Have you ever commented on a pregnant friend’s body? Perhaps exclaimed, “Oh, look at your bump!” or, “You’re so tiny, you don’t look pregnant!”. I have, but I've only recently discovered just how damaging this can be to the person on the receiving end of these comments

For some people, pregnancy and the changing shape of their bodies may not always be a positive experience. In my Western culture, being slim is considered the ‘ideal’ body shape and diet culture has left many of us struggling with thoughts about weight and what the ‘most desirable’ body looks like.

While some of us will have a bad day or a moment of insecurity, others will struggle for their entire lives, constantly battling negative thoughts and low body image. They may spend their lives aware of their body shape, constantly trying to mould it into something else (which, in my experience, is often wanting to make it as small as possible). And this applies to pregnant bodies too, for some, the bump isn’t always associated with the beautiful.

“If an expectant mother has a difficult relationship with food and their body, then weight gain in pregnancy (bump and otherwise) can be challenging to deal with,” says counsellor and eating disorder specialist Harriet Frew. “They may strongly dislike their changing body; they may feel secretly resentful towards the baby for the body changes that pregnancy brings; they may be struggling with disordered eating and feeling that they are ‘failing’ at pregnancy.

“They may be simultaneously feeling ashamed, self-conscious, guilty and anxious for having these thoughts.”

Harriet shares that these intense emotions may leave a mother-to-be feeling wrong and ashamed for feeling this way, as there is much pressure on pregnant women to be ‘glowing and happy’. This can create intense guilt and shame.

I found that when you start being unable to wear your normal clothes, you feel like you’ve lost your identity.

So, when pregnant, how are we expected to embrace a sudden body image shift and challenge a mindset that has governed our whole lives? And how are we expected to feel when we are batting off unwarranted bump comments?

To a mother-to-be’s concerns, some might say, “You’re growing a human being, which is amazing.” And while it certainly is incredible, that ‘amazingness’ doesn’t mean we have to love what all that it does to our bodies. And it doesn’t mean that when we share how we feel about our changing shape, it should be disregarded or caveated with, “...but you’re growing a human so you should be happy about everything.”

I recently put a call out on Happiful’s Instagram for any feedback women have been given when pregnant, and the answers make for some pretty heartbreaking reading.

  • “You’re massive! Must be twins (it wasn’t).”
  • “Your bump’s weirdly high.”
  • “You’re carrying on your knees.”
  • “You’re tiny!”
  • “You’re huge!”
  • “You don’t look pregnant.”

Cara, who answered the survey, is in the third trimester of her first pregnancy and has struggled with low body image her whole life. Seeing herself as a chubby child, Cara shares that the experience of the dramatic change in her body shape has not been a positive one.

“Obviously you know there is going to be a change, but nobody prepares you for how quickly that happens, and with that change comes the comments. People feel it’s their right to comment on the way you look; whether they think you’re too big or too small, how much weight they think you have gained or how you are going to get ‘even bigger than that’.

Cara shares that it’s not just the comments, but the invasion of her personal space. “So many people have come up to me and started stroking my stomach without my permission. I’m really not comfortable with this and would question why that is suddenly acceptable because I’m having a baby.”

Comments can cause anxiety

Not only are comments completely uncalled for, but they can also be really worrying for the mother-to-be. Whether they are said as a compliment or just a passing thought, comments such as “Your bump is weirdly high,” or “You’re so tiny, you don’t look pregnant,” can often leave mothers worrying that there is something wrong with the progress of their pregnancy and health.

I know that most comments about pregnant people’s bodies come from a place of love and excitement. I have done this many times before, but never once did I think that the bump might be associated with difficult feelings. This may be because, for a long time, I wasn’t close enough with someone pregnant to share how they felt, but that’s exactly my point: if you aren’t close enough to the person who you’re asking to see their stomach (or not, in some cases), should you really be saying anything?

“Comments from others, however well-intentioned, can be extremely triggering and exacerbate the internal struggles going on,” says Harriet. “Everyone’s pregnancy is unique and comments can feel like a judgement about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It can feel that a boundary line has been crossed, with the comments being invasive and interpreted through a critical lens.

“If someone’s self-esteem is fragile, a comment can send them spiralling downwards and encourage further comparisons with others, or questioning their own worth.”

What I do know though, is that if you are pregnant, it’s ok to not feel your best, glowing, most validated self. And on the flip side, if you do feel your best when pregnant, then that’s ok too. But what’s not ok is for someone else to share their own thoughts about your body just because you have a baby inside.

How to acknowledge pregnancy without commenting on appearance

If you do want to acknowledge that someone is pregnant, instead of commenting on their appearance or the size and shape of the bump, here are five alternative things you can say that are kind and considerate.

  • A simple “Congratulations!”
  • “How are you feeling?”
  • “Is there anything I can help you with?”
  • “You are going to make a wonderful mother/parent.”
  • “I can’t wait to meet your baby!”

If you are pregnant and have been struggling with poor body image, it might be helpful to consult a professional therapist who can provide a safe, confidential space to work through your worries. Use Counselling Directory to find a therapist.