Infertility presents challenges that run terribly deep and incredibly wide. Akin to the layers of grief that can accompany an infertility journey, there are layers of challenges that add to the complexity of an already emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing experience. There comes a point where some who are on an infertility journey may choose to undergo fertility treatments, and despite the treatment process representing a beacon of hope for many, starting treatment also opens the door to a new level of emotional, mental, and physical vulnerability. One of the challenges is the relationship someone has with their physical body throughout the many stages of infertility and fertility treatments. There is a strong, and – in my experience– often overlooked and under-discussed link between fertility treatments and body image.

Body Image Struggles: Coping with an Infertility Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with infertility can create body image issues in those who did not have them before and can exacerbate and perpetuate body image issues for those who may have already been struggling. When I first learned about the reasons I was struggling to get pregnant, and then further learned that I would likely struggle to stay pregnant, I felt my body had failed me. I internalized the belief that, somehow, I had failed. My body was supposed to be able to do this – to conceive easily, carry a baby to term, and after nine to ten seamless months, give birth naturally. I was devastated to learn that this would likely not be my story, and thus started my struggle with infertility-related body image issues. 

There was now so much outside of my control. Will I ever get pregnant? If I do, will I stay pregnant? Will the baby live? If not, it will likely be my fault because my body just isn’t “working right.” Is it worth going through the heartache of continuing to try to have a baby, pursuing fertility treatments, without a clear prognosis for if or when I will ever be able to carry a baby to term? This lack of control and direction caused my body image to suffer and pushed me deeper than I already was into disordered eating, excessive exercise, and obsessive fixation on manipulating the parts of my body that I could control.

The Impact of Fertility Treatments on Body Image 

When deciding to pursue fertility treatments for the first time, I felt hope. This could be it! Maybe this is all my body needs: just a little bit of encouragement, outside help. Because my body image had already been suffering so much, I didn’t anticipate the additional struggles that fertility treatments would have on me physically or emotionally. Quite honestly, I didn’t think my view of self could get much worse.

It could. It did.

The beginning of my own journey with fertility treatments led to a complicated, nuanced – and honestly – confusing relationship with my own body. My fertility clinic provided me with a list of “dos and “don’ts” as far as eating, drinking, and level of exercise leading up to, throughout, and beyond the treatment process. I had to take pills on days 3-7 of my cycle, come in for a mid-cycle ultrasound to determine if my body was ready, give myself a shot in the stomach to trigger ovulation. My doctors told me that I may experience “mild side effects,” but the bloating, hot flashes, and water retention didn’t feel mild to me at the time.

I was suddenly stuck in a body that for so long had been a core component of my identity and identity expression, but that now felt unfamiliar, unsafe, and unpredictable. To compound these feelings, I also felt guilty that instead of resting in the sliver of hope I knew I should feel, I couldn’t seem to dig myself out of the anger, fear, and disdain I had about and toward my body.

[Content warning: Mention of a miscarriage experience and other potentially upsetting fertility-related topics and experiences in what follows].

Coping with Miscarriage and Body Image Struggles

Several rounds of fertility treatments later, following what started as a successful round of IUI, I learned that my miscarriage was inevitable before I actually miscarried. The baby’s heart rate was still there, but it had slowed down and growth had slowed, too. My doctor told me that the baby wouldn’t survive, and that all I could do in the meantime was wait. I walked out of my fertility center that day in a heap of tears, feeling a concoction of strong emotions – and two that were among them were fierce anger and deep embarrassment.

Hear more about this directly from Dr. Colleen Reichmann below:

Anger at my body, at everyone around me who didn’t know what I was going through, and at those who didn’t or wouldn’t feel the loss as deeply as I did. Embarrassment and shame that my body was not supporting this pregnancy the way it “should.” I even started to feel embarrassed that I was undergoing treatments at all – I started to feel like my efforts were futile, and that it was silly for me to even try any treatment. My relationship with my body was already complicated, but this particular experience put me at odds with my body entirely. I didn’t want to fix my body anymore; I just wanted a new one.

3 Considerations for When You are Struggling with Your Body Image During Fertility Treatments

So when I started thinking about what actually help(ed/s) me with my relationship with my body during this time, I realized that some of the most life-giving “strategies” weren’t really strategies at all, but were more so tools of acceptance that allowed my emotions to exist and even belong. 

