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Patients touch my pregnancy bump without permission - my body is not public property

The i logo The i 03/12/2019
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People come in all shapes and sizes and we are gradually embracing the culture of celebrating our differences instead of promoting shame around them. Body positivity has been widely discussed and campaigned on, but how we speak about the bodies of pregnant women needs much more work, attention and education.

People often feel they have the right to comment on another’s body type. The intention may not necessarily be to cause hurt, but some people can be most unkind when they feel it’s their place to offer an opinion despite it not being requested.

I see many patients who have been affected by body shaming, notably those who are overweight and who have suffered severe psychological breakdowns due to negative comments that have been made about them. But I did not know this culture extended to pregnant women who are undergoing one of the most physically challenging transformations of human life itself.

When your body changes, in whatever way and for whatever reason, the first person to become aware of it is your very own self. You create your own internal chatter about it and what you don’t need is others negatively amplifying that noise.

I had not considered the size of my bump to be abnormal until someone said, “wow only 12 weeks? You’re huge!”. I suddenly felt a wave of panic come over me, thinking am I huge, or is my bump huge, is there something wrong with my baby, whatever do they mean?

The following week a friend commented, “Gosh you have popped so early!” Another piped up, “must be a girl, you’re carrying all the weight around your backside.” Now I didn’t just have a large front, my bum was also a spectacle apparently. The worst came during a meal where I was asked if I was “eating more than usual because your bump is massive.”

Instead of being proud of my bump and its healthy growth, I cried that night as I googled images searching for pictures that resembled my bump at my gestation. That’s when I discovered bump shaming was a thing. A very cruel thing.

Read more: Breastfeeding hashtags made me burst into tears - new mums need support, not pressure

The way women are treated during pregnancy does not just stop at comments, as I have learned.

As a frontline doctor, I encounter many people daily. My patients, who I believe are well-meaning, have also commented and even over-stepped the normal boundaries to touch my bump. Not wanting to cause offence but also feeling a little violated, I stepped back. When is it ok to just touch someone else’s body without asking consent? I examine people as part of my job and never would I dare to without asking for permission yet because I am pregnant, I feel my body has become public property, for all to comment upon and for anyone to feel they can touch.

I spoke to some of my mum colleagues to discover they too have experienced the same and like me, didn’t know how to react. This week one of my patients attended anxious because she felt something was wrong with her baby. On exploring this more deeply it became clear that, despite normal scans, she had been victim to many comments about how “tiny” or “neat” her bump looked for someone at 30 weeks. Was the baby growing ok?

Maternal health is inextricably linked to the future health and welbeing of the foetus. If mum is feeling sad, lacking confidence, feeling vulnerable, insecure and depressed, her physiology internally will be reflecting this and could be impacting the baby. We should not contribute to this by making expectant mums feel insecure and unhappy about themselves.

As a doctor, I should know better that what people think and what is true are two separate entities. But the truth is I am just an ordinary woman who is trying to navigate the physical and emotional changes that my pregnancy is bringing me, aware that my body is changing in a way I have little control over. I appreciate people mean well, but I would prefer that this care was reflected in other ways with no comments, no inappropriate touching and no advice given unless asked for.

Weight gain varies greatly in pregnancy and is dependent on several factors including health complications. Whether a bump is too small or too big also could be representative of health issues which understandably causes maternal anxieties. To then have to deal with unsolicited comments and opinions about the size or shape is wholly inappropriate and wrong.

Instead of passing judgement on the size of someone's bump, the focus should be on how happy and healthy the mother is.

Dr Punam Krishan is an NHS GP in Glasgow

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