Sunday, December 6, 2020

The case of Maggie Baumann and the problem with “pregorexia”

August 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Pregnancy

Maggie Baumann was brutally honest when she came forward and admitted that she had suffered with eating disorders through both of her pregnancies. In an essay for MomLogic, she described what it felt like to be horrified by the changes to her body during those months. After working hard on her own recovery, she shared her experience in the hopes that it would help other mothers and mothers-to-be feel less alone. She didn’t expect that women would be her harshest judges.

The story set off a steady stream of angry comments on MomLogic. “You selfish (bleep)!” wrote one commenter. “They need to throw her skinny butt in jail,” echoed another. “You should be sterilized so you are unable to harm more children!” I wrote about the piece for Shine when it first appeared, and the comments there weren’t much different:

“Get off your high horse and start valuing what really matters in life–and it’s not your looks!”

“Wow these shallow snotty little brats with no concept of reality or any sort of decency…”

Since her blog post was published in June, Baumann has had nightmares and finds herself crying more often, reports The Orange County Register. She stops short of saying that she regrets the decision to be so open, but she does acknowledge that going public resulted in personal attacks she had not anticipated. “I never imagined the depth of hatred I would receive…I’ve learned in my own recovery to get over your shame, you have to share it,” she said. “Maybe you don’t have to share it with the world like I did, but with people that are safe.”

My co-author Magali Amadei and I surveyed more than 400 women for our forthcoming book Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? I find Baumann’s ordeal particularly heartbreaking because we talked to so many other women who are facing the same anxieties and insecurities she faced during her pregnancies. They often keep those struggles from their friends, partners, and even their doctors because they fear judgment. Sadly, the backlash to Baumann’s story proves that their fears are not always unwarranted.

Why were women so quick to demonize Baumann? The short answer is that sensationalism separates. “Pregorexia” (a media-invented term, not a medical diagnosis) headlines, numbers marking how much she weighed and ate, and a gallery of photos showing her too-thin pregnant body created distance between Baumann and readers. People could easily reassure themselves—“Well, I would never let myself get THAT thin or eat THAT little. I don’t have ‘pregorexia.’ I’m not THAT sick.” When eating disorders are presented in extremes, the complex truths are inevitably overshadowed by the clear-cut shock value.  Gory details and buzz words don’t bridge gaps or build understanding. They reinforce stereotypes and put up walls.

The truth is that millions of women suffer from eating disorders and the majority of American women struggle with some form of disordered eating–from chronic dieting to compulsive exercise to secret eating. Most of us know firsthand what it means to have food and weight issues. Why should we expect that those issues will just magically disappear during the most body and life transforming (not to mention stressful) times in our lives, aka pregnancy and new motherhood? There are mothers who have full-blown eating disorders and pregnant women who shed tears over their changing lives and changing bodies. There are women who look at pictures of celebrity new moms in their bikinis and feel desperately unhappy in their own skin and women who are terrified of passing their poor body image on to their children. These are all vulnerabilities that have the potential to unite us. But when stories like Maggie’s are packaged to stir up controversy and generate page views, indignation tragically trumps empathy.

This guest post was submitted by Claire Mysko



20 Responses to “The case of Maggie Baumann and the problem with “pregorexia””
  1. lissa10279 says:

    Great post, Clare. I first heard of pregorexia a few months ago and it scared the hell out of me, esp. since I am a recovering disordered eater and planning to start a family soon. I fear more than anything falling into restrictive ways. It is scary as all get-out, but at the same time, I hope to welcome pregnancy with open arms when the time comes.

    That said, I can totally understand the pressures women feel. Maggie’s story isn’t one to be ashamed of but rather discussed openly, like you’ve done here.

    Eating disorders aren’t always about vanity and there are so many levels of disordered eating, which you noted.

    And you’re so right. too, to say that it’s pretty ridiculous to expect that just because someone becomes pregnant, their eating issues will disappear. Likely, they are magnified, which causes more anxiety – even if rationally the mom-to-be knows it’s the right thing to be doing. Hopefully through honest dialogue these women can cultivate healthy behaviors and learn to gain weight and treat their bodies well throughout their pregnancy and beyond. Because it’s not just about the mom; there’s budding life involved and that trumps all else.

    • clairemysko says:

      Thanks, Lissa. Pregnancy is unpredictable, so there’s no way any woman can know exactly how she will feel about the body changes until those changes start happening. But my wish is that EVERY woman who has struggled with food and weight issues (past or present, full-blown eating disorders, disordered eating, or just plain lousy body image), would find the courage to reach out and get a strong support system in place for during and after pregnancy.

      Women need to push through whatever shame we might be feeling to discuss our histories and body concerns with our health care providers. That’s how we find doctors who are sensitive to these issues–and oh, wow are there some who REALLY aren’t. If you encounter one, don’t be afraid to walk away. We also need to set boundaries with our friends and families when it comes to discussing pregnancy weight gain and postbaby weight-loss. If you know those numbers have the potential to become an unhealthy fixation for you, just ask your doctor to not to tell you how much you weigh unless it becomes a medical concern.

      We don’t need to have it all figured it out, but I think we should all make a commitment to actively address our issues and ask for help when we need it–before pregnancy, during, and as mothers.

  2. greenbunny78 says:

    I think its sad she was judged. What’s interesting to me, though, was that even though it was SO hard to be pregnant with my 2 kids, my first pregnancy in particular was the motivation I needed to get better. I had this perfectly innocent life inside of me. Dependant solely on what my body would provide for it. I felt it was my job to do everything I could to give this new life- a life that didn’t ASK me to create it, every advantage I could. It was HARD. And it makes me feel bad that as much as I love my children, I did NOT like being pregnant. Well, parts of it I liked. I LOVED feeling the baby move. But on the whole, I really disliked pregnancy, both times. It makes me sad, because I want my daughter to love her body, and when she has a baby, I hope she DOES love being pregnant.

    • clairemysko says:

      I think you should be proud of yourself for confronting your issues and being motivated to get healthy–for yourself and for your children. There is this ridiculous expectation that every woman should be blissfully happy during pregnancy. Some are and some aren’t. Some like certain things about it and hate others. There are endless factors involved in whether you enjoy the experience or you don’t, and women are SO hard on ourselves when we don’t fit the glowing-and-loving-every-minute-of-it profile.

  3. Trabb's Boy says:

    I have not read the initial article, but I am not surprised to hear she got stomped on. I believe very strongly in the right of individuals to make their own decisions and raise their children the way they see fit (with the exceptions of serious physical or emotional abuse, serious neglect or denial of life-saving medical treatment). Very few people believe as I do, though. North American society has utterly embraced the right to loudly and even violently impose rules about child rearing. A few examples:

    – “Breast is best” is a fine thought. Try posting on a parenting board that you had trouble with it so you switched to bottles. You will hear this described as child abuse.

    – Get your baby’s ears pierced for cultural reasons? Child abuse.

    – Circumsize your boy babies? Child abuse.

    – Put your children on a diet? Child abuse — and that’s from Shapely Prose.

    Basically, I think that there has to be a push-back against this kind of busybody attitude. Telling people how to handle their own kids is not just rude, but belittling, often cruel, and almost universally anti-feminist, since the target of the busybodies is nearly always mothers.

    Being supportive of parents who could really use some support is awesome, and I hope Maggie Bauman knows that she really has provided reassurance to people who are or who will be in her situation. And I wish her all the best in coping with the haters.

    • cggirl says:

      Trabb’s Boy – You know, butting in to how people raise their children is rude. But then again, what if they ARE abusing them? And who’s to decide where the line is? I’m just saying these things are fuzzy.
      The examples you give here are not REMOTELY SIMILAR to starving someone.

      I, for one, agree that in many cases, making your kids diet is a bit abusive, or, you know, harmful. Not to the point where you’re a “bad parent” and must have your kids taken away, not in an extreme way, but I think it’s done a lot in situations where it’s really uncalled for and only harms them. But I’m also sure the parents usually think they are doing it for the kid’s own good.

      I have also heard that it was “child abuse” when a woman gave her kid a cookie on the subway when they were being fussy. Yeah. I mean, first off, maybe the kid was fussy cuz he was hungry! And even if not, while it’s not a good idea to give him a cookie if what he needs is something else, I wouldn’t see that as abusive. But I digress… I was just bummed but yet another dig at Shapely Prose, which is a site I like.

      Back to your comments… I also disagree with piercing babies’ ears, or circumcision (and I’m Jewish). But I don’t think ANY of these things I’ve talked about are even close to starving your unborn child. Not saying a pregorexic is an evil bad parent, but just, starving someone is not the same as any of these other things you or I mention here.

    • NewMe says:

      I actually do believe that putting your child on a diet is child abuse. Dieting is the fastest way to develop a lifelong problem with weight and food.

      Offering children a variety of healthy foods, not relying on McDonald’s as a principle source of nourishment and encouraging children to listen to their bodies (intuitive eating) all help to foster a healthy attitude towards food.

  4. S says:

    Putting a child on a diet IS child abuse. There’s a big difference between teaching a growing child moderation and self-respect…and shaming them into a lifetime of disordered eating. Ask me how I know.

  5. cggirl says:

    Wow, I feel bad for Maggie. And initially I just thought “that poor woman, look what society has made her do”. But I must also say – another one of those things I don’t know if I SHOULD think but I DO think – if someone has a problem, be it an eating disorder, or a drug addiction, it is their responsibility to get help and get their act together if they are going to have a child. I feel people take that decision so lightly. And I am indeed judgemental about this, I can’t help it. It’s one thing to fuck up your own life, but to fuck up your children’s – both in terms of being anorexic while pregnant and just being anorexic while parenting them actually – i feel like that’s wrong. And it seems like a person can’t keep an eating disorder going unless they are actively working to hide it, like with drugs. I could be wrong about this, but that’s how it seems from what I’ve read/seen. I don’t know what horrible things were said to Maggie, and it’s not my place to dole out her punishment, but yes – after my first reaction of pity, I get pissed off. Because just like I think you have no right to be a cracked out mom or mom-to-be, you also have no right to be an anorexic one (certainly not on the mom-to-be side at least, or nursing, because the baby-to-be needs the food!). I’m sorry if this comes off mean to those of you who might be anorexic mothers or pregorexic moms-to-be. But I just think the choice to secretly do these things rather than ask for help with this disorder is wrong, and that it is a choice. I feel like – if you can’t deal with it, if you’re at a point where you still prefer the disorder to the alternative and are not ready for treatment, don’t have a kid.

    • clairemysko says:

      I agree that we do have a responsibility to address our issues and seek help (see my comment to Lissa above).

      One thing to be aware of is that sometimes pregnancy and motherhood can trigger past behaviors. Even if a woman has done the work to get to a healthy place before getting pregnant, she might have to face some of those old demons again. That’s true of recovery in general–it’s never a straight path, there are steps forward and backward–but pregnancy and new motherhood are times when some women are particularly vulnerable because there are so many body changes, new pressures, and expectations. There are also some cases where disordered eating occurs for the first time during pregnancy or after delivery. That doesn’t mean those women don’t also have a responsibility to address their issues as they arise, but it’s not always as simple as “if you have an eating disorder, don’t have a kid.”

      And then there are cases of unplanned pregnancies. Does someone with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder not have a “right” to give it a go and try her best if that’s what she chooses?

      • cggirl says:

        Well, for starters obviously everybody has the right to do whatever they want, I can spout my opinions but I would never condone anything that would FORCE that decision out of the woman’s hands, because it’s not my place to say, or the governments, or anybody else’s.

        In my personal opinion, it’s better to end a pregnancy the parent is not in a good situation to be a parent (and of course, the definition of that is a sliding scale, not a black and white thing, so we each make our own calls). But of course, I’m not in that position, and my opinion on it is not really well informed because I can’t know what it’s like… Not to mention that different people have different beliefs about ending pregnancy, and I certainly can’t argue with that, they have every right to do what they feel is right.

        I do agree that the stresses of motherhood can cause old behaviors to resurface, or cause new behaviors to occur. That’s also true of something like drug addiction. Or even, say, various kinds of abuse, that a parent perpetrates because they themselves have been hurt or screwed up.

        But then, if there is always a reason, does that mean nobody is responsible for their behavior? If someone has a reason for doing something terrible, a reason that wasn’t their fault, we don’t automatically excuse the resulting behavior. We just each have a different place where we draw the line of personal responsibility. And mine is such that if you have problems like addiction, or eating disorders, or something that causes you to be abusive to your children, or anything like that, and you do know right from wrong, then you are responsible for the damage that you do to your kids. I’m not saying that person is evil, but that in my opinion they have done a terrible thing, and it isn’t their fault that they were driven to do that thing – whatever caused it isn’t their fault – but the fact that they kept doing it IS their fault. (Of course, sending them hatemail after they have come out about it and are trying to get better is NOT what I would consider appropriate or productive.)

  6. Sara says:

    I have an issue with the use of the word “pregorexia,” and I think it reflects why people have mixed feelings about Maggie’s story. Pregorexia isn’t a disorder, it’s a word people made up to describe the urge/compulsion to lose weight while pregnant, or to not gain weight while pregnant. Anorexia or Bulimia are eating disorders, which are psychiatric illnesses. Pregnancy I’m sure complicates recovery for women who suffer from eating disorders, and I assume it’s true that they can hurt their pregnancies and fetuses by not eating enough. But the eating disorder itself is NOT their fault. Someone who doesn’t want to gain weight during a pregnancy for superficial reasons and does NOT suffer from an eating disorder is narcissistic, and I don’t think they deserve any pity, they are in my opinion purposefully harming their future children by not eating well during pregnancy. But someone who doesn’t eat well during pregnancy because they are sick I think does deserve pity and compassion, because the issue is really with their disorder, not a lack of love for their baby. It is a very important distinction. I think using the correct words to identify real eating disorders is important to help us find pity for those who deserve it. Maggie was brave to share her story.

    • clairemysko says:

      I loathe the word “pregorexia.” It’s another example of how media coverage sensationalizes eating disorders and ignores the complexities of these illnesses.

      I certainly agree that there is a difference between someone who meets the criteria for anorexia or bulimia and someone who is afraid to gain weight during pregnancy, but I wouldn’t dismiss the latter woman as “superficial” or “narcissistic.” There is a huge spectrum of disordered eating behavior and body image issues. While someone who has serious anxiety about weight gain and body image changes might not have a serious eating disorder, she still needs support and help to deal with those issues so she can prepare to be healthy throughout her pregnancy and beyond.

  7. Dee says:

    If some women can’t help starving themselves and their baby-to-be during pregnancy, then yeah, maybe they should think twice about having or raising a kid. If an anorexic is lucky enough to end up with a healthy baby after starving herself while pregnant, then the kid is likely to end up fat. Look up the “Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study.”

    How would an anorexic mom deal with having a fat kid? At best, the physiological effect of a thin mother who thinks she’s fat on the fat child would be negative (as someone commented earlier, ask me how I know). At worst, she might be horribly abusive in an attempt to help “save” the child from his or her body type.

    I guess that there’s a chance she could beat the eating disorder after having the child, but if she couldn’t do it while pregnant, then that seems unlikely.

  8. amandaw says:

    And, for what it’s worth: you don’t have to moderate heavily. You can still keep a light touch in the comments. But I do think comments that are threatening and dangerous should, necessarily, be removed. There should be a line, and when that line is crossed, there must be a response.

    I understand the wish not to moderate comments for opinions/content/etc. That’s OK! But when it comes to those comments that make this safe feel dangerous or harmful to the esteem of the women reading it… I think it is valid to take those out.

  9. TWoP Fan says:

    When I was pregnant, I gained 7lbs in my fifth month. Up to then I had gained 7lbs total, since I was overweight to begin with and my Dr. advised small weight gain. When he saw that I had gained 7lb in that month he said “You can’t gain like this the rest of the time. Being pregnant isn’t an excuse to eat whatever you want you know.”

    Yeah, I have no idea why women might have body issues while pregnant. I have no idea why I now mentally calculate calories in everything, since that what he suggested I do. No idea.

  10. missincognegro says:

    There is an actress, Anna Friel, was alleged to have been dieting while pregnant. I also recall a woman with whom I was acqainted who was believed by friends to have been dieting during her pregnancy.

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