If you have been, are, or may be undergoing fertility treatments in the future, here are three things that may help you when your relationship with your body feels complex, nuanced, and sometimes hard to grasp, let alone explain:

1. Allow yourself the space to feel

Starting fertility treatments – from medicated cycles to IUI and IVF – can be terrifying for so many reasons. The expectation to feel immediate and sustained gratitude for your body amidst the rollercoaster that is fertility treatments is simply not attainable for some – myself included. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I was given during this time is that it’s okay to feel angry at your body; it’s okay to feel uncomfortable and upset that your body is changing physically during treatments. It’s okay to feel exhausted and upset that your body has to endure so much to even have the chance of carrying a baby. It’s okay that – instead of feeling grateful for treatment opportunities – you feel resentful that you are being poked and prodded and tested, that you feel more like a petri dish than a human being at times throughout the process.

The notion that you need to immediately “deal with” and “fix” these emotions may leave you feeling alone and misunderstood. It’s important for you to know that you are allowed to feel these things, that you are not “bad” or “broken” for feeling the way you feel. Your experience and all that comes with it are valid.

2. Limit Comparisons

This can be challenging, but I found that comparing my body, feelings, journey to that of others became both habitual and almost entirely unhelpful. Comparing how you feel about your body with how you perceive someone else feels about theirs while undergoing fertility treatments can be almost instinctual (for me it was), but I have rarely found it to be fruitful. Similarly, I caught myself, at times, comparing how my body looked and how my body was responding with those who had also undergone medicated cycles, IUI, or IVF and even to those who didn’t.  I was desperately seeking something outside of myself to help me regulate and normalize my own experience. And what did I ultimately come away with through doing so? Sometimes envy. Sometimes intense sadness. Other times resentment. Sometimes nothing. None of it was helpful.

I learned that probing into others’ journeys (whether through social media or through connections I had in real life) for the sake of comparison never left me feeling better. For one, it’s hard to know how someone is actually coping with their journeys, their body image, changes that may or may not be happening to their body without being in a personal, authentic relationship with them. And it is also true that their journey is their own, just like mine is my own.

When I started to feel like I was “doing something wrong” because I was not handling a part of this journey as well as it seemed someone else was, I began taking that as a sign that I needed to distance myself from the comparison game. Sometimes this was through avoiding conversations about infertility, fertility treatments, and pregnancy entirely; other times it was through unfollowing some people on social media.

3. Seek Professional Support

One of the anchors throughout my long journey with infertility, fertility treatments, the loss I have encountered along the may, and my complex feelings toward and relationship with my body throughout this time has been my ability to meet regularly with a therapist. During times where I just needed someone to listen, I was able to get that support. And when there have been times where I was seeking an outside perspective, advice, and strategies, I was able to get that, too. So, if you haven’t already connected with a therapist and are grappling with how to navigate body image issues that arise or are intensified through an infertility journey or fertility treatments, I urge you to consider doing so. This could be one of the more healing steps you take on your journey.

Holding Space for All of Your Emotions Through an Infertility Journey

All of this to say: your feelings about your body when you are navigating infertility and fertility treatments – no matter what they are – are understandable. You do not need another person to tell you that “you should be thankful for the journey,” that “It will happen for you when it’s meant to!,” or that you should “check out so-and-so’s instagram because they just went through IVF and they documented their entire experience!” While these messages can be helpful for some at various stages throughout the process, there is also room for you to be raw during this time. If you are currently physically and emotionally drained, you may not be in a space where you can feel hope for your journey or gratitude towards your body, and that is okay. Your anger, sadness, and exhaustion are real. And we can hold space for them here, too. 

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

How Can Wildflower Therapy in Philadelphia, PA Help You?

If you’re looking for someone to come alongside you to help you unpack and approach the the complex set of emotions you may experience while on an infertility or fertility treatment journey, our therapists in Pennsylvania are honored to help!  In fact, you can get to know a little bit more about them here and book a free consultation here.

Other Mental Health Services Provided by Wildflower Therapy, Philadelphia, PA

Life is a unique and sometimes messy journey for each of us; we all have our own individual battles to fight. Our therapists know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to any of life’s challenges and because of that, we offer many unique perspectives and approaches to help meet you where you are with our Philadelphia, PA Therapy services.

We offer services for eating disorder therapy, services for anxiety, and depression, and have practitioners who specialize in perinatal mental health maternal mental healththerapy for college students and athletes. As well as LGBTQIA+ Affirming Therapy. As you can see, we have something to offer just about anyone in our Philadelphia, PA office. Reaching out is often the most difficult step you can take to improve your mental health. We look forward to partnering with you on this journey!