Dear new and expectant moms: It’s time to give your body image a reality check
NEWS FLASH: You will gain weight in pregnancy. And it won’t come right off after the baby is born.
Even though we all “know” those truisms, they still throw us for a huge, stressing loop when they’re happening right in your own body, says Penn State sociologist David Hutson, who studies body image.
Imagine having a baby 200 years ago. No scales! No measuring fundal height! No weight-gain recommendation charts or tracking calculators! No People magazines in the waiting room waiting to torment you with the latest amazing “Body After Baby” story!
Even as recently as when we were born, our moms didn’t have to see anybody’s Insta-perfect Snap-brag story that looked nothing like the bloated, puffy, too-sick-for-organic-kale, too-tired-for-baby-boot-camp version they were experiencing.
Not that anyone expected them to eat picture-perfect organic salads or go to baby boot camp at the gym…much less fit into skinny jeans at the postpartum checkup. Even if they were weight-conscious, their hidden-under-maternity-sacks bumps didn’t make them a target for the whole world’s opinions about their eating, exercise, or appearance choices.
“People talk, think, and behave differently about pregnancy than in the past,” says psychologist Ali Domar, founder of the Domar Centers for Mind/Body Health in Massachusetts and New York and author of Finding Calm for the Expectant Mom: Tools for Reducing Stress, Anxiety, and Mood Swings During Your Pregnancy.
“It’s really hard.”
No wonder we have so much body image baggage.
And it starts right from the first trimester.
As soon as the test is positive, we resolve to eat right and stay fit and be healthier than ever for the baby. Then slo-mo fatigue sets in. Morning sickness. Cravings. Stretch marks and varicose veins. Flintstone feet. Pound creep.
“One of the shocking things to me, as someone who studies weight, has been the number of times I’d ask a woman how much weight she gained during her pregnancy and she didn’t know,” Hutson told me. “They stopped tracking and avoided looking at the scale at the doctor’s office when they had a sense they’d gone past the recommended amounts.”
After the baby’s born, you’d think we’d be too busy or tired to dwell on body image. But no. The baby only weighs 7 pounds or so. And all those other pounds that went to building its temporary home inside you and making extra blood and nutrients are still there. And in our obesity-fearing, social media-fed heads, this just doesn’t seem right.
“I can’t tell you how many of my patients Princess Kate destroyed with her skinny jeans and flat stomach,” Domar says.
Bye-bye abs. Hello…high anxiety.
You might especially stress about your maternity body image…
- If you struggled with infertility. “When you work really hard for something, you expect it to be amazing—it can be really difficult to instead feel sick all the time and freaked out,” she says.
- If you have a history of eating disorders or body image problems.
- If you work hard to stay in shape. “There’s cultural pressure around thinness and, in the last 20 years or so, muscle tone,” Hutson says.
- If you spend a lot of time on social media. That’s practically all of us. Moms-to-be on Facebook have higher body-image dissatisfaction than those who aren’t, finds a new study in the September, 2016, issue of the journal Midwifery. And the more time they’re logged in, the more dissatisfaction. It’s all the comparing, says Swansea University psychologist Amy Brown.
We can’t change the whole world (or royal mum Kate’s lucky genes bombarding our Twitter feed). But we can do a fair amount where matters most—change our self image for the better, experts say:
Even though pregnancy is just about the only time in a woman’s life when it’s socially acceptable to gain weight, it’s hard to let go of a lifetime of habit.
Try thinking of it specifically as “baby weight,” rather than “body weight,” Hutson’s research suggests.
When people gain weight outside of pregnancy, they tend to feel either nostalgic for a past size (“when I was a teenager…”) or fantasize about a future, idealized weight, he says. But in pregnancy, many women are neither nostalgic nor fantasizing about a thinner self. Instead, they’re able to hold onto two very real visions of themselves at the same time: the temporary pregnant self and the “normal” self that they they’ll return to.
