Weight a Minute Before Judging Your Changing Mama Body
Living in a culture that is so weight focused, it’s hard for most moms to make peace with the physical changes that pregnancy and postpartum bring. We are constantly bombarded with photos of hot, seemingly perfect celebrities just weeks after they have given birth. Weight loss ads are everywhere you look. Physically, it often feels just plain weird to be pregnant (and postpartum) and let’s not forget all of the hormones that induce feelings of emotional vulnerability. This is the perfect recipe to make moms super self-conscious about their bodies. I’m not going to lie- I struggle with this one, too. Which is a bit crazy if you know the path that led me in the first place into this work of supporting moms through pregnancy and postpartum.
Let’s take it back to 1998 when I was finishing up my degree in Radio and Television at San Francisco State (yes, I’m that old, and yes I have a TV degree, lol!). While most of my classmates focused on landing a job in broadcasting, my interest lay in how broadcast media affected culture and the people in it. I got involved in a project of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women, to educate high school students about how the media shapes our self-image. Billions of dollars are spent annually creating ad campaigns that prey on people’s psyche to sell products, ideas, political values, and more. Armed with tools to decode these media messages and their purpose, consumers are less susceptible to their harmful effects. Supposedly. Well, it certainly helps, but like I said, even with this particular academic background I’m not immune. (Side note: if you’re wondering how this led me into birth work...I got pregnant while I was working on the project at SFNOW and promptly realized that most of what I knew about birth- pretty much all wrong and very disempowering- came from what I saw in movies and on TV. That lit a fire under my bottom!)
Frankly, it’s not just the media. I grew up hearing my mom say, “once on the lips, forever on the hips.” It may not have been targeted specifically at me, but I certainly got the message that looking thin was more important than my overall health and well-being. The #metoo movement has shed a floodlight on how all women have experienced a wide range of objectification. We are taught from a very young age that how we look matters, often more than anything else.
When moms are weighed at the doctors office, a place supposed to be focused specifically on health, this message is intensified. While weight should be monitored in pregnancy- an unusual gain or lack thereof could give your provider clues if something is amiss, prompting further testing- nobody should feel shamed by their health care providers. A lecture from your doctor regarding weight gain in the absence of other health factors is merely fat shaming disguised as a health concern.
Really, how meaningful is the weight measurement of an extra two or three pounds that prompts your doctor to admonish you anyway? So many factors can play a part in that measurement: the clothes you wear, the time of day you are weighed, the calibration of the scale...I tried an interesting experiment. I weighed myself daily under the same conditions for a week- the exact same scale, same time of day, with no clothes on. I found that my weight could fluctuate by more than two pounds in a 24 hour period! More specifically, if I had a salty meal before bed the day prior, I could count on my weight being significantly higher, even if I ate very little. Chances are your weight measurement at the doctor from one appointment to the next are not under super consistent conditions, so as long as everything else is developing normally, take them with a grain of salt (no pun intended).
If all of our other health markers are on point, how much does a little extra weight gain even matter in pregnancy? Not much, according to economist Emily Oster in her book Expecting Better. We are often warned that too much weight gain during pregnancy puts our children at risk of obesity later in life. Oster explains that most of the studies show correlation, not causation. She goes on to site a fairly well-designed long-term Danish study that did show that mothers who gained more in pregnancy had children who went on to be heavier on average as adults, but Oster’s calculation of the actual number of pounds was pretty insignificant- an increase of just one pound in a person who is 5 foot 6 inches.
It’s time to question this idea that health is defined predominantly by weight. Just because you have extra pounds does not mean you are unhealthy and conforming to society’s standard of a “nice” body does not mean you are healthy. I am reminded of a friend, who claimed to be vegetarian for health reasons, and would often eat a bowl of ice cream, skipping all other meals for the day to keep her weight down. In no way was that healthy, despite her slim figure!
After pregnancy, the message to “get your pre-pregnancy body back” prevails. This is a message that definitely is NOT focused on health. On the contrary, it often hinders moms from being physically and mentally healthy by taking her focus away from what really matters: adjusting to life with a new baby! Something else my mom used to say: “It takes nine months to grow a baby and at least that long to recover.”
During the first few weeks, months even, meeting basic needs such as eating, sleeping, and showering is a challenge. No mom should have to contend with any extra stress, including counting calories or hitting the gym. The yogic principle of “listening to your body” is enough. If you are tired, allow yourself rest. If your body feels stiff from long hours sitting with the baby, go for a walk or dance around the house with your little one. If you are hungry, eat- opt for healthy foods when you can and don’t beat yourself up about it when you can’t.
Once you settle into a routine as a new family, you may find you have the time and energy to bring a little focus back to yourself and your health. However, don’t make the focus about “getting your body back.” Trying to get back to what we were before having children keeps us in the past and dishonors the incredible life-changing experience of becoming a mom. Life will never be the same, so trying to get back to what it once was is an impossible and disheartening feat. Furthermore, trying to get back to what we used to be implies the “old you” was somehow better. Now that I am a mother, I feel the triumph of growing and birthing my three kiddos. I know what my body is capable of. Conquering the ups and downs of raising my family has given me wisdom and confidence. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Why would I want to go back to what I was before?
I admit, just like everyone else, I have those bad days when I look in the mirror and self-conscious, critical thoughts creep in. But I’m making it a practice to replace those thoughts with positive ones. I honestly love that my youngest likes to snuggle with my mama tummy, telling me how soft it is and at the same time, is impressed by how hard I can flex my abs hiding under the flab. My “muffin top” may not look nice by society’s standards, but she reminds me I have a stable core underneath. My yoga practice has been a great antidote to negative body image issues. Not because the physical practice brings a fit body, but because the philosophical practice teaches me to surrender to what is. Being in the moment allows me to accept all of me- my aging body included.
It’s normal to feel self-conscious about your rapidly changing body in pregnancy and the postpartum. Know that you are enough exactly the way you are. Every time you find yourself criticizing your new body, remind yourself of the miracle it performed in growing a beautiful new human! Together, let’s learn to love the body we are in today.