Society has long normalized the practice of commenting on or judging other people’s bodies. How often can you recall participating in or overhearing comments about another person’s shape and size?
While this practice may be common, it is not okay. As eating disorder treatment providers, we know this all too well. And yet, my own recent experiences illustrate that we still have a long way to go before these types of behaviors dissipate in society.
After two weeks away from work to self-quarantine after some flu-like symptoms, I made my way back to the office, eager to return to my routine. As I walked through the door for my daily COVID-19 screen, a fellow employee from another department greeted me. I held the heavy metal door open for her. As we approached the daily “check-in” station, she asked, “Are you pregnant?” and pointed to my stomach. “No,” I replied with a grimace. Awkward silence ensued. She eventually responded with, “Oh… a lot people are pregnant right now.” I remained silent. I could sense her discomfort, but I wasn’t capable of responding. A wave of feelings rolled over me. I was in a haze.
Unfortunately, this experience wasn’t a new one. In fact, it was the fourth instance over the course of my time here. In all of these times, I was not pregnant.
Recently, I suffered a miscarriage. So, while the “Are you pregnant?” question is always loaded and can prove hurtful, the question is especially difficult to hear when you’ve recently miscarried. No one knew I suffered a miscarriage; that is my own business. I don’t have to disclose my private life.
When this question is asked of me, especially at my place of work, it highlights how much awareness and advocacy is still needed. My workplace is one in which we serve those who struggle not only with eating disorders, but struggle to find healing and a different way of existing in this world. We pride ourselves in our sensitivity to and understanding of the need for acceptance and non-judgment, inside and out. But even we have an opportunity to do better.
How can we help people heal from eating disorders when the entire system and prevailing societal norms don’t make room for a person’s body to exist as it is? How can a body exist, be accepted, be seen, as it is, without an explanation? How do we do this for the community we inhabit, for those who we interact with?
I can only think of one way: tell a story. Tell your story. Tell my story. Then share that story. But this story, about how a body should be able to exist as it is, in the sun, in the dark, at work, in a car, in all of the possible places Dr. Seuss can dream up… this story can’t be told enough. No person’s body is up for commenting. No person’s body is your business. If you don’t know if someone is pregnant, then that’s because it was none of your business in the first place.
After my interaction at the check in station that day, I went on with my day. I walked toward the restroom and made small talk with another employee along the way. “Are you expecting another one along the way?” my colleague asked, with eyes directed at my stomach. I responded, “No! And people really need to stop asking me this today. It is never okay to ask someone that question.” My body doesn’t owe anyone an explanation. No one’s body does. It will take intention, being vocal and loud to change attitudes about commenting on bodies. At that moment, I was overcome by an urge to speak out and advocate. I’ve known moments of quiet pain where grief churned and being alone with my feelings felt right. But there is power in turning towards against fashions of routine, like office banter, and pushing against a mold that is not matching your shape.
Despite these interactions, and despite the prevailing societal urge to comment on other people’s bodies, we each can take a step individually to do better. One of those steps, for me, is speaking out. The other is gratitude. I am thanking my body today. For being strong enough to carry and give birth to my daughter, for moving, for dancing, for being held by others, for hugging and holding others, I am thanking my body for reminding me of how badass it is. My gratitude is more powerful than any social commentary. Sometimes, the most powerful steps are the simplest ones.