GLOBAL. The term “Pregorexia” is a condition describing a pregnant woman with an eating disorder.
However, you won’t find the word “Pregorexia” in the “bible of mental disorders” known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a handbook used by mental health clinicians and psychiatrists in the U.S. and much of the world. The DSM includes descriptions, symptoms and other criteria for diagnosing psychiatric illnesses.
Despite DSM exclusion, Pregorexia can be a life threatening mental illness that can have devastating medical complications, even death for mom and/or her baby in utero or for her baby after birth. The name Pregorexia is a term coined by the media around 2009.
How do I know this? To my knowledge, I was the first woman to publically share in the media her experience of having an eating disorder during my pregnancies. Yet, when I shared this in June 2009, my two children were in their early 20s.
Naively, I didn’t expect much response from my blog post I titled, “Starving for Two.” I wondered if anyone would read it. In the post, I described in raw form of what I did during my second pregnancy in particular … restricting calories, over-exercising, overcoming a near miscarriage, growth retardation in my baby because she wasn’t getting enough nutrients.
Yet, at the time, I denied all the destructive behaviors and just pretended I wasn’t really pregnant. I hid my pregnancy so people wouldn’t know. I refused to wear any maternity clothes. My baby bump was so small people hardly noticed. I didn’t know why I felt this need to pretend I was not pregnant. In clinical terms this kind of denial is a form of dissociation.
What is Pregorexia?
Pregorexia is the combination of an active eating disorder during pregnancy. Women with Pregorexia can exhibit a varied of dangerous eating disordered behaviors that can harm baby and mom such as restriction of calories, excessive exercise, bingeing and purging, bingeing with no purging, and use of laxatives to try and rid excess calories.
Fear of weight gain and loss of control of an expanding body as the baby grows are common perceived threats women feel with Pregorexia. Many women who struggle with an eating disorder may become pregnant either while actively engaging in an eating disorder or in the recovery phases.
Hiding the Shame of Pregnancy and Eating Disorder
Hindsight, I was very sick with an eating disorder at that time – yet so disconnected I was sick. I never shared my behaviors with anyone, including my husband and my obstetrician. My obstetrician was very concerned about the baby’s size and told me to stop all exercise and eat more food. I was not able to follow his medical recommendations or outreach for support.
My story posted on this parenting website and the media took this and ran. It went viral and was posting on sites all across the United States and abroad. The NY Times ran the story; I had journalists contacting me from all over the world to set up interviews. My decision to share my story was to innocently promote awareness about eating disorders during pregnancy. At this time, I was a psychotherapist treating eating disorders and an advocate in helping moms with eating disorders.
With more than 250 comments to my blog post, I learned very quickly what people think about pregnant women with eating disorders. Probably 90% of the comments I received were negative saying things such as, “You should be put in jail.” “You should be sterilized.” “Your children should be taken away from you.” “How could you be so selfish and put the health of your baby at risk just to be skinny?”
It didn’t matter that these people who responded didn’t realize my kids were grown up at this time. People were very vocal how horrible of a mother I was.
Of course these comments sunk in me deeply, even after two decades from my pregnancies. I thought I had worked through the issues of why I did what I did during my pregnancies in my own therapy years before, but when I posted this, I realized I hadn’t healed everything.
Why I Exposed my Truth
My goal at first with my blog post was to improve public awareness of this disorder during pregnancy as well as to let other pregnant women suffering know they are not alone and they can seek treatment without shame. However, when the negative comments kept piling in I wanted to go hide my head in the sand. I thought, “These people think I am a baby killer.”
The shame I absorbed from the respondents and from myself overwhelmed me. This sent me back to my own therapy. I needed to work through past trauma that I did not realize affected me during my pregnancies to make unhealthy and dangerous choices risking the lives of my babies growing in my womb. I did not know how to let go of the control of my body or the food I ate (or didn’t eat) even with a growing baby inside of me.
To the mainstream public, eating disorders are not logical disorders. And an eating disorder during pregnancy is so illogical it’s just “unthinkable.” How can a mom not nourish and care for her baby growing inside her? It’s a natural instinct to care for your baby.
Today, I am recovered from my eating disorder. I am no longer in denial of what dangerous behaviors I did during my pregnancies and how I harmed my child in utero. I also understand that in the worst circumstances, a pregnant woman can have an eating disorder, and if it’s so severe, she may be unable to make those healthy decisions of caring for her baby or herself.
I also know these destructive decisions have nothing to do with the love she may feel for her baby, if she is not in denial of the pregnancy. What keeps her from embracing a healthy pregnancy is deep rooted, unhealed psychological and traumatic issues from the past.
In my case, as soon as both of my children were born and physically out of my body, I was finally able to bond, care and nourish them with the food they needed and the love they deserved. I was unable to do these actions while they were inside of me because it was me who was the enemy.
I understood at that point, it wasn’t the baby I was fighting, it was my body and losing the control over something I always had control over, but in an unhealthy way. Later through my recovery journey, I learned my fears of food, weight gain, a growing body were just the smokescreen to why I felt I needed to control.
Join me for second and final series on Pregorexia in an upcoming issue focusing on the causes, the medical and psychological complications for both mom and baby, the influences of the media and celebrity pregnancies as well as treatment recommendations.
New Web-based Support Group for Pregnant Women and Moms Struggling with Eating Disorders
“Lift the Shame” is the first web-based support group of its kind specifically targeted to offer support and resources to pregnant women and moms with eating disorders. The support group is a free, confidential online group in English hosted by certified eating disorder therapist Maggie Baumann, MFT, CEDS, in partnership with Timberline Knolls Eating Disorder Center.
The group is held the second Sunday of each month from 4-5 pm (PST)
To participate or for more details, email Maggie-Baumann@cox.net.
How to Find Treatment
If you are struggling with Pregorexia or any type of eating disorder, contact one of the follow resources for treatment and professional support referrals: