In the Jewish world, where women are constantly having children, there are many women who never get a chance to "lose the baby weight" before their next pregnancy. Weight loss being harder for many women to begin with, this lifestyle can be very difficult on a woman's body. Even being a woman who has never been pregnant but has spent her whole life being on the heavy-side of things, I'm very aware of the way people look at, react to and treat me, many times based solely on my appearance. This can be upsetting, disappointing and often discouraging, but as I've grown older, I've learned to deal with it and accept it in stride. I don't know that's a good thing.
While this has become somewhat of an accepted behavior- the staring, gawking, judging- it doesn't make it right.
Especially when it comes to birth.
That said, being someone who's supposed to act as the backup-dancer/golf-caddie/party-planner equivalent for birth, I tend to witness a lot of things that other don't get to see.
A few months ago I was at a birth, and my heart was literally broken right there in front of me. A mother who was on the heavier side, was being treated terribly by the care provider who was "tending" to her needs. Emotional and verbal abuse to a woman in labor. How sick can you get. A courageous woman who was holding it together, tuning out the world and so beautifully zoning in on her baby. And the doctor and Midwife were joking about her weight, objectifying her, right in front of her face (which I guess might be better than behind her back, in some twisted way?) The mother, focused entirely on the task at hand wasn't noticing the abuse as much as brushing past it, breathing through each strong wave of contraction that swept over her. This wasn't her family doctor, or privately hired midwife. This was the first time she had met these people, even the first hour. And they wouldn't be following up care with her after birth, either. Meaning, these words were not said in a caring, concerned way, they were said to be hurtful, for the medical staff's own "comic relief."
What made me sick to my stomach wasn't only the fact that they had treated her this way, but rather the fact that this wasn't the first time I've seen this behavior. I've seen it too much. Way too often. I've experienced it personally in life, relentlessly, but I've seen it so much during birth, it gives me very little hope for improvement.
For the most part, people who are overweight aren't walking around oblivious to the fact. No. It's so deeply ingrained in us, in every fiber of every part of our body, to the point that we know it almost all too well. We know it with every beat of our heart, with every step we take, and with every wardrobe choice we make in the morning. Often it becomes part of our identity, a "weakness" we can't "resist," or a way we "just are" and "can't help it." We limit ourselves, with the knowledge that others will too, so why not jump in ahead of the game, and resist the hurt. We judge our own self worth based on it, we create hate in places no one else knew was physically possible. We judge and analyze every step, every movement and every action that we make in these bodies we often feel so far from, so disconnected from. We learn hate from an early age, when all that is really teaching us is to foster that bad relationship with emotions, with food, with ourselves, with our souls. We aren't all food addicts, we aren't all couch potatoes; but many of us are afraid to be misconceived as any, or all, of the above, for fear of all the assumptions that come along with it.
When did we as a society decide that it was ok to point this out? To reacquaint the people who already know themselves, with their own struggles? I don't need to be reminded of my appearance, unless you're my regular doctor, who is truly invested in my health and helping me improve it, or if I asked you about it. I especially don't need you to rudely comment, or snidely give me a back-handed compliment in the most vulnerable moments of my life, like birth. I don't need you to reassure me that I'm beautiful, because all the reassurance I could get would be by you treating people like me with the same respect you treat people like you.
I need you to believe me that it happens. It happens when we let our guards down, when we least expect it; and often, it happens when we're just continuing with our every day life. Too often. A mother who is trying to breastfeed and a nurse who says, "but you need to be careful you don't suffocate him, since you're.... well you know, big on top." Yes. We do know. Thank you. It happens every time a slightly curvy woman walks into the doctors office complaining about extreme exhaustion in early pregnancy and instead of being told it's normal, she's told she probably has Gestational Diabetes, because of her weight.
When I was doing National Service, an assistant in the Kindergarten I was working at approached me and said, "You know, I could teach you how to eat healthy... I think you're supposed to eat less sugar... yes.. and maybe whole grains... perhaps more vegetables! And exercise. Even just walking!" I literally just stared at her blankly. Why, yes, thank you for introducing me to the basics of healthy eating, for the first time in my life. You're totally right. I've never even tried any of these genius life hacks. In the 19 years of my short life. Until now, I had lived under a rock, and YOU, Assistant teacher lady, are the one who helped me see the light. Thank G-d for you. NOT. The assumption that I had been lying at home watching TV and stuffing my face with any high-carb, highly-processed food that crossed my path for 19 years, was frankly, insulting. Remember that years of nutritionists, various health providers, workout programs, stomach issues, and mental health care have come into most peoples pictures and life stories at one point or another.
Another time, last year, I went to the gym for a free trial. I had been working out at that particular gym's pool for half a year already, and decided to try and work on my arm strength, to help with my swim technique, so I ventured into the weight-machine area. Upon coming in, the trainer I had a free session with said, after giving me a long, good look up and down, "So... is this like, the first time you've ever been in a gym?"
I get it. I know that being unhealthy is something to worry about, but I can promise you that my BMI will never reach that of what the internet tells me it should be. The last time I was that weight I was severely ill and looked like a skeleton.
So who says that we can't love ourselves the way we are? Why can't we love ourselves and want to be healthy all at once? Why can't we have doctors, and care providers, and other humans treat us like we should be treated, without all the extra opinions? I see it in my own life, but I see it so rampantly in the birth world. I often end up feeling helpless, or hurt for the women I work with. And then I am reminded why I am there. As a Doula, I can't really speak for my clients, or defend them in the heat of these circumstances, in fear that I'll be kicked out of the birth room. I can't usually do anything in the moment; but I can be there to support and love them after the fact. And most importantly, relate. It's not my job to be their voice, it's my job to encourage theirs. To encourage them that yes, they are beautiful, and perfect and enough for their babies just the way they are. I can be there to state their rights in the big wide world, to encourage their sharing, that can start a change, even if somewhere small, in the far corners of the internet. I hope I can be there to help push along this movement of love, respect and proper care for all women, in all shapes and sizes; and I hope you'll join me.
Dina Devora Jacob is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, living in Jerusalem Israel. She's the founder of BirthBuddy Israel, a Full Mother Care Service. To follow her blog and get updates with Birth Stories, Pregnancy, Birth, and Newborn Care tips and for so much more, sign up