Let me preface what is to follow with a few acknowledgements. 1) A woman generously giving her body over to the creation of a new life is one of the most (some would argue THE most) beautiful things in this world. 2) A pregnant woman has far more practical issues to preoccupy herself with than her vanity. 3) Whatever compromises of appearance pop up during pregnancy are nothing compared to the joy of feeling those little mighty fingers wrap around your thumb for the first time.
Yeah, valid points, all… but in your 7th week, when you’re only “showing” enough to look sloppy and bloated, you’ve got purple broken capillaries on your cheeks from over a month of hardcore retching, and you’re not sure if your eyes are deceiving you or if you really do have more stray brows to pluck, a shadow on your upper lip and a wiry rascal popping out of your chin, you’re not so pragmatic. You want to know why instead of Heidi Klum, Glamazon With a Bump, you’re turning into Nanny McPhee, Fairy Hag. Nothing would pick you up more right now than to be able to look in the mirror and say, “Well, I may feel like shit, but dang if I’m not pretty!”
In this series, as someone who has experienced an assortment of pre-natal eyesore indignities, allow me to share my horrors and my solutions. Each installment will tackle a topic in chronological order of when it typically pops out at you and sends you running for the calendar to cancel social engagements. If these little nasties are something you never have to deal with and only read here, you’ll feel all superior; and if you can empathize, hey, at least you’ll know you’re not your own private freak-show.
The first three months is in many ways the cruelest trimester in the vanity department because nobody can tell that you’re pregnant by looking at you. Even those close to you seem to have an uncanny lack of sympathy or imagination until that belly gets nice and round, so meanwhile you’re just you, only sick, ugly, pudgy, sweaty and bitchy. You’ve got to pull out some serious tricks; nobody’s cutting you any slack.
INSTALLMENT #1: I HAVE GROUCHO’S FACE FUR, UNWANTED TATS, AND THE SKIN OF A 10th GRADE BOY
It seems like the pee didn’t even get completely dry on the stick before you were cast in your own Pro-Active commercial as the “before.” Fluctuations in hormones can really mess with the face – its complexion, its shape and its uncanny ability to sprout hair. By the end of my first month, I was broken out all along my temples and jaw, and morphing into Groucho Marx with wayward brows and the makings of sideburns and a moustache. So, I did what any reasonably vain woman would do and bought me some Nad’s and a bottle of Oxy 10. This made me the poster child for exactly what NOT to do. Have you ever heard of melasma? It’s a hormonally induced form of hyperpigmentation (it’s also called “the mask of pregnancy”) that is set off by sun exposure and turns parts of the face blotchy brown. Anything that increases photosensitivity ups the risk further. After my first pregnancy, I ended up spending quite a bit of money and enduring not a little pain to remove what looked like fading henna tattoos across my upper lip and on the sides of my face. These areas in particular got hit hard because I was committing the sun-sensitivity cardinal sin of waxing my upper lip and sideburns, which stripped the uppermost layer of my skin and its natural defenses along with it. I’d have rather had the hair! Benzoyl peroxide also increases vulnerability, and it happens to be ill advised for use in pregnancy anyway. Naturally.
Additionally, do not use any retinol products while pregnant (again, you shouldn’t be anyway, as the vitamin A level is toxic to your baby), check the labels of any medications you take for a sun exposure warning (certain antibiotics for example) and adjust your sunscreen level accordingly. Don’t get any aggressive peels, and – I feel the need to repeat - don’t wax your face! Most importantly, though, apply a physical block sunscreen (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) with a high SPF even if you only plan to walk to your car. Your car’s windows do not shield your skin, by the way. Physical blocks offer better protection from UVA and UVB rays than chemical preparations, and you don’t have to wait a half hour before going outside.
I avoided the return of the Chaplin moustache / Elvis burns tattoo while staving off the acne in my second pregnancy by washing my face twice a day with Cetaphil, and then applying a product called MaMa Lotion, which contains mandelic and malic acids (both safe for prenatal use) that zap the zits and have the extremely useful added benefit of treating the beginnings of and preventing melasma. Throughout the day, I would use a sunblock with an SPF of 30. Most baby formulas, like my favorite, Blue Lizard Australian Sun Cream, are physical blocks and they are cheaper than the designer brands like Obagi for the same protection and attention to sensitive skin. I also reduced my hairline breakouts by taking care not to get my hair conditioner near my face, wearing a cotton hair band to sleep, and using breathable cotton pillowcases – not ones with smooth finishes like sateen – which I’d change obsessively.
