Body image, or put simply, the way we feel about our own body, is something individuals can grapple with at any stage in life, but particularly so in the perinatal period. During no other stage in life does one’s body undergo such significant change in such a small space of time! Growing a new human and the associated infrastructure is amazing – but results in major changes to our bodies – and sometimes this transformation is difficult to get our heads around. But where does our idea of what our bodies “should” look like come from, and why do we sometimes find this change in our body so difficult?
Body image is a construct that is heavily influenced by social factors – and in our society, the generalised view of an “attractive” female body includes 3 things: thinness, shapely breasts, and unblemished skin. There are some cultural variations to this ideal, but in a predominantly Caucasian society, this is what is expected and aimed for. Research has shown that in both postpartum and non-postpartum (i.e. college students) samples, that Anglo women feel more negatively towards their bodies than African American women. So, negative body image isn’t necessarily a universally experienced thing – it is something that societal norms and expectations, particularly in Western society, have created! The other societal norm that relates to body image is the idea that we have complete control of our bodies and how we look.
Now combine the societal expectation that women’s bodies should be within the individual’s control, thin, and with unblemished skin with the realities of growing a human. The reason this can feel challenging for women starts to become clear! Pregnancy brings with it necessary and uncontrollable weight gain, bigger breasts (1 plus – tick!), and sometimes blemished skin (e.g. stretch marks).
Research suggests that during pregnancy, most women don’t feel too bad about this divergence from societies expectations because we have what we see as an “excuse” – we’re growing and housing a tiny human (this is particularly the case once we have an obvious bump – prior to that can feel tricky). But once we have the baby, women seem to feel almost immediately that the old rules apply – that their excuse for being bigger has gone, and that they should “bounce back” to their pre-pregnancy body.
Social media and celebrities who post photos of their post baby bodies don’t help this expectation at all. While it may be possible for some women to “bounce back” – we don’t know at what cost they have achieved this, or perhaps they just have a body type that does that with ease. If we look at research on the topic – “bouncing back” to our pre-pregnancy weight isn’t the norm. In one study of over 500 new Mums in the US, it was found that women are typically 7-8kgs above their pre-pregnancy weight at 0-1 month postpartum, and remain a few kilos above at 9 months postpartum. Sadly, despite Mums on typically losing a significant amount of weight between 1 month and 9 months postpartum, their level of body dissatisfaction increased, and this body dissatisfaction was related to poor mental health.
These figures highlight that new Mums expect that they will and should “bounce back” – but that this expectation is unrealistic and not the norm. Life as a new Mum is hectic enough – recovering from birth (vaginal or caesarean), adjusting to life as a new Mum, learning how to care for our newborn. It is unhelpful for us to also be investing attention to the number on the scales – and unfortunate that this number can have such a big impact on our own self-esteem, happiness, and be linked with negative mental health outcomes such as depression.
We need to reframe the situation in our own minds – instead of trying to “bounce back” to our pre-baby body, we can work towards accepting and learning to love and appreciate our new, different bodies. Our new bodies that have grown and cared for new humans and made us a Mum. How do we do that? Here are some ideas…
- There are many aspects to us that contribute to our self-worth – the way that we look isn’t the be all and end all! Consider all the different things that make you the person you are – you are much more than how you look.
- Try and think about your body more holistically rather than just how it looks. Focusing on honouring our bodies and looking after ourselves could be about trying to be strong and healthy, rather than just skinny. A healthy and strong body is something that is also much more within our control than the number on the scales!
- Try and be aware of and challenge the expectations you have about what your body “should” look like. Where have these come from and why must you adhere to them? Accept that those expectations are perhaps unrealistic and not serving your well in this postpartum period.
- Finally, try and bring your focus to the special time that is the postpartum period – babies are only babies for such a short time, and what a shame that the pressures we feel from society to look a certain way can detract from that. If your negative body image is something that gets in the way of you enjoying life, feel free to reach out for support on this.
Written by Pip Johnson, Clinical Psychology Registrar