Pregnancy and postpartum life transforms our bodies in beautiful, yet occasionally uncomfortable, ways.
By my late 20s, it finally happened. The combination of a mindset shift and positive life changes left me with my healthiest and happiest body image ever, which had seemed all but impossible during my years of extreme dieting, punishing exercise regimes and debilitatingly low self-esteem.
Then my husband and I decided to have a baby.
Although I looked forward to motherhood and even pregnancy itself, I also anxiously wondered if the physical transition would reverse the work I had done to develop a better body image. But while I harbored these thoughts without speaking them, I wasn't alone: Research shows body dissatisfaction during and after pregnancy is a top concern for many women, yet we're largely on our own to find resources and support.
Reversing a lifelong 'weight loss' mindset during pregnancy isn't always easy
A 2014 review of studies into body image and pregnancy found that, despite the immense pressure women feel to "bounce back" after pregnancy, there is little support and even less research exploring the scientific impact of pregnancy on body image. The review determined that body dissatisfaction in pregnancy is often associated with "low mood, importance of body image, perceived socio-cultural pressure, intention to breastfeed and eating restraint."
While most women feel weight gain during pregnancy is more socially acceptable than weight gain in other times of life, difficulties were reported during the first trimester "when the waist thickens but the pregnancy is not yet visible" and "no one would recognize their excuse for having a larger body."
This rang so true for me, especially before I had a tell-tale bump, but wasn't able to button my old jeans. I had to stop myself from explaining why I was wearing a bigger dress size or not pushing myself harder at the gym―the desire to scream, "It's just because I'm pregnant!!" driving me to distraction.
The pressure to 'bounce back' postpartum can be overwhelming
But, as the review points out, that stress is felt perhaps even stronger postpartum, when "they no longer perceived any excuse not to adhere to their perceived socially constructed body ideal." In fact, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Women & Health, self-reported body image among mothers hits a low six months postpartum.
When I thought about my life after pregnancy, it was this fear of not having the "excuse" that plagued me. What if I never lost a single pound? Would I still be able to have a positive body image?
Instead of focusing on the months after I gave birth as a time to care for myself and my baby, I found myself researching how quickly I could start working out again and exactly how much I needed to eat to support breastfeeding. At my monthly and weekly appointments with my healthcare practitioner, I was regularly screened for signs and risks of depression. However, the topic of body image was never addressed despite evidence this is a common struggle among new moms.
"The whole idea of 'getting your body back' is not attainable for 95% of women," says Dr. Stefani Reinold, a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in perinatal mental health and eating disorders. "Society is very stereotypical, believing that whole purpose of postpartum should be to get your body back, and we miss the boat in our opportunity to nurture the mother in this amazing journey she just took."
Recognizing the link between body image and the broader postpartum experience
Many women feel shame when they're unable to "bounce back." As a result, Reinold has seen a huge correlation between poor body image and postpartum depression and anxiety. Another review in 2015 found that postpartum body dissatisfaction was consistently associated with the onset of postpartum depression.
We're bombarded with media speculations about celebrities' pregnancies, which encourage us to make the same conjectures about other women in our own lives. Even non-celebrity pregnant women don't have to look very far to find people willing to comment on their bodies: During my own pregnancy, I was constantly told that I was "too small," informed whether or not my bump was showing or questioned about what I was eating.
More than one stranger or casual acquaintance touched my belly without asking, aligning with the review's finding that "women perceived their bodies as public property during pregnancy, with family, friends and strangers touching their stomach or making personal comments about their appearance or behaviors."
Once the baby is born, women feel an even greater pressure to conform to societal pressure. "The postpartum body was portrayed as a project to be actively worked on and controlled to get back to normal, with many women perceiving this to be a bigger goal postpartum than before pregnancy," the review says. "The expectations held by many women for their postpartum body were high, and were often recognized as unrealistic."
After I welcomed my baby, even well-meaning comments from family and friends about my postpartum weight gave me a self-conscious twinge about the sense that my body was being judged for better or worse. It was like a subtle message that losing weight was linked to my overall success in this new role of mother—something that I very mindfully had to push back against.
Finding support can make all the difference
My saving grace was in avoiding the comparisons I was prone to draw on social media and instead make real-life connections that helped me stay grounded in my postpartum body image. These friends built me up when I needed it the most (in so many ways). They let me talk about my feelings. And they never placed emphasis on the superficial changes my body was naturally undergoing.
This may be the secret to helping women balance expectations about their postpartum bodies, says Reinold. "Find one person you know is just going to listen and trust what you're saying is true," she says. "These issues are so sensitive, and you want to tell someone who is going to give you a listening ear, no judgment."
It was no coincidence that I had these systems in place, either. I'll be honest: I worked hard for years to get a better grip on my body image. And I was pleasantly surprised to learn how well that served me in my pregnancy and postpartum experience, as well.
Three years in, some of the old worries again flared up during my second pregnancy. But, while there was no way to guess exactly how I would feel going through another set of uncontrollable body changes, I had more hope this time around. I reminded myself to focus on the accomplishment of growing and birthing my baby—which helped me keep any self-doubt in its place.
Originally posted on Medium.