If you have already developed melasma, you can ask your doctor to prescribe you Azelex (an azelaic acid cream that is normally used for acne and is very mild and safe) and apply that in addition to the MaMa. Once you’ve had your baby and are finished breastfeeding, you can go to town on your face if it’s really bad, but it won’t be without a price. The gold standard treatment is prescription 4% hydroquinone mixed with a prescription retinoid and a 10% glycolic acid. Hydroquinone is banned in Europe, and studies are inconclusive in its link to various cancers. But there's nothing inconclusive about the horrible red, crusty scab of a face you will sport for over a month while your skin “gets used to” the effects. Fraxel and IPL lasers are effective, but expensive ($1200-$1500 per session) and a bad case of melasma can require up to four sessions. No matter what you try, if you don’t find religion in your sunscreen, the splotches will come back.
Meanwhile, if you have spots and need to camouflage them while waiting for your remedy to work, you can’t go wrong with foundations and concealers by Laura Mercier or Sue Devitt– they’re very natural looking. And another thing; do not count on the sunscreen advertised in your makeup. Even if it was as effective, you don’t plan to completely cover your face Kabuki style.
For the Groucho issue the second time around (and yes, I do name a good many of my uglies after celebrities), I did what some might consider the unthinkable: I made like a dude, lathered up and shaved. It was fast, painless, easy, and no, the hair didn’t grow back thicker and I didn’t get a five o’ clock shadow. Why resort to something so crude and temporary (I had to do it every other day – like a sophomore boy)? Nair and other chemical depilatories have not been tested for prenatal safety, and they work by breaking down protein; not so great for a mainly-protein fetus if there is any risk at all of it being absorbed. Oh, did I mention NO WAXING YOUR FACE? Bleach is both absorbed through the skin and seriously inhaled when you’ve got it sitting right under your snoot for ten minutes, so no. Laser removal is pretty expensive and, since you are actually growing new follicle sites as the hormones course and rage, it is not going to be permanent like it would be after you’ve given birth. For stray hairs, like on the chin or elsewhere on the face (I had a friend who actually grew what looked like an eyelash on the top of her nose), grab the tweezers and yank from as close to the skin as possible. If the hair grows at a slant, pull in the direction rather than against (just like your brows) so you don’t break the hair at the surface and wind up with an immoveable nub. By all means though, if you can’t summon the fortitude to pluck the new wiry sprouts around your nipple – about half of you readers know what I’m talking about, so don’t even act like you’re shocked – swipe that Venus and do it fast before you wince and cut yourself! And no, I don’t have a celebrity name for that one.
I got my wacky brows in line with, yes some extra plucking, but also a pair of cuticle scissors (good because the points curve away from your face) for trimming into shape and clear mascara to set the ultra stubborn hairs. Before doing any plucking or trimming, it’s a really good idea to take a dark eyeliner and color in the entire shape of your brow; then, only pluck or trim what falls outside that shape. Turn your head as much as you can while still being able to see your profile in the mirror and snip any hairs that protrude very noticeably from the rest. Now don’t forget to wash off your stencil or you’ll get that look from your husband that says he sees something is wrong but is chicken to tell you because you might think it’s pretty. Then you’ll come home from that dinner with his parents and scare yourself when you go to brush your teeth.
This batch of uglies is not only one of the first to plague, but one of the last to subside – you may need to maintain the above tactics well into your “fourth” trimester.
A VERY SMALL SAMPLE OF FUTURE INSTALLMENTS:
I DON’T WANT MY ROOTS TO DEFORM MY FAMILY TREE
As someone who started to gray in junior high, I was not brave enough to go “skunk” when I was pregnant; but I was uncomfortable with exposing my fetus to a chemical head marinade every three weeks, too. Here are some of the things I tried – good, bad and ugly – and what I found that I still use to this day.
MY BEAUTY PRODUCTS STINK BUT WITHOUT THEM, I’M A MESS
When morning sickness turns even your shampoo against you, but you’re more Sephora junkie than Almay girl, you have to look in some unexpected places to find quality alternatives that don’t have your head in the sink for reasons other than rinsing.
TOO POT-BELLIED FOR MY BOOTCUTS, TOO EARLY FOR PANELS, AND THE OCCASION DOES NOT ALLOW FOR YOGA PANTS – HELP!
Tricks and products for those couple of months before you’re big enough to warrant maternity wear; when the jeans don’t zip, the bra’s giving you quadraboob, and you’re still expected to go places that frown upon your dumpy drawstring sweats.
UGLY, YES; FATAL, NO
All the strange developments that, to the uninitiated, might be mistaken for signs that you’re going to be on the Discovery Channel with a tumor that has its own teeth, like skin-tags, the pleasantly named “barnacles of age,” nipples the size of Frisbees, and a few others. Some go away on their own, some can be quickly dispatched after giving birth, and some may just have to be chalked up as badges of honor.