What It's Really Like Being Pregnant After an Eating Disorder
Pregnancy helped me finally embrace my body and fully recover from anorexia.
Ten years ago—as a senior in high school—I started to cut out various foods in an attempt at being healthy. I was no longer playing competitive tennis, and I kept hearing about the dreaded “freshman 15” that I was sure to put on during my first year at college. I assumed this meant I needed to really make an effort to stay trim and healthy for the first time in my life.
My high school friendships were on the rocks, and I was the only single one among my closest friends. I was nervous to go off to college at a school six hours away from home where I didn’t know anyone, and I felt unqualified for the rigorous program I’d been accepted into, constantly comparing myself to the other students. Life seemed out of my control, so I turned to the one thing I thought I could control: food.
I cut out chocolate chip cookies at lunch and traded glasses of milk for water with dinner. It seemed innocent enough, but my restriction rapidly increased. People seemed impressed when I turned down desserts or fast food. The weight started to fall off, and for an 18-year-old woman already on the lower end of normal in terms of BMI, the transformation was stark.
Within a few months, doctors and psychologists diagnosed me with full-blown anorexia nervosa. I withdrew from my first semester of college for medical reasons and got help at an inpatient treatment facility, where I was told I had lost about 30% of my body weight in just a few months. If I continued, doctors told me, I was going to die.
I signed my name on all the paperwork and willingly subjected myself to treatment, however long it would take. I spent a month in an inpatient program, plus many more years in therapy and counseling, working through my desire for control and the idea that my body indicated my worth. I had to be especially aware of the media I consumed and my tendency to compare.
I didn’t have a period naturally for more than five years, and, after finishing treatment, I wondered if I’d ever be able to have children. I tried to push that thought to the back of my mind, figuring this was something I’d reckon with if and when the time came.
When I finally restored enough weight to get my period back, I was overjoyed. To say I was excited about a little blood each month would be an understatement.
In the last two to three years, and especially after moving from New York City to Nashville in 2016, I’ve experienced true healing and recovery from anorexia. I got connected to a top dietitian whose focus is on intuitive eating and recovery from eating disorders, I joined a recovery support group, and I invested heavily in my local church. I was no longer walking miles and miles every day or doing the intense exercise that I had done while living in Manhattan. Instead, I walked and hiked outside and I practiced gentle yoga. I also practiced coping mechanisms—from deep breathing and journaling to prayer and taking walks—that helped me reach a new stage of health.
I ate a greater quantity of food and made more diverse food choices than I had in New York, yet my body hardly changed. Mentally, this relaxed approach helped me feel more at peace and gave me the capacity to focus on things that really mattered to me. The more I pursued this new way of life, the easier it was to combat any disordered thoughts.
Going on—and off—the pill
My husband and I got married in June 2018, and in the months leading up to my wedding, I started taking the birth control pill. Although my period was fairly regular, I wanted to make sure Aunt Flo didn’t make a surprise appearance at our wedding or honeymoon.
Because of our Christian faith, my husband and I waited to have sex until we were married. A few weeks after our wedding, we decided that I'd stop taking the pill. Everything I'd heard was that it could take months for my body to ovulate normally again. Plus, we both knew that our fertility journey could already be difficult given my health history; I’d read about how anorexia often resulted in reproductive issues and higher-risk pregnancies. We expected to have months, maybe years, before I would get pregnant—if I ever did.
But that August, I thought I came down with a stomach bug. Instead, I had two positive pregnancy tests and a baby the size of a pepita in front of me on an ultrasound screen. I was seven weeks pregnant—against all odds, I got pregnant within mere days of stopping the pill.
My husband and I are expecting a baby boy this April. He is our greatest gift; truly a miracle! But pregnancy has put my coping skills to the test, ultimately allowing me to reach a new—and I believe, final—stage of recovery and healing.
