The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

Nurturing a Positive Pregnancy…Lessons Learned from Eating Disorder Recovery

Several months ago, The Center for Eating Disorders had the pleasure of hosting former World Champion rower, Whitney Post, as a keynote speaker during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  In her talk, Invisible Victory, she spoke about her identity as an elite athlete and how she ultimately used it to her advantage in recovering from her eating disorder (ED).  During her visit to Baltimore, Whitney also shared that she was expecting a baby this June, and that  her work in ED recovery had provided a unique perspective and helpful skills for navigating the ups, downs and body image challenges of pregnancy.  In honor of Mother’s Day,  we asked Whitney if she would help us re-introduce our Nurture blog series for moms and mothers-to-be, and she graciously agreed.  The result is this insightful and delightfully down-to-earth Q&A  post about her ongoing journey through pregnancy and recovery. 

 Q & A with Whitney Post

Q: Have you noticed any similarities or parallels between the pregnancy experience and the recovery process?

WP: I remember early on in pregnancy lying in bed and trying to take stock of all the changes that were going on in my work, my body, my energy, and my identity.  It felt overwhelming to say the least, but what occurred to me was that I was so glad I had all the training of recovery to help me navigate this new journey.  I already knew how to surrender large areas of my life for the sake of something new and different.  I think both recovery and pregnancy are about building new life.  In each the process is long, full of uncertainty and discomfort, and full of hope.  There is a great demand for outside support and people who have been through the process before, and the ability to surrender to what the process is asking of you vs. having things exactly the way you want them.

Q: Can you describe how the process of recovering from an ED has helped you prepare for the experience of pregnancy, particularly as it relates to your body image?

WP: I wanted to be one of those women who remained toned and just grew a big round belly out front.  I am not.  I wanted to be one of those women who stayed true to her satisfying workout regimes.  I am not.  And I wanted to be one of those women who seemed to get more stylish as her belly grew, with cool accessories and funky outfits.  I am not. 

But what I am is one of those women who is putting the health of the child growing inside me first, and doing my best with all the rest.  I just do it while wearing clogs, and in between very moderate (“lame” would be another term) workouts.  As the weight started to come on, I could feel two sides of my brain at work.  One said, “this is a miracle and weight gain is part of the process.  This is healthy and natural.”  Meanwhile, another, old part of my brain shouted, “Hello!!!! You are gaining weight!!  Remember how unhappy you were last time this happened?  Do something about it now!!!”  Every time another round of clothes has to be retired because it becomes snug, a part of me feels an old tug to feel bad about myself.  But recovery taught me the skills of being able to recognize these two different voices and gave me the ability to make a choice, vs. listening to whichever voice is scarier.  I am pleased to say that, “this is normal and natural” now wins easily over “go on a diet!”

At my OB office when they check you in for each visit they hand you a cup to pee in and ask you to weigh yourself.  They leave the room and come back in about ten minutes.  For several months I would worry about having to weigh myself, as part of my recovery has involved not knowing how much I weigh.  I could have asked them to weigh me and just looked away, that would have been totally valid, but I just chose to do the drill and let them decide if I was gaining too much or too little.  As long as I’m not trying to control my weight, but rather trust that to the doctors, and manage healthy meals and appropriate workouts, I feel I am on track.

Q: How can pregnancy positively or negatively impact recovery? 

WP: I have found that I have had to work pretty hard at taking care of my recovery because my needs changed suddenly.  I had to find a new way to eat when everything made me nauseated.  I had to find a new way to work the tools of the program when I was too tired to go to 12-step meetings I normally went to.  I had to find women who were in recovery who had been pregnant to learn from them.  So suddenly, the little world of my recovery resources needed to be updated and shifted, and that has been a big investment on my part.  So I think if you let the things that sustain you in recovery slide because you have less energy or those resources don’t fit as well, you can be on a slippery slope, because you may also find yourself (as I often have) more emotionally vulnerable than normal.  But if you look at it as a time to invest in a new phase of recovery and build a community around you, it can strengthen you.

Q: Can you share some concrete steps women can take during pregnancy to help them nurture a positive relationship with their changing bodies?

