Written by: Sydney-Ellen Cooke, Student Occupational Therapist
When we think back to a time where we felt our most confident, I believe that a lot of women automatically recall the time that they felt their skinniest. However, when looking back at this time, a large portion of individuals may not necessarily consider that time to be their most confident self. For many women struggling with their body image, the time in which they were their slimmest may also have been associated with severe diet restrictions, rigorous exercise plans, and mental exhaustion. So why do we believe that we should feel the most confident with our body image when we are our slimmest? Recently, a significant amount of research has been published highlighting the relationship between pregnant women and mothers experiencing body image issues and postpartum depression. Although I personally am not a mother, I understand and relate to the struggles that the majority of women face on a daily basis regarding their body image and the severe damage it can have on our mental well-being. Mothers especially are vulnerable to experience fluctuations in their self-esteem as a result of the physical, psychological, and emotional changes associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. It is essential to have conversations with mothers and soon-to-be moms, about body image and highlighting the ways we can educate and support each other to feel our most confident self.
According to research, 36% of women do not accept their physical appearance after giving birth. In addition to this, mothers who have a negative perception of their body image are 50% more likely to experience postpartum depression. Throughout pregnancy, labour, and postpartum, it is evident that women’s bodies change immensely. Weight gain throughout pregnancy and postpartum is inevitable and can be attributed to several physiological changes including uterine enlargement, elevated maternal blood volume, additional breast tissue ,and potentially increased stress levels.
So why do many mothers experience body image issues if the weight gain throughout pregnancy is considered to be normal and healthy? A recent study conducted among mothers found that the primary cause for body image issues stemmed from the thin-ideal body type portrayed within the media. Regardless if you’re a mother or not, everyone has come across an advertisement promoting a diet detox or innovative fitness plan highlighting the different strategies that women can utilize to return back to their pre-baby body. Oftentimes, these fitness and diet plans are accompanied by a picture of a beautiful and skinny woman looking happy and healthy. But in reality, pregnancy, labour, and the postpartum period doesn’t always look this glamorous. The majority of moms will develop larger breasts, differences in their skin type, hair loss, swollen feet, stretch marks, loose skin, and ultimately gain weight. As a result of these advertisements and images, many mothers interpret their changed physical appearance throughout motherhood as unhealthy. Oftentimes this will lead to a sense of guilt and insecurity among mothers for failing to embody this specific body type. The extent of this influence is evident as researchers reported that the average woman expressed interest in having a goal weight that was 12lbs lower than their pre-pregnancy body. Clearly, the media has influenced women’s perception of what health and happiness truly looks like. It is important for all moms to be aware of the possible negative effects participating in these fad exercises and diets may have on their mental and physical well-being.
Health can come in a variety of sizes. There is no specific pant or shirt size that dictates whether an individual should be considered fit or unhealthy. On average, women weigh 10lbs heavier postpartum than their pre-pregnancy weight. Yet, so many moms are anxious about this common weight fluctuation, and worry that their postpartum body isn’t shedding the weight as they may have initially expected after childbirth and through breastfeeding. It is true that breastfeeding does allow you to burn a certain amount of calories per day, but it does not necessarily mean that it’ll lead to a significant weight loss for all moms. As a result of these common misconceptions, many postpartum women will turn to high intensity exercise programs in attempts to portray their desired body image. However, participating in fitness plans designed to help you lose weight postpartum have the potential to be harmful on both your physical and mental health.
There is no standard timeline to reintroduce exercise back into your routine following pregnancy or beyond what your delivery care provider has indicated. Participating in physical activity is highly dependent on a mother’s pregnancy, labour and delivery process, medical history, and overall physical health. Pushing your body too hard, too quickly following labour can potentially result in several complications in your recovery process and may lead to long-term injuries. Unfortunately, many postpartum weight loss programs fail to consider that every mom has a different recovery plan after childbirth. Therefore, it is critical to consult with a healthcare professional prior to engaging in a potentially harmful exercise plan to protect your health and well-being.
