The Baby Weight
Experts discuss the growing trend of pregnant women who fear their growing bellies.
As celebrity magazines and television shows have expanded their coverage of actresses, models and pop stars from their first baby bumps to their post-baby body workouts and diets, women have felt more pressure than ever to maintain a thin body even while expecting, experts say.
Authors Claire Mysko, M.A. and Magali Amadei, founders of the unique outreach program Inside Beauty are addressing the issue of pregnancy and body image issues in Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby (Health Communications Inc). Coming out this October, and many body image experts agree that this book is coming not a moment too soon.
Mysko, Amadei and Canada-based clinical counselor Esther Kane, MSW, author of It’s Not About the Food: A Woman’s Guide to Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies kindly shared their insight with demo dirt to discuss why women are suffering body anxiety at such a crucial time in their lives, and how to love themselves and their bodies before, