Body Image and Infertility

How has your body image changed while going through infertility? Have you been more compassionate or more critical? Elyse Ash shares a bit about her complicated relationship with her body and a few ideas for taking back control if your thoughts around your body are getting heavy.

I remember the first time I hated my body. 

I was 12 years old and we were at my cousin’s wedding. I was a “junior bridesmaid” and had to wear a shiny Easter yellow halter top dress with rhinestones on the belt. I hated how I looked in that dress and cried as I stared in the mirror. My poor mother talked me off the ledge, mostly because I didn’t have any other wardrobe options. I had to wear it, even though I didn’t like how my body looked.

As little girls, we are given a lot of damaging messages about our bodies. We’re told overtly and subtly that we have to look a certain way to be worthy of love, acceptance and success. We’re taught that our bodies are ornaments rather than tools. That being pretty is the number 1 goal, and while you can be smart and successful, you must first be pretty. And pretty also means being skinny. Anyone with a Seventeen subscription (or access to a Delia’s catalog) knew this.

The only silver lining I took from perpetually being 20 pounds overweight with wide hips and big breasts was that one day my body would be really great at making babies. As I studied fertility sculptures and figurines in art history class at college, I felt the unfamiliar feeling of pride in their shape and weight. Relief. Even though my body felt like a social liability at sorority mixers, it would one day be ideal for growing and supporting life. Hips perfect for childbirth.  Soft pockets of flesh for a baby to nuzzle and nap.

Ohhh the irony…


Flash forward 20 years…I was still hating my body but this time I felt like I had a legitimate reason to hate it. It wasn’t working. It was fucking broken.

After a year and a half of trying to get pregnant with my husband, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. On the one hand, it felt good to have a reason why we hadn’t seen two pink lines after 20 months of strategic, timed intercourse. On the other hand, in one ultrasound I went from being a healthy 30-something to a chronically ill 30-something who would need to pursue expensive fertility treatments if I wanted the chance to become a mom.

Going through two rounds of IVF was physically hard on my body…aches, pain, bloating, cramps, weight gain…a litany of new painful feelings and frustrations. Limitations. No alcohol or caffeine. No intense working out. I felt like it couldn’t do anything…and everything it tried to do was wrong or not enough.

I was constantly sending my body damaging, hateful thoughts. My internal monologue sounded like an abusive boyfriend:

  • “Why can’t you do anything right!?”
  • “You are broken!”
  • “If you’re gonna be fat and fleshy, you better be fertile.”
  • “Literally frogs and 15-year-olds can get pregnant. Why is this so hard for you?”

It was ugly and toxic. Sometimes it veered into, “What’s the point of being a woman or having a body or being married if you can’t do this one thing that you have been evolutionarily conditioned to do? Why can’t you just do this one thing?”

It got dark.


The only thing that helped was learning how to reframe my thoughts. Being able to look, notice and appreciate all the things my body *could* do. It was not easy to do and was actually the exact opposite of my instinct – which was to criticize and berate.

But I kept looking for things my body did well and how it had helped me accomplish so many goals for over 30 years. When I started mindfully looking for times it had worked, I was surprised by all the things it could do (and well)!

Sure it couldn’t properly fertilize an egg, but it could take me on long walks. It could fill my lungs with fresh air. It could hug and hold my friends and family. It could help me hike through Israel, travel to France, Italy and Mexico. It could take me on bike rides. Keep me balanced during yoga classes. Help me sleep and rest. Listen to music. Hold a pen. Stretch. Swim. Dance.

My body didn’t really look the way I wanted and it certainly didn’t work the way I wanted but my body wasn’t bad. I wasn’t bad.

 

If you’re struggling with your body image while trying to conceive:

  • Reframe your negative thoughts. Your body hears your thoughts…it physically responds to stress. So try your hardest to reframe your internal thoughts. This can take years of practice, but finding ways to show your body gratitude, even if it goes against your instincts is an important skill to learn.
  • Go easy on yourself. When I find myself speaking particularly harshly to myself about my body, I always challenge myself by saying, “Would you say this to your best friend or your sister?” Of course the answer is NO WAY. We are so much meaner to ourselves and so much more compassionate and gentle to our loved ones. Try talking to yourself the way you’d talk to or encourage a friend.
  • Write down a list of the things you love about your body. Whether it’s your freckles, your hair, or your nail beds (Mean Girls, anyone?) Write down all the things you love or like about your body. For extra credit, write them down on post-it notes and hang them by your mirror.
  • Focus on what you need to focus on. Thinking about our bodies can take up a lot of emotional and mental energy. Try to focus on the things you can control – whether that’s your diet, how and when you move, who you speak to and what types of content and media you consume. The more energy we spend on other things, the less energy we have to spend on critiquing and criticizing our bodies.
  • Don’t get obsessive. Trying to eat cleaner to enhance our odds of conceiving can be either helpful and empowering or damaging and retriggering, especially for people with a history of disordered eating. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what is helping you feel more in control and what is hurting you.
  • Follow some pros on IG. If you need a dose of body positivity in your life, try following some awesome advocates and voices in the body positivity movement on IG. We recommend: @beauty_redefined and @jessicawilson.msrd
  • Talk to a professional. Find a therapist you love who specializes in fertility, miscarriage, grief, loss and body image…find what you need and don’t settle for someone who is not helping you make progress.

How has your body image been affected by infertility, miscarriage and child loss? What are you still struggling with and what have you learned to let go of?

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