I always knew that body size, shape and weight mattered to most women – I am one, after all, and so are most of my friends. I’ve also worked in the fitness industry as a personal trainer, yoga teacher and wellness coach for 9 years and the vast majority of women I worked with listed weight loss as their main goal (regardless of their size). In fact, I became so empowered to do something about the issue of women’s battle with body image after my own long struggle with food, exercise and the size of my body, that once I overcame the issues I faced I studied intuitive eating and created an instagram page to help others who experienced similar concerns. So I know how prevalent and persistent this issue is and yet..
Still, when I got pregnant and joined a few Facebook groups for soon-to-be mothers or breastfeeding mothers, I was shocked and saddened to see so many posts about weight gain, poor body image, lack of feeling attractive with body changes, and even questions about dieting while pregnant or breastfeeding (the other day I saw one that asked if intermittent fasting was okay while breast feeding- which involves eating in a window of only 8 hours per day – which is not conducive to a high milk supply).
I wrote a post on Facebook about how much this upset me – and got an amazing response of agreement from others.
And as I’ve said in the post, are we really at a point in our culture where women feel pressured to not gain weight during pregnancy, or lose weight so soon after even while they are still producing milk to feed their baby?
Now, I want to clear something up. I’ve had this conversation in various forms numerous times, and I always get someone who says, ‘but eating well and exercising is important for health’. And I totally agree. However, eating a nutritionally balanced diet that’s reasonably flexible, and moving our body each day in ways we enjoy, is not synonymous with dieting and eating and exercising in ways that are purely designed to remove fat from our bodies. In fact, the latter is actually stressful to our body, and after a period of 40 weeks of giving nutritionally and hormonally to the small life growing inside, often followed by a period of 6 -18 months (or more) of giving nutritionally and hormonally to feed the life we created, restricting the energy we consume or expending a large amount through intense exercise is likely going to be just another tax on our already tired and taxed bodies. That’s not to mention what happens when then, again, mama falls pregnant and the cycle continues and worsens.
What I find perhaps more concerning than the physical effects, is the psychological strain this puts us in when we are already dealing with changed hormones and usually inadequate sleep. I remember seeing a well-known fitness model on Instagram get straight into her ‘pre-baby body’ program as soon as she was given the all-clear by her doctor at 6 weeks post-partum, which involved workouts at midnight. I am certainly not criticising her, but I am highlighting how extreme the pressure is for women to return to pre-baby condition so soon after not only being pregnant but also giving birth. So extreme that an already tired and sleep-deprived mother will stay up at midnight to exercise and get even less sleep (which any health professional will agree, is certainly not “healthy” physiologically or for her mental state – as sleep deprivation is linked to post-partum depression, anxiety and psychosis as well as, ironically, weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic stress). This woman’s career was built around her body so I understand the pressure for her would be even greater perhaps than for the average Josephine, but what sort of message is this giving her millions of Instagram followers who may be struggling to even have a shower that day, let alone lose weight?
For me, pregnancy has been the most exquisite, spiritual experience that I have ever had. Whilst I had already worked for years pre-pregnancy on building respect and admiration for the body that I had chastised and hated for most of my life, I became even more in awe of this incredible vessel that has literally created a life – for me personally, having children is the most important thing I will ever do. How devastating that rather than having this same reverence for their body, many women feel disgusted, disappointed and anxious and resist the changes their body undergoes in order to grow a human. No sooner is the baby out, that women feel they need to remove the fat and flab, erase the stretch marks and shrink the loose skin to resemble the woman she was pre-baby (or perhaps even a new and improved version). Oh mama, I want to cry, you are not the same woman you were then! You have created life, birthed a child and in many cases sustained that life through producing milk, all with your incredible, human body!
I know there is a big movement on social media to re-name stretch marks as tiger stripes one earned, which is beautiful, but what I really wish for is a world where stripes or no stripes, fat or thin, we just didn’t focus on our bodies at all. After all, even other than achieving the amazing feat and miracle of pregnancy and birth and becoming mothers, we all have identities and achievements, personalities and interests, and a whole range of other features that make us incredible individuals in our own right, without having our value reduced to whether we fit society’s mold (literally).
From what I’ve heard, motherhood is a wonderful journey, yet challenging and sometimes scary, and already from what I’ve experienced it is perhaps the greatest vulnerability of all – because you are putting yourself in a position to love something more than you ever have before. Whilst tackling the hurdles this journey entails, the modern-day mama is expected to shoulder the added responsibility of raising a human with having a career and usually (from what studies tell us, and of course there are exceptions to the rule) the majority of house-work, so we certainly do not need to add to this the pressure of looking a particular way!
Please don’t get me wrong in assuming that I’m saying we should all give up on health, stop exercising and eat Mickey D’s every meal -I’m absolutely not – but our food and movement choices should be motivated by a desire to look after these magical vessels in sustainable ways (like increasing incidental exercise or serving more veggies with our meals) rather than driven by a need to shrink ourselves at the expense of our physical and mental health. And certainly, any new healthy habits can be integrated slowly and after mama has adjusted fully to her new role as mother (or second-time mother etc), and not immediately upon “pushing a watermelon out her vagina” (as it’s so eloquently been described to me!) or “pulled out through the sunroof!”
As with all things we can blame on ‘society’ or ‘culture’ at the end of the day, we are that society and culture – they’re made up of the individuals and practices of those individuals that compose them, after all. So changing this message can really only start and end with ourselves. If you are a soon-to-be mama, or really just a woman, or even just a human, you can reject diet culture and resist the pressure to shrink your body by learning to accept and respect your body at any size, focus on listening to its wisdom to guide you how, what and when to eat as well as move in ways you love (which is the most sure-fire way to good health) and reject conversations with others about your own or other people’s weight or size. I also find it’s good to do an Instagram cull of any accounts that leave you feeling like your body is ‘less than (even if you follow them for fitspo, or perhaps especially so). Of course, doing these things as a parent will also help us to raise a new generation of children who are able to focus on things other than what they look like and feel valuable for who they are, not what they see in the mirror.
If you feel lost in how to achieve this, Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole is a phenomenal book by two dietitians and gives you a 10 step guide to connecting to your health through your body rather than through external rules. Body Positive Power by Megan Jayne Crabb (aka @bodyposipanda on Instagram) is another wonderful book to address that familiar resistance to our bodies, stop dieting and improve your body image.
Tell me, what was your experience of pregnancy and the changes your body experienced? Was it a fearful time, or one of joy and awe? Did you also feel the pressure to “bounce back” to your pre-baby weight?