Pregnancy in recovery
In my first trimester, I was nauseated, moody, and tired most of the time. I had no choice but to rest more and to not worry about whether I’d eaten enough vegetables (or, heck, any vegetables) for the day. In the past, I was concerned with eating multiple servings of vegetables each day, choosing whole grains over refined, and incorporating healthy fats. Now I wanted to eat whatever I could stomach without throwing up, whatever would stay in my system and nourish my baby. Carbs and salt were my friends, while vegetables were out of the question. I started carrying oyster crackers and potato chips with me wherever I went.
As I’ve progressed in my pregnancy, I’ve worked through worries with my dietitian around whether I was eating nutritionally well enough for my baby. She assured me eating what I could stomach and being kind to myself was the best thing I could do—and that taking my prenatal vitamin every day meant baby was getting the nutrients my food choices might not supply.
I felt guilty at first. I wanted to eat green smoothies and quinoa bowls, and I wanted to do those toning prenatal workouts like I saw other pregnant women doing all over Instagram. “That’s what will make me strong enough and healthy enough for this baby!” I thought.
I worried that I would slip back into my old restrictive ways. I had to stop following social media accounts that made me compare my body to theirs and instead turn to more positive ones like The Real Life RD and Imma Eat That. I had to check in daily with my husband, a friend, or a family member to be reminded of the truth that not eating vegetables every day was OK.
I wrote in my journal all the time to process my fears of not gaining the appropriate amount of weight and of being too weak for labor and delivery. I’ve always been fearful of the unknown—part of what led to my eating disorder in the first place—and pregnancy has been the biggest unknown I’ve ever faced. Journaling through those feelings kept me calm.
I had to continually remind myself that every woman—and every body—is different.
As I moved into the second trimester and emerged from the crazy mood swings, I was finally able to accept that. Here my body was doing this incredible, awe-inspiring thing. It knew exactly what my baby and I needed and when. All I had to do was listen to it.
Every body is different
With my belly growing larger every day, I’ve received many, shall we say, interesting comments from well-meaning friends and even strangers, like, “Look at your skinny legs!” and “You can’t even tell you’re pregnant from the back.”
My personal favorite? “When I was pregnant with my sons, I gained 50 pounds both times. But you look great!”—to which I responded, “Well that must have been what your babies needed.” She was left speechless.
I know these comments are all meant to be compliments. And I’m thankful after years of counseling, prayer, and friends and family holding me accountable, I’m now able to brush them off with a laugh.
But I have to wonder: Why do we feel the need to compare our bodies to everyone else's? I did that every day when my disorder started, and it wreaked havoc on my life. Why is one woman's pregnant body more desirable than any other? Each pregnancy is unique. The way someone looks on the outside doesn’t indicate their health—or the health of their baby. In fact, as professor and economist Emily Oster writes in her book Expecting Better, a bit of extra weight gain isn’t really a big deal, and, on average, women who exercise in pregnancy don’t change their end weight much.
During the height of my anorexia, I was often told I looked like a model and that I was lucky to be so thin. I’d flip through fashion magazines, secretly excited that my body could fit in among the glossy pages. While my thinness may have looked desirable to some, in reality I was wasting away. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Recovery taught me that being thin—and weight, in general—doesn’t equate to health.
At my most recent ultrasound at 29 weeks, I learned my son is in the 93rd percentile for height and weight. He is healthy, strong, and constantly moving. My baby is growing and progressing exactly as he needs to be. The fact that my body supports him makes me appreciate it in a whole new way. Choosing to rest more and to fuel myself intuitively—rather than strictly monitoring my food choices like I used to—has allowed me to embrace my pregnant body and love it more and more each day.
Pregnancy has shown me that full recovery from anorexia is possible and has given me a newfound appreciation for my body with all its softness and curves. Any fear around what my postpartum body will look like has gradually dissipated during my pregnancy. This body is growing a baby—something countless women around the world aren’t always able to do. If my body is extra supple after giving birth, then so be it.
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