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The Perfect Little Bump

Many of the city’s mothers-to-be are counting every carb and pushing their heart-rate monitors to the limit to stay skinny and sexy while pregnant. Is this harmless vanity? Or a New York obsession gone too far?

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Fourteen weeks pregnant with her first child, Margot Tenenbaum secretly wished she were a bit more nauseous. As it was, she controlled her mild bouts of queasiness with pasta and pizza, but if she’d been just a notch sicker every once in a while, she might have felt too bad to eat at all. Who knows? Maybe she would have even thrown up.

The thought occurred to her, she sheepishly concedes, at a celebratory brunch in Brooklyn with her husband and another couple who are expecting a child. The other mother-to-be, already a stick before she was pregnant, was telling the group how miserable her morning sickness had been and how she’d lost eight pounds so far in her first trimester.

“And I was saying,” Tenenbaum recalls, “how that’s not my experience. And she said, ‘You should be grateful you’re not sick.’ Then she went on to say, ‘I never wore maternity clothes during my first pregnancy.’ ” Tenenbaum, who in neat, distressing symmetry had already gained eight pounds, hastens to note that she doesn’t think her friend was being rude. “I keep telling myself, We’re different body types. But it’s hard. I’m not thinking, It’s okay to get bigger. I’m pregnant. I’m thinking, This is depressing.

To be clear, Margot Tenenbaum is not the fat girl. Though, at 38, she’s had “chubby periods,” for the past seven years or so, she’s been happy with her size-8 self (that’s at Barneys or Jeffrey, she clarifies; size 6 at Old Navy). Beyond that, Tenenbaum is the kind of New York woman other New York women get girl-crushes on. She’s exuberant and witty and sexy, managing to look like those Citizens of Humanity jeans aren’t fashiony but her own brilliant discovery, and she seems to know everybody. Raised in Savannah, Georgia, she’s friendly with the director Wes Anderson, who named The Royal Tenenbaums and the Gwyneth Paltrow character after Margot and her family. (Though she shares a uniquely cool style with her fictional doppelgänger, the real Margot is dark-haired, dark-eyed, and the opposite of laconic.) By day, she runs a mentoring program in Harlem; by night, she hangs out with a large circle of friends from the University of Wisconsin, when she’s not joining her family for one of their regular jaunts to the Breakers in Palm Beach or the Four Seasons in Maui.

I’m not thinking, It’s okay to get bigger. I’m pregnant,” says one mother-to-be. “I’m thinking, This is depressing.” To be pregnant and obsess over your size in New York today, says another expecting mom, is to be, merely, “conscious.”

All this is to say that Tenenbaum is so confident, so popular, so evolved, that you wouldn’t think she’d waste much time obsessing over gaining weight . . . while pregnant. Then again, as Pam Berger, another expecting mom and a friend of Tenenbaum’s, said to her recently, to be pregnant and obsess over your size in New York in the year 2004 is to be, merely, “conscious.”

Perhaps at no time and in no place in history have so many women been under so much pressure to stay thin and gorgeous while simultaneously producing a human life. You can still find the woman who welcomes pregnancy as a time “to let herself go,” but more common are those like Tenenbaum, who grabs her thighs and grimaces and confesses to nightmares of becoming a “dumpy, Pea-in-the-Pod woman.” Women fret endlessly about what they eat and how much they weigh from the moment they conceive—and earlier (some diet before they get pregnant to keep their ultimate weight total to a minimum). Julie Tupler, founder of Maternal Fitness and one of the city’s top pregnancy-exercise gurus, has seen her business grow from a few private clients in 1990 to twice-weekly classes that have to be booked weeks in advance, and moms-to-be sweating away at Equinox, Crunch, and New York Sports Club are as ubiquitous as Bugaboo strollers. Chic maternity shops, meanwhile, offer sizes and styles that are definitely not your mother’s muumuu. Comparing what sells most briskly at her Madison Avenue location with her Beverly Hills boutique, Liz Lange, the designer of the country’s first upscale maternity line, says, “We find that our New York women are the skinny minis who can fit into everything. We thought it was going to be the opposite—you think of L.A. as the capital of plastic surgery and skinniness.” Lange’s clothes used to start at size 1; now they begin at zero.

On New York’s UrbanBaby, a popular Website where women share and kvetch about everything from baby names to real estate to the intricacies of sonograms, “weight polls” regularly erupt:

13 weeks, 4 lbs
24 weeks, 20 lbs!
13 weeks, 0 pounds (Okay, I might have gained a pound or two in the very beginning but that’s at most. Should I be concerned?)
Check with your doctor but probably fine. . . .
13 weeks, 12 lbs! I feel like a hippo compared to you!
25 weeks, 24 lbs! (No wait. Did the math wrong. 22 lbs. Wow. I feel better.)

Occasionally, a naysayer will interrupt the endless flow: “148 weeks, three thousand pounds. Just f--kin’ eat, gain weight, get fat if you want, have a healthy baby, lose the weight if you want, get on with your life!!!” But libertines are quickly put in their place—“It sounds like somebody is unhappy about the weight she has gained”—and the expectant mothers happily return to plugging in their weeks and weight, weeks and weight.

No one has formally examined what pregnant New Yorkers are thinking about their bodies—or putting into them—but in a Johns Hopkins study published last year, 21 percent of the well-educated, affluent Baltimore-area women surveyed reported engaging in “weight-restrictive behavior”: trying not to look pregnant early in pregnancy, attempting to limit weight gain one month after they’d gained “too much” the month before, and fasting before visiting a doctor. The study also unearthed this disconcerting tidbit: Those who’d “undergained” (as measured by widely followed Institute of Medicine guidelines that say women of normal weight should add 25 to 35 pounds; those who are underweight, 28 to 40; and those who are overweight, about 15) had the most positive body images. If those are the numbers in Baltimore, imagine what’s happening on our narrow isle.

One telling rumor circulating in New York offices is that several of the city’s most fabulous mothers have had Cesarean sections early in the eighth month to avoid putting on the last extra dollop of fat. Removing a baby at that stage for a nonmedical reason would be malpractice, but in the era of the “cosmetic Cesarean”—in which the surgery is performed for women frantic about childbirth damaging their vaginal elasticity or appearance—who knows?


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