In addition to this, it is important for mothers to recognize the toll that pregnancy, labour, and the postpartum period has had on their body. Within a 9 month period, your body has nurtured and birthed your child, and continues to provide care for your baby and family throughout the postpartum period. Therefore, your body likely does not have the same strength and endurance that you may have had 9 months ago. So, if you cannot do a sit-up or go on a run with the same intensity as you could pre-pregnancy, do not criticize yourself. It is more important to be safe and gentle with your changed body. Acknowledge that, although this aspect of motherhood is not frequently discussed in the media (or even with peers and family), it is a normal part of the process of transitioning into your new or continued role as a mom.
Recently, I came across an article targeted toward new moms discussing diet tips to help shed weight quickly after giving birth. The first tip that was suggested was to drink water when experiencing hunger pangs rather than eating a normal snack. I don’t know about you, but drinking water rather than consuming a meal doesn’t sound nearly as satisfying. Although it is critical to stay hydrated, water should never be considered a suitable supplement for a meal. This strategy is problematic for several reasons, as it demonstrates the foundation of our fat-phobic society, but it is an especially dangerous suggestion to be giving to new moms. During and after pregnancy, your body needs a significant caloric intake to help nurture your baby and repair your body. It is encouraged to strive for proper nutritional balance to help fuel and energize yourself. But most importantly, it is crucial for moms to understand that it is completely normal to have an increased appetite postpartum. After childbirth, your body is under increased pressure to produce breast milk and recover (particularly for moms that may not be getting restful sleep!). Attempting to cut-down on your caloric intake can lead to issues with breastfeeding, decreased energy, and elevated levels of stress. Listening to your bodily cues and consuming the type and amount of food that you are naturally craving is important to promote well-being for both yourself and your baby.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution that can be suggested to help all mothers experiencing body image issues feel more confident with their changed body. However, there are some evidence-based strategies that have been proven to enhance a mother's self-esteem regarding their physical appearance.
Embrace the Weight
Several research studies have found that women who acknowledge and embrace weight gain throughout pregnancy and postpartum tend to have greater confidence in their self-image than women who refuse to accept changes in their physique. This is something that may be easier said than done, but it can help to significantly transform your perception of maternal weight gain. By educating yourself on the normalcy of gaining weight throughout motherhood, you are more likely to perceive these bodily changes as a natural process of motherhood, rather than something to be ashamed of. Studies found that women that had greater awareness and a positive perception of weight gain during and after pregnancy, had greater long-term mental health outcomes, and were at a lower risk of developing a postpartum mood disorder. Therefore, it is encouraged for all mothers to learn more about the short-term and long-term physical changes that they will likely experience throughout motherhood, and learn to embrace and be proud of their body.
Filter Your Media
As previously indicated, the media is a significant contributor to body image insecurities among mothers. An effective way to reduce this stressor is to filter the type of media you consume. Although it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate fat-phobic targeted advertisements, there are thousands of body positive bloggers, speakers, and authors that proudly document and normalize the physical changes that they have experienced throughout their motherhood journey. By removing the content from your social media feeds that may be contributing to body image issues, and replacing it with women that display a body type similar to yours, you’re more likely to feel less isolated and more confident with your new self.
Connect With Others
It’s evident that a significant portion of women are experiencing body image issues. Simply talking with friends and family about your shared experiences can help to support one another and enhance your mental well-being. Additionally, Willow Family OT is running free virtual support groups every Wednesday and Friday for mothers at any stage of their postpartum journey. Within these sessions, we will be focusing on a wide variety of maternal mental and physical health topics and providing evidence-based strategies to enhance your well-being after childbirth.
Feeling ashamed of your body image at any stage of your motherhood journey is completely normal, and you are not alone if you are experiencing these feelings. I hope by reading this you have gained some comfort and a greater understanding that every mother’s body will experience some degree of change. It is critical to focus on embracing your new physique, as this significantly has greater mental and physical health outcomes than attempting to alter yourself. If you feel that you are struggling and need someone to speak to, do not hesitate to use our 15 minute Discovery Call to schedule a free consultation with us.