Peek behind the glossy celebrity curtain.
“Notice how you only see flat stomachs and $600 strollers on Instagram and Snapchat—nobody’s posting about their morning vomiting or vaginal hemorrhoids,” Domar told me.
“What AREN’T I seeing?” is a question worth asking yourself. (It’s kind of like that public-speaking trick of imagining your audience in their underwear or picturing someone who intimidates you sitting on the toilet, just like you do.) One of Domar’s patients kept comparing herself to her cousin, who’d given birth to a preemie and was tiny soon after. “She was freaking out because her stomach wasn’t flat. But the cousin hadn’t posted about the 6 weeks in the NICU—her stomach is what was socially acceptable.”
Also worth remembering (even if you have to tell yourself 1000 times): Celebrities’ bodies are often their jobs. They’re often unusually small people to begin with, who devote hours, not stolen moments, to working out. They have trainers, personal chefs, and night nurses to make their effortless fantasy lives happen.
And celeb photos—just like ours!—are often carefully altered and edited. “How many of us take lots of different photos and then select just the best one to put up,” Brown says. “We need to keep this in mind even if we continue to post only our best bits.”
Take heart from this insight from Domar too: Quite a number of those celebrity yummy mummies bore babies using surrogates and wore fake baby bellies during their pregnancies. “No wonder they’re skinny two weeks later,” she told me. Look for the celeb’s pregnancy pix, she suggests. If her face looks exactly the same throughout, it’s very possible she wasn’t actually pregnant in the first place, she says.
Seek out the real deal.
Domar laughs that her husband, who went to an Ivy League school, always gets upset reading his alumni magazine. “I tell him only the superstars are writing in about what they’re doing. But we’re not all curing cancer or New York Times reporters. He’d feel much better if the average people were writing in too!”
Highly recommended: The “average people” new moms over at “After the Baby Is Born” a series of postpartum images that’s part of photographer Natalie McCain’s Honest Body Project.
“The pressure to ‘bounce back’ is unhealthy and the last thing a new mother should be worrying about,” the Florida mom of two told me. “Our bodies are amazing. Why should we shame them after all we’ve done?”
Ask a new mom friend to show you her squishy belly along with the baby. Ask your doctor or midwife what to really expect in terms of physical changes.
Give your partner some credit.
“I’m so fat! I look awful!” a pregnant woman will often sob to Domar. Then she meets the partner, who says, “I can’t get enough of her! She’s so sexy now!”
Experiments that track men’s physical responses to pictures of women, Domar says, show that men find curves very attractive. “Curves imply fertility,” she says. “And men are built to spread their seed. So women should love their curves. In pregnancy—when their breasts are bigger, their hips are rounded, and they have a bump to their belly—their husbands find them sexier than ever.”
Try this simple cognitive restructuring tool from Domar if you’re dogged by repetitive fears, like I’ll never get my body back. Ask yourself four questions:
1) Does this thought contribute to my stress?
2) Where did I learn this thought?
3) Is this a logical thought?
4) Is this thought true?
Give yourself a “fourth trimester”and then some.
New moms in Hutson’s study began to lose the distinction of a “pregnant self” and a “real self” soon after their babies were born. “They felt the cultural pressure begin to creep back into their lives very early: ‘Pregnancy is over; now I need to lose weight,'” he told me.
Better: “Think of your pregnancy as having four trimesters. Your body’s in transition and needs time off,” he says. This might be three months (a trimester) or six to 12 months, depending on your individual situation.
The payoff for more self-love goes beyond less stress. Women who felt more significantly dissatisfied with body image after delivery compared to their ideal actually wound up having a harder time losing weight over the next four years than those with a more realistic self image, Portuguese research has shown.
One of the new moms in photographer McCain’s postpartum series talks about showing her husband the jagged purple stretch marks on her belly. “I used to have amazing tight abs, do you remember?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he replied. “But we didn’t have two amazing sons back then.”