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Real Talk: Body Image During Pregnancy

This week in the UK, 13th-19th May 2019, is Mental Health Awareness Week and May is the month of mental health awareness overall. In previous years, I've talked about the skin-picking disorder dermatillomania and how stress effects it and me and what it's like living with anxiety because I think it's important to be transparent about mental health and sharing my experiences is a good way to raise continuous exposure to these mental health problems. This year, the Mental Health Foundation have decided to focus on body image, stating on their site that it is something that can affect us all at any age and can greatly impact the way we feel.

I've been no stranger to talking about body image in the past here on Northern Blood. Whether it has been the learning curve of accepting my body's flaws or ranting about body shaming, I like to throw my two cents in when it comes to this topic as I am certainly someone who falls into the category of being effected by body image issues. I am someone who is super quick to celebrate and big-up others because I want them to love the skin that they're in but myself? I just can't seem to spread that love quite so easily.

Since becoming pregnant this year, body image has become even more of a major hurdle for me. I knew my body would change a lot but I don't think anything could really prepare me for *just* how much it would change and in what ways (I mean, look at how ridiculous my sternum tattoo looks already). There's changes across my whole appearance that I never knew happened during pregnancy so it's all been a learning curve of acceptance and convincing myself that it's "not forever". Here's some of the things I've had to get used to as my body performs the seemingly impossible and grows a life:

- Pigmentation: during my second trimester, my freckles have become much more pigmented which is a nice change. It has also meant that my skin's redness and dark circles are also darker though so you know, it's not all a win win. It means veins are particularly prominent (especially on the breast area) and nipples do not look like they used to.
- Boobs. Jeez.: Obviously breasts growing during pregnancy is another natural part of the process as they're preparing to try and feed your baby, but was I expecting my cup size to go up by 3 sizes and for them to make me feel top-heavy at all times? Absolutely not.
- Dry skin: I knew my hormones would cause some havoc for me, but I never expected it to totally flip my skin condition on it's head. I've been an oily acne-prone babe since a young teen and now suddenly I'm having to battle dryness that can be so severe, my skin on my chin flakes off on an almost daily basis. I know, I know: I'm lush.
- Dry hair, hair growth, and what's all this body hair?!: My hair has also dried out (which isn't necessarily a bad thing as my hair is quite the oil slick most of the time), but it also has stopped falling out quite so much (which is a super *good* thing). I've got naturally very fine and thin hair so this is a nice change. The hair follicles slow right down during pregnancy so your hair doesn't fall out as often so hair can thicken up. I wouldn't say mine has thickened up a lot, but a little is just fine. My body on the other hand? I don't think any woman is prepared for her stomach becoming a bear overnight.
- Fitness limits: I was never someone super into fitness before pregnancy but wowee, I never thought I'd get out of breath just walking to work or climbing a flight of stairs. It can be frustrating and really debilitating.
- Stretch marks: Although I've been lucky so far - fingers crossed - that I haven't experienced stretch marks, but they're a very big concern for many pregnant and non-pregnant women and can take a lot of time to love. I have them on my thighs from growth spurts when I was a teen and I'm still getting to some sort of realm with comfort of those.
- Growing pains: They don't impact my appearance, but boy oh boy, do the growing pains effect me. The growing and stretching pains I've experienced thus far make me irrationally fear getting any larger - they make me panic that my skin and body can't handle the quick changes and it can play on my mind *a lot*.
- Weight gain and figure change: I know this might sound silly, but I didn't expect my overall figure to change in the ways that it has. Little things like the fact I no longer have an hourglass figure or the fact that I've just up 2-3 dress sizes in the past 6 months are to be expected but them actually happening? Much harder to cope with than I ever anticipated.
- Fatigue: I suffer from chronic fatigue daily anyway so you can imagine the joy I've experienced on this journey when fatigue is a huge factor. Fatigue can make me and the best of us teary, hormonal, snappy, and a multitude of other feelings. It also makes me look like utter shit which then makes me feel vain for wanting to try and make myself look in better condition. It's a vicious cycle.

Pregnancy also brings along the fear of what my body is going to look like post-pregnancy and for the rest of my life. Of course of course I am going to be *so happy* about what my body has accomplished and that outweighs everything else, but how could I not think about what I'm going to look like once my baby is here? I'll have a bump for a while after. My skin will have stretched. It will take a long time to feel like *me* again and it may be a new me that I have to come to love and accept. I may experience postpartum hair loss (my biggest fear), I may experience incontinence, my body may be damaged... There's a lot to get my head around and there's no true way to prepare for it all because it's so unknown. The best words of advice and comfort I can provide for myself and others at this time? If you're a friend or family member of someone going through pregnancy right now, pretty please don't keep commenting on their body. Even the positive comments can be something I ponder over days and weeks after they were said. I can turn them into negatives if my mood is low. I can obsess over how I look now and how I will in the near future. Remain positive for the loved one in your life and maybe they can stay positive too.

So with that all said, I wanted to write some words of comfort for me, myself, and my body. I want to say these words to myself, to remind myself and just take stock in when I'm feeling the strain of body image expectations that I impose on myself:

"Body, can you truly believe the situation we currently find ourselves in? We thought we'd never get here, at least not without a little outside help along the way but, it turns out you do work (sometimes) and just needed to be given time and no pressure. Although I'm still in awe that we're at this point, I can't always keep up that super happy and amazed persona because sometimes, I still don't like you.

The level of appreciation I have for what you can achieve grows everyday. Every time I think I'm reaching my limit with this journey, you show me that you can stretch beyond my expectations and can essentially become super-human. You've helped me become more understanding. You've helped me take stock in quiet moments and truly get to know you - get familiar with my own skin, get comfortable in my own limits, pursuit loving myself (and you) as wholly as I can muster. You've set me on a journey of mindfulness with every ache, pain, stretch, discomfort, and relaxation. I've come to accept your flaws more and more because you know what? They don't matter in the grand scheme of things. You're growing life. You. You truly are and I sometimes I can't get my head around it. But you're out here doing it and that's reason enough for me to urge the negativities aside. It's reason enough for me to look at myself in all my softness and ever-changing folds, contours, and lines and say that every change and development is okay.

You've also shown me that my mind can wander and be the worst burden for the both of us. With every acceptance of you, it can throw a comment, a passing thought, or read too much into something someone has said and that positivity you've built up comes crashing down. Being pregnant is a privilege. Being pregnant is hard. The scrutiny we've faced from others is so damaging yet they just don't see it. We've had the comments about "how big we're getting" and we've brushed off and eye-rolled the "we saw the bump coming around the corner before you!" claims, but they still eat away at us don't they? They suck the fun and wonder out of this adventure of ours. We know they shouldn't. We know there's more to this pregnancy lark than other people's thoughts and inability to keep their opinions to themselves, but when we're changing so much at such lightning speed, is there any wonder that I sometimes let those comments stay with me?

I apologise for every time I've let those comments linger though. You know I don't mean to let them interfere because the changes you're rapidly cycling through have so much depth to them that the superficial surface is just that - it's surface-level. If I crawl just an inch deeper I remember all the amazing things you can do and that's what I should be celebrating and loving. I want to protect you. I want to look after you. I want to ensure you can do your job especially now that you're doing the job for another reliant soul, not just me. There's the three of us to consider now.

I promise to stop trying to run you into the ground because I realise now that you're under so much strain. I know that we can't do what we used to even just 6 months ago but that's okay. I don't resent you for it no matter how frustrated I can get in the heat of the moment. I promise to moisturise and nurture you so you remain soft and delicate (god only knows we need to ward off these hormone demons who want to make you feel like the driest desert). I promise to nourish you with nutritious foods so you can perform at your best and help this little bump we're carrying grow to be the healthiest and happiest that they can be in the ultimately short time we have them staying over in our space. I promise to try to appreciate you more and love the things I've hated before. You're making a dream come true for me and I need you to know just how truly thankful I am. So here's to you, me, and that wee leech on our resources who's causing so much chaos for you."

Get Involved with MHAW
Body image issues don't simply disappear overnight and as I and the Mental Health Foundation mentioned, they can grow to be more of a problem for any of us at any given time. Mental Health Awareness Week choosing to focus on this topic is a good opportunity for us all to take stock in just how we treat our own bodies but also be more vigilant of our own comments and opinions of others too. In this heavily social media-focused digital lifestyle most of us participate in now, it's easy to get sucked in and compare ourselves to others. It's easy for us to make passing comments either about ourselves or others that can actually be quite triggering and even hurtful in the eyes of others. Spend time this week raising awareness and getting familiar with all of the work the Mental Health Foundation and MHAW are doing. Always build each other up. We all have just one body, let's make sure it grows to be loved, supported, accepted and celebrated for all it's uniqueness.

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