Coping with postpartum and body image

Although I don’t  currently have any children, I remember having a fear of body changes during pregnancy long before I was anywhere close to even wanting children.  Every time I even thought about the possibility of having children the fear was there in the back of my mind, shouting the unspoken and anxious thoughts: How will I be able to cope with the body changes? How will I possibly get my “body back” afterwards?. I was already making mental lists of everything I could do- go for runs with the stroller, watch what I eat, taking intensive exercise classes etc. Years after this started I remember taking barre classes and being bombarded by the “bounce back” messages and special rates for women in postnatal. I made a mental note, reassuring myself I will come back here. I will lose the weight. Everything will be okay. I now realize that I am not alone in these fears. I’ve spent countless hours healing my own body image, helping clients heal their body image and dismantling the messages I’ve internalized from our culture about body image and pregnancy. On top of this, I acknowledge my own thin privilege of living in a smaller body and not having to combat weight stigma and I recognize that other people’s stories may look quite different (and be a lot more challenging) than mine. When I picture myself as pregnant or as a mother these thoughts are no longer at the forefront and no longer torment me. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that these thoughts don’t still arise on occasion and that I don’t still have to work to challenge them. And I know that if I do become pregnant I will have to continue to work on accepting and respecting my new body. Healing body image and recreating the story of your body and what it means for your identity is an ongoing challenge my friends.

As a counsellor specializing in disordered eating as well as postpartum, I’m here to tell you that you are not alone for struggling with negative image during pregnancy or postpartum. The messages around “bouncing back” and “losing the baby weight” are so pervasive that they are literally threaded into every fiber of our culture. The pregnant body becomes a public body; one that everyone believes they have the right to comment on during both pregnancy and postpartum. These messages are challenging for all new moms and even more challenging for those with a history of disordered eating.  This is because you are fighting both your own internal critic as well as the external messages in the larger culture.

For all the moms in postpartum right now and moms struggling with a history of disordered eating, you are not alone and you are not superficial for struggling to accept your body.  New motherhood is an incredibly challenging time to connect with your body and practice intuitive eating and body respect. Hormone changes, lack of sleep, and the stress of looking after an infant get in the way of tuning  into your hunger and satiety cues. Changes in body and the constant pressure to “bounce back” make it so challenging to accept where your body is right now. Breastfeeding and/or lack of sleep might result in increased hunger which might feel scary.

Part of the postpartum period may be trying to accept that it is going to be a challenging time in your life. However  there are some other actions that might be helpful as well:

  1. Stop following social media accounts which talk about losing the baby weight or “getting your body back”

  2. Allow yourself to grieve the fact that your body may never go back to exactly how it was before pregnancy. If you are not at this point yet that is okay but remember this- you are now a mother and your identity has changed. You are no longer the same person that you once were and part of your new identity may be embracing your new body (along with all the other changes) and this will take time- allow  yourself this time

  3. You don’t need to love the appearance of your body right now but you can still respect it and honor its needs for hunger and cravings even if those needs are different than before pregnancy.

  4. Remember your body is so much smarter than you think - it will regulate itself and let you know what it needs for this period of time which will then again be different for life after postpartum.

  5. Continue to reach out for support - to you friends, loved ones, other women who’ve gone through this journey and limit time with or set boundaries with those who are making comments about their own body or your body.

  6. Try to let go a little bit of the need to be perfect. You are doing a good job as a mother. You don’t need to “bounce back” immediately.

  7. Allow yourself to be where you are at right now. And if that’s just trying to get through each day one day at a time that’s okay.

  8. For those in recovery from disordered eating, this might feel like a relapse. Remember the tools that helped you recover from your eating disorder and be aware of any eating disorder thoughts that are surfacing during this stressful time

  9. Try to practice gratitude for everything that your body has done for you. The way its supported you throughout pregnancy, the birth of your child, and continues to support you throughout postpartum

  10. Continue to practice self care- it may be limited due to very little time, energy, and resources but try to practice small acts of kindness towards yourself

If you are struggling, I urge you to reach out for counselling with myself or another practitioner.

Remember. navigating body image in postpartum is incredibly challenging and you don’t have to feel alone anymore. Keep fighting, mama. You are incredibly strong and resilient and just a reminder that a lot of the messages that you internalized were never yours to begin with.  

Lorilee Keller