Postpartum Body Image Thoughts
I prepared a lot for my body changing during pregnancy, and was very proud of my ability to roll with all the changes that my body underwent while growing my daughter. I would be lying, however, if I said that accepting my postpartum body was going just as well. I *thought* that I had prepared myself, but over the last four months I've seen that diet culture definitely got a hold of me while I was my most vulnerable. I wanted to share my experience in the hopes that it helps one postpartum mama out there that is feeling the same way I was (and continue to feel some days!).
I became SO acutely aware of the claws that diet culture has wrapped around postpartum women. It impacts almost every aspect of the postpartum journey, where women are already vulnerable enough. Let’s break down the lies:
Your body is amazing and incredible REGARDLESS of what it looks like after birth. (And regardless of how your baby was birthed, on that note!).
I feel like the majority of posts I see regarding postpartum body image are these "look how fast I bounced back" photos, and it's usually accompanied by a comment like "the body is so amazing". Yes, it certainly is amazing that some women can go from 9 months pregnant to back to a flat tummy in just a matter of weeks or months. I am not diminishing that. But. Considering that my body still is figuring out what it wants to look like after baby, and it's definitely nowhere near what it looked like before, I noticed that these posts were making me feel like because my body didn't look exactly like it did before, that meant that my body wasn't amazing in it's capabilities. I found myself thinking in the hard moments, “well I didn't ‘bounce back’ like that, so I guess my body just sucks at this pregnancy thing.”
Our bodies ARE amazing. Regardless of what it looks like, a human grew inside of you, was completely supported by you, and if you are breastfeeding, that baby is STILL 100% surviving off of your body. It's absolutely incredible. Stretch marks and extra squishy spots and lumps and bumps are all evidence of that journey. I try to look at the unfamiliar parts of my body as beautiful evidence that my body has experienced one of the most miraculous things it can do in this life. I don’t want my body to just erase that. For me, being upset with my changed body for not "bouncing back" like I thought it would felt like being upset with my daughter for the space she took up in me, and when I said it out loud like that, it was incredibly humbling. I never want her to feel like I regret growing her, or like my journey of being pregnant with her "ruined" my body. (I feel like this specific topic itself deserves a whole blog post…don’t get me started on “mom jobs” or “mommy makeovers”).
Your body is INCREDIBLE. Even if you still look pregnant. Even if your birth didn't go as planned. Even if breastfeeding is a struggle. Even if you've gained weight since delivering. Repeat that to yourself every day that you need to hear it.
Your beautiful, glowing, pregnant body does not all of a sudden become an ugly useless sack the moment the baby is born.
I noticed that I gave myself complete grace to look however I was gonna look for about 8 weeks. Then, when my uterus was "back to normal", I had the expectation that everything else was supposed to look “back to normal” too (hint: there is no normal). This is what diet culture sells us postpartum. Every article I read would say "By about 6 weeks, the uterus has returned to it's pre-pregnant size" but none of these articles were saying BUT YOUR BELLY PROBABLY HASN'T. I started to feel like something was wrong, and I was frustrated. I remember that I was totally comfortable wearing tight tank tops and showing off my still-looking-pregnant belly, and then there was like a magic point that all of a sudden I felt like I wasn't allowed to show it anymore and that it was an embarrassing thing. Who told me that? Who is selling that idea?
This is what diet culture wants us to believe. I mean, why is it that pregnant bellies are encouraged to be shown off in tight, form fitting maternity clothes, but then once the baby has been born, you are expected to immediately hide that belly away? Now it's referred to as "ugly, gross, flabby" (all words I've heard/seen used by postpartum women). Just do a quick google search for “postpartum wardrobe” and you will see countless suggestions for high-waisted jeans or constricting yoga pants to "tuck in the mummy tummy”, loose fitting tops, belly bands...I mean, loose shirts and yoga pants are comfortable for SURE. No arguing that. But it's important to recognize that there is no RULE that you have to be hiding your body away now that the baby isn’t living inside you anymore.
Letting your body be the size that it needs to be to support your baby in the postpartum period is not "being lazy" or "letting yourself go" just because your baby is no longer inside of you. You are still giving life to a tiny human.
One day, I was giving myself a body image pep talk and telling myself that it took 9 months to grow her, so it'll take at least 9 months to "recover". I caught myself thinking, "Ugh, I gave my body up for those 9 (really 10) months. I don't want to give it up for another 9 months or more." And all of a sudden it donned on me - I had given my body space to do what it needed to grow her for 10 months, but now I'm no longer giving it the space it needs to support her? I gave myself permission to gain however much weight I needed in order to grow her organs, her skin, her fingers and toes, but I'm mad that I'm gaining weight in order to maintain an adequate milk supply to keep her fed? I gave myself permission to eat whenever I was hungry while she was growing inside of me, but I don't believe I should need to eat as often as I feel I do now?
I believe diet culture tries to tell us that we have control over our postpartum body’s size, so if you don’t lose weight then it’s your fault. You are told you should be able to “get your body back” (ridiculous statement) easily, regardless of the fact that you are sleeping less than you’ve ever slept and you’re more stressed than you’ve probably ever been. These are both factors that contribute to holding on to weight or gaining weight, and you have little control over that. Furthermore, there is no “getting back” your body, because your body never left. It is different and it has changed, just like it changed during other normal life seasons like going through puberty. Simply reframing my mindset to see my body as experiencing a change just as uncontrollable as puberty or pregnancy helped me to feel more at peace in my postpartum body.
Breastfeeding does not = weight loss all of the time.
I have to own up here. Along with all of my breastfeeding education, I was taught that breastfeeding causes weight loss in everyone. I encouraged my patients to breastfeed for many reasons, but also always threw in there that it helps with getting your body to its postpartum size, meaning that it helped it get to “whatever size that may be now” but insinuating there would likely be weight loss naturally. I didn’t realize the damage I was doing when I said that.
That weight loss did not happen for me. In fact, my body seems to want to hold on to weight in order to produce breast milk. It wasn’t until this was my experience that I realized that it happens to a lot of women! Some bodies burn calories while supporting breastfeeding, and some bodies need to store extra fat in order to support the milk supply. This was yet another area that I felt my body was “sucking” at because it didn’t do what diet culture said it should do. I was supposed to just magically have pounds melt off of me if I was successfully breastfeeding, and since I didn’t, I must not have been doing it right.
I felt so, so bad for every mom that I listed off “weight loss” as a breastfeeding outcome to. The last thing we need during these vulnerable postpartum days is the feeling of yet another part of our body not doing what we were told it was “supposed to do”.
Did you experience any of these feelings?
Repeat after me: I refuse to let diet culture steal MORE of my life by taking away my joy in this really special season of life. I am vowing to give my body the space and time it needs, while I do what I can to take care of myself and my baby daily. I am the best mama for my baby and my body is no reflection of that.