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Public perception – and reactions – to activity during pregnancy

Walking from the backpack cubbies into the climbing gym has become an avenue of double takes, elbows and the ever-subtle chin-point.  If the slightly rumpled, chalk-dusted, lithely muscular patrons of our climbing gym managed to take in my strange-looking body harness without pause, my now 25-week pregnant belly is impossible to ignore.  I admit – what I see as a deliciously round belly poking out is a striking contrast to the (also delicious!) rippling abs that I see all around me at the gym.  When my husband, sister and I walk up to the ropes dangling from the ceiling, I garner skeptical

Sporting my awesome gear!

looks, and when I tie in and start up the wall, people literally nudge each other and point. This last week, my sister informed me that a fellow had even pulled out his camera and shot photos of several of my climbs while she remained resolutely cool and focused on belay (certainly, she wasn’t giggling about it!). My husband grins at the gapers, openly supportive of my climbing.  Some people are frightened, glowering disapprovingly as I stretch out and start a climb; some have muttered comments about my (or my husband’s) irresponsibility, that I am endangering my baby’s health, and have even commented obliquely that they wished the gym would cater only to ‘serious’ climbers.  Others have grinned, inquired about my pregnancy, and offered cross-training advice or tricks to compensate for the rapid change in my center of gravity I’ve experienced.  Most climbers, after the initial eye-widening, maintain their too-cool demeanor and ignore our little group after we show general competency, the safety and functionality of the body harness, and the caution I take on climbs.
Running has had a similar range of reactions.  I’ve had everything from blatant “Hey Lady! You shouldn’t be running, you’re going to tear out your uterus!” shouted at me from across the road to small smiles and thumbs up sent my way.  Women pushing jogging strollers nod sagely at my belly and me and then pass on with their own wriggling, waving cargo, leaving me wide eyed and thinking “Oh My Goodness…I’m going to have one of those in a few months!?!”  At the gym, the trainers offer sporadic advice to me as I have modified my usual lifting routine, and the cadre of old men who are usually there when I lift have become accustomed to me, and ask how “the little one” is doing.

I have never felt more self-conscious about exercising or my exercising physique in my life.  I know part of this is a mental hyper-awareness of my own changing body, but I also feel that the obvious pregnancy offers something “different” for the other exercisers to marvel at.  We athletes and active folks recognize each other: ranging from skinny to chubby, fast or slow, high-tech or low-tech, we fit a general appearance; now that I am obviously pregnant, my body now offers something radically different, so while runners/exercisers glaze over their “normal” fellows, their gaze hesitates on me, the anomaly.  I “get” the looking at strange people (as awkward-looking as he is, how can you not admire the “flightless bird” for getting out and exercising?), but the sudden freedom people seem to feel to comment on my pregnant status has caught me off guard.

On one hand, the advice from moms and dads welcomes me into what has so far been a “other world” of parenting. I love hearing stories my mom, family and friends have about their pregnancies: pregnancy a very deeply personal journey for each woman, and I find myself wanting to share it with people.  While I appreciate and enjoy the encouraging words and wacky advice (this guy stopped John and me in Costco this weekend and we were assailed with what seemed like a half hour of finger wagging and  “and then ya gotta do this ____, ya jus’ gotta….” before we could escape). I even giggle when I catch the startled look people get as they correct their initial assumption of “fat-belly” to “baby belly;” I don’t understand the need to verbally express hostility, anger or to vocalize cutting judgments, whether it’s by berating me face-to-face or making snide, sideways comments to their exercise partner.  Similarly abrasive comments about non-pregnant people is not socially permissible, so what is it that makes it acceptable to comment on a woman’s pregnancy – be it her weight change, size or shape of belly, activity she’s pursuing, or what she’s eating for lunch? Is it an insuppressible urge to pass on historical or cultural knowledge? Is it some evolutionary compulsion to keep pregnant women safe, thus being vocal about their activities? Is it seeing a pregnant woman doing something different from what is more familiar or that he or she were warned against during their own pregnancy? a need to impart advice from one’s own experiences? flat-out fear-mongering (if you jump off the curb your baby and brain will fall out!)?  I have no clue.

As an active pregnant woman, I greatly appreciate the supportive, helpful or cheerful comments, and yes, even the wacky advice. Negative comments are not helpful at any time, and now that I find myself to be especially self-conscious about my changing body, I have to wonder about the social mannerisms that prompt people to vocally criticize my person and activities.  I would offer the thought that each woman and each pregnancy is unique, each being able to make activity level decisions (with her doctor!) on an individually informed basis.  I would encourage women who are choosing to exercise mindfully and happily to let the critical comments roll off of them with the knowledge that the commenter is uninformed, out of line and socially ignorant.

Just as with pre-pregnancy running, exercising is a time for me to connect and converse with my physical body and its capabilities; while the tone of this brain-body running “conversation” may have changed (less of the hard workout mentality),  I still enjoy talking to and assessing my changing body, and am glad to find the mental peace I gain from these exercise sessions keeps me calm, confident and functioning in the rest of my life!


Thanks again to Brooks ID and Powerbar for their continued support!

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