  • Recognize you may have conflicting feelings and impulses but make sure your actions reflect your goals and values.  (for example – I want to diet because I don’t like gaining weight but my goal is to have a healthy baby and pregnancy, and so I will accept that gaining weight is part of the process and is temporary).
  • Talk to other women who have been through it and speak honestly about your experience.  You can be a wonderful mother and still not enjoy every aspect of pregnancy – they are not mutually exclusive.
  • Ensure from the outset that you have an OB who is supportive of prioritizing health vs. weight.  Then, trust your doctors when it comes to monitoring weight, exercise, etc., and get someone (nutritionist or physician) to work with you on the food and eating part, if you struggle with it, so you aren’t alone.
  • Focus on the positive parts – go to birthing classes, pay attention to the baby kicks, pick out baby clothes, prepare the house, etc.
  • Go with your body’s intuition about when it needs a rest, a snack or a cry.  You may not be able to keep up with your old self, or your old standards, and that’s okay.  It’s important to accept that your body now has a whole new task to prioritize; supporting the physical growth and development of your baby requires a lot of energy.

Q: As an eating disorder treatment professional, a recovery advocate and now a pregnant woman yourself, what are your thoughts on the mainstream media’s representation of pregnant and post-pregnancy bodies? 

WP: Mainstream media has never been helpful when it comes to figuring out how my body should look, and a pregnant body is no different.  The women chosen to be pregnancy models or on the covers of magazines are a very select group of pregnant women who all look much the same, and are all captured in about their fifth or sixth month of pregnancy when the belly is often cute and round.  If you go to a prenatal yoga class and look at all the bodies (as I often did – I was barely able to focus on the poses) you will see all the different shapes and sizes of bellies regardless of the phase of pregnancy.  Some of them seem pretty wacky looking as we are just not accustomed to seeing really pregnant women!  I find it much healthier to see these real live pregnant women than to look at the models.

As for “after the baby” the media is obsessed with how fast a woman can “get her body back.”  I’m happy Heidi Klum made it her goal to be a sexy Victoria secret model within weeks of giving birth, but I don’t think that is helpful for most women.  I am really looking forward to being able to run and do a sit up and move my body with greater ease and speed after the baby is born.  But the reality is I will be sleep deprived and in a very demanding phase of feeding, soothing, and getting to know a new baby, and at that time, I don’t need to be preoccupied with how quickly I can lose weight.  Focusing on eating well and getting in some sleep and exercise will be my goal for good self-care.

Q: Is there one piece of advice that has been particularly helpful for you in terms of staying focused on wellness and body positivity during pregnancy?

WP: Trust your body and stay connected ~ not that different from recovery, right? : )  Pregnancy can make you tired and moody, and both of those things can make socializing less appealing. I have found that I need to push myself to stay connected to old pals and to reach out to start to create a new community of moms-to-be. 

Q: Are there any lessons you’ve learned through ED recovery that you think may also be helpful for individuals as they venture into the day-to-day life of motherhood with a new baby?

WP:In recovery I spent a lot of time learning how to figure out what I needed, and how to stand up for that need while being kind and respectful of others.  But I still need to fight a part of me that is stuck in the habit of  “people pleasing.”  In pregnancy part of my job is to avoid putting myself in bad situations (being around people who have contagious colds or flus, overdoing myself with social/work demands), even though I might have been fine with these situations when not pregnant. This means I have to say “no” to things more often.  I learned early on that if I went against an instinct about my limits of comfort, I was really uncomfortable. I imagine some of the same will be true with an infant.  So my lesson that I am learning over again is that I need to respect my instincts and boundaries, and while I may inconvenience people in the process, we will all survive.

Whitney Post is the President and Co-Founder of Eating for Life Alliance and spends much of her time educating college students, professionals, athletes and coaches about eating disorder prevention and treatment. The Center for Eating Disorders is incredibly grateful to Whitney for sharing her insights, experiences,  and advice about pregnancy and recovery for this post We wish her well as she ventures into motherhood!  If you’d like to share your own ideas on this topic, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below or join the discussion on our Facebook Page

If you enjoyed this blog, you may want to read these previous entries from CED’s Nurture Blog Series:

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*Significant health risks (for mom and baby) are associated with eating disorders during pregnancy.  It is recommended that the eating disorder be significantly resolved before a pregnancy is attempted.  If pregnancy does occur prior to recovery, it is imperative that you receive appropriate medical and psychological support. If you are struggling with an eating disorder during pregnancy, or are working hard to maintain your recovery during pregnancy, we would like to remind you how important it is to be honest with your OB and other medical providers during this time.  It’s critical that your providers are aware of your medical history and any current and past ED symptoms so that they can provide the best possible health care for you and your baby.  

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