On February 3, nearly four months after she lost her third child, Jack, to pregnancy complications at 20 weeks, Chrissy Teigen shared that she was experiencing what felt like baby kicks in her uterus. “My little Jack would have been born this week so I’m a bit off,” Teigen tweeted. “I truly feel kicks in my belly, but it’s not phantom. I have surgery for endometriosis tomorrow…but the period feeling this month is exactly like baby kicks. Sigh.”
When one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, countless people have to navigate the often complicated, painful feelings that come with having a post-pregnancy body with nothing to show for it. A postpartum body without a baby. Those feelings can be compounded by the ways our bodies react to those losses, the medical interventions that are often necessary in order to pass the pregnancy safely, and, unfortunately, the comments people make about people’s post-pregnancy bodies.
Add to that society’s obsession with the size and shape of our post-pregnancy bodies—and whether they “bounce back”—and it creates the central message to women that proof of pregnancy should cease to exist on our bodies, even for those of us who desperately want visible proof. These insidious expectations actively harm those suffering from pregnancy and infant loss.
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This is something I explore in my recently released book I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, a Movement. After I lost my own pregnancy at 16 weeks, I fielded comments about my postpartum body, several of which came from those closest to me. When I met up with a friend for lunch in an attempt to regain some normalcy, I was reminded of the unrelenting obsession our culture has with surveilling and commenting on women’s bodies—be it pre-pregnancy, during pregnancy, postpartum or never partum at all. “You look svelte—as if you weren’t even pregnant,” my friend uttered from across the table. “Aren’t those your pre-pregnancy jeans?”
Gulp. I gave a perfunctory nod, and said, “Yeah, the baby weight came off almost overnight.” I could feel even my skin withdraw from this seemingly frivolous direction of the conversation. From dead-baby photograph, to the size of my body and jeans? This can’t be happening, I thought to myself.
“Lucky you! That must be a relief!” she said. A relief that my baby died and that I don’t look like I was ever pregnant? I shouted in my head. Please don’t erase my pregnancy with a trivial remark about the shape of this body of mine. “I guess,” I calmly shrugged.
People had said similar things to me after my son was born four years earlier—“You like you were never pregnant!”—and I found myself chafing against the declaration, which was earnestly meant as a compliment. I was, of course, changed. I wanted to be changed. I welcomed, was even overjoyed at, the physical and mental changes brought about by motherhood.
This exchange following my miscarriage was entirely different, perhaps, but nonetheless the same. This lost pregnancy had made a mark on me too; I didn’t want to hear that my friend couldn’t see it, or that it had been erased entirely. Also, I wished I were still pregnant, so hearing that I didn’t look like I had ever been pregnant was no consolation at all.
I am not alone in having fielded such bewildering and oftentimes agonizing comments in the aftermath of pregnancy loss. I have heard the pain they cause in my office, as a psychologist specializing in reproductive and maternal mental health, where I listen to stories of people struggling to get pregnant, stay pregnant, and navigate life in the wake of loss. And they’re often shared in my online community #IHadaMiscarriage as well.
Hannah Podschadley, 29, from Sacramento, California, has one such story. After her miscarriage at six weeks last February, a person close to her made a comment about her post-pregnancy body. “They said it was a good thing because I wouldn’t have to worry about gaining baby weight,” Podschadley tells me. “And it was weird because after the loss, I threw myself into working out, but due to depression and everything I have consistently gained weight since then. I’m not comfortable in my body anymore because I don’t know what it’s doing.”
Podschadley, who shared that she has historically struggled with body image, says that she purposefully isolated herself after her loss to avoid any chance someone would make another comment about her post-loss body. In turn, this isolation compounded the mental health ramifications of her loss. She started experiencing severe panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. “I’d say ‘everything is fine’ and then at the end of the night I would be hyperventilating in my bedroom, crying because I’m convinced that I deserved it for whatever reason, or that my husband deserves to be a dad so therefore he should be with someone else,” she says. “The isolation was terrible.”
Camryn, 21, from Baltimore, Maryland, also self-isolated after she lost her daughter at five and a half months. “One morning I was making breakfast. I didn’t feel her move as much as I had in the last few days. I told myself that if the baby isn’t actively moving by 3pm, I must go to the emergency room,” she says. “As the day went on, she really didn’t move at all. I went to the hospital. While waiting I was hoping nothing was wrong. After doing two ultrasounds and blood work they came and told me my daughter was no longer. She didn’t have a heartbeat.”
Camryn has a cousin who was also pregnant at the same time, and says they often compared pregnancy symptoms. During a visit after she lost the pregnancy, her cousin’s mom asked Camryn when she was due. “At the time I still looked pregnant, so she started rubbing my stomach,” she says. “And all I could do was cry.”
Studies have shown undergoing pregnancy loss can cause significant mental and emotional anguish. A 2020 study conducted in the United Kingdom found that one in six women who have had a miscarriage will develop long-term symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. To add to the negative impact of making comments about a person’s body—studies have shown poor body image can trigger a range of reactions, from anxiety to self-disgust to suicidal thoughts—can compound the trauma, therefore making it that much harder for those grieving to begin the process of healing.
“I was never the skinniest person in the world, but I loved that I was strong and I loved that I could do the things that I could do,” Podschadley says. “But after the miscarriage, that has been shattered. I don’t know where it went, but I want it back because I used to be so proud of myself and now I constantly feel like I’m a failure. So even if you think that what you’re going to say is helpful, it most definitely is not helpful. We don’t need to hear what you have to say, necessarily. Just be there and listen to us. That’s it. Don’t say anything about our bodies. It’s not helpful. Ever. Period.”
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