I’ve only encountered the dread “Are you pregnant?” intrusion exactly once in my life before yesterday. The question came, ironically, not when I was obese, but when I weighed about 140 pounds, wore a size 8 and worked out and lifted weights six days a week. Then, the assumption – made by a couple of gangly barely post-pubescent guys at my favorite coffeehouse – threw my already eating disordered brain into a serious tailspin. I examined myself with heightened scrutiny for weeks afterward. I paraded about before friends and family, demanding they tell me the truth and when they assured me I didn’t look with child, assumed they were lying. I stepped up my exercise routine and vowed never to eat again.
Fast forward to yesterday. I am about 45 pounds heavier and 100 percent healthier. I’ve been working on a feature story on a local garden club whose members are working to restore the gardens of an historic home to its original period detail. I’ve spoken on the phone with the primary organizer of the endeavor several times; she’s a great-great grandmother with a slightly high-pitched, childish voice that would surely ensure her financial success in the phone sex market. I arranged to meet her at the home yesterday and arrived dressed in a classic pair of khakis and a button-down knit top over a tank top. We introduced ourselves and what follows is the conversation that occurred immediately after:
Old Lady (actually patting my stomach) “Oh, dear. Are you expecting or did you just have a little one?”
I smiled warmly. “No, I’m just fat.” (thanks, Joy!)
The old woman rubbed her own ample belly (she is a good 50 pounds heavier than me). “Oh, me too. You know, I started using this great exercise ball and lost some weight.”
“Well, only surgery will remove this,” I said, patting my stomach. She looked at me quizzically and I explained further. “I lost a lot of weight and my skin couldn’t keep up, so now I have a lot of loose skin.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” Old Lady exclaimed. “You must be so proud and healthier, too…”
I interrupted her. “Actually, I lost the weight in very unhealthy way – an eating disorder. I gained some weight back and I’ve maintained a loss of more than 100 pounds now in a healthy way. This is what I am proud of.”
She appeared nonplussed, even at my mention of an eating disorder. “You know, my sister had a weight problem and it turned out to be her thyroid…,” she offered.
“Yeah, I have a thyroid issue, too,” I replied still smiling. “But I always say that I don’t have a weight problem; it’s society that has a problem with my weight. Now, how about those gardens?”
I stopped by my home afterwards before meeting a friend at a local coffeehouse. I’ve come a long way in my eating disorder recovery and in body size acceptance, but the old woman’s comment still rankled me, especially since I do have a lot of excess skin on my abdomen that I can pull away from my body in hunks. I worried that perhaps I do look pregnant, and only the fact that my friends and family know my biological clock is spinning furiously in reverse keeps them from commenting on it. But as I examined myself in my full-length mirror, I saw no indication that I looked pregnant, except maybe if I slouched troll-like and dramatically poofed out my stomach. My friend whom I met later – the one I call my gay boyfriend, who has also had struggles with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia disorder — agreed with me. “You don’t have any of the proportions of a pregnant woman,” he declared. My husband also agreed and suggested that I should have asked the old lady if she had had a stroke recently.
Asking a woman if she is pregnant based on nothing more than physical suspicion is a kind way of asking a woman why she is fat, only you’ve provided her with a socially acceptable excuse with which to explain away her weight. It’s not unlike asking a bald woman if she has cancer or a flat-chested woman if she has had a mastectomy, and is just as rude, intrusive and presumptuous. Besides the obvious offensiveness implicit in calling someone fat, as my husband pointed out, a woman could also have been pregnant and lost the baby. Now you’re calling her fat and bringing up a traumatic issue. Double slam.
The old lady who asked me did not intend or frame her question in a malicious way, nor do I believe her intent was to call me fat. As in the study of history, you have to look at her and her motives not against the litmus of contemporary feminism, but as a woman of a different era and time, with different values and expectations of women. Still, even if a woman is very obviously pregnant with monstrous-sized quints, the most tactful response is to not say anything at all. If a woman is pregnant, she will decide when and whom to tell.
Have you ever had anyone ask if you’re pregnant? How’d you respond?