The ability of a woman’s body to make an entire human being is pretty amazing. Yet, many of forms of media instead share unrealistic “before and afters”—and it turns out we really aren’t here for it: According to a new study, women would rather see examples of real pregnant and postpartum bodies than celebrities lauded for losing baby weight.
That means content creators need to focus less on post-baby bikinis and more on that post-baby life we’re all living—stretch marks and all.
The study, led by researchers from the University of Illinois and Brigham Young University, found 46 percent of moms surveyed said unrealistic images of toned women who “bounced back” weeks after childbirth just left them feeling depressed, frustrated and hopeless about their own post-birth physiques.
The research backs up an old saying that’s seen a resurgence in the age of social media: Comparison is the thief of joy.
At a time when a new mom should be enjoying time with her baby, stories about unrealistically quick postpartum weight loss can be detrimental to both moms and their babies.
“Not realizing expectations of motherhood is one of the leading causes of postpartum depression, ” Angela Bowen, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and registered nurse, told Motherly. “The media has to change.”
According to Bowen—who is also a trained midwife with a doctorate in community health and epidemiology—many first-time moms have skewed ideas of postpartum reality because of the media images we’ve been exposed to. As a result, we are more prone to beating ourselves up for not achieving goals that weren’t practical in the first place.
For starters, Bowen said she’s never met anyone who walked out of the maternity ward in their pre-pregnancy wardrobe in all her years of obstetrics. She explained, “Most women will still look five to six months pregnant after having a baby.”
In the age of Facebook and Instagram, we may see a version of reality through our friends’ post-birth selfies. But researchers found social media is a double-edged sword for new moms: While it exposes us to some authentic postpartum takes, weight loss stories from social media friends may cause women to compare more severely than when viewing celebrities. (For example: Of course I can’t expect to look like Megan Fox right after giving birth, but shouldn’t I be able to bounce back like my former chemistry lab partner?)
While some of the women surveyed said they did compare their body to others and aspired to look more like the women celebrated in media, they also reported making efforts to protect their self-esteem by not exposing themselves to magazines, blogs or sites that made them feel bad.
The researchers found that regardless of whether they were found on TV, in magazines or online, women appreciate images and stories that portray pregnancy and postpartum realistically. It’s a sentiment echoed by Bowen, who suggested honest depictions of early motherhood are more likely to include sanitary pads than swimwear.
She also said she hopes moms will share their stories with other moms—because regardless of whether you’re wearing maternity pants, you and your baby are something to celebrate.