern.’

Risks associated with pregorexia are:

> Starving mother and baby

> Malnutrition

> Exhaustion

> Bone loss

> Increased risk of miscarriage

> Heart problems

> Post-partum depression

> Difficulties in labour

> Premature birth

> Respiratory distress for baby during labour

The good news is that many women who suffer from eating disorders seek the help of a medical professional during their pregnancy since they don’t want to harm the foetus. However, there are others who don’t get help, can’t escape the pressure of staying thin or manage their inner emotional conflict so they go down the dangerous path of developing pregorexia.

Here’s the thing - we need less stories about the Beckham or Middleton astounding post pregnancy transformation (because all they do is distort regular women’s expectation) and more about the realities of the complex and often confusing experiences encountered during this time. If you or a loved one might be showing signs of pregroxia, be patient and caring in approaching the subject rather than judgemental and harsh. Contact a qualified health care professional as soon as possible. Eat healthy, exercise, have a good sleep routine and resist the temptation to make comparisons to others. Pregnancy is truly a miraculous process so focus on the blessings and positive gains rather than the (temporary) kilos gained.

Samineh I. Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, consultant at HRI, Learning & Development advisor and owner of Life Clubs UAE. She has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and now the UAE. She co hosts a radio program (Psyched Sundays, Voices of Diversity 10-12pm) every Sunday morning on 103.8 FM Dubai Eye discussing the most relevant psychological issues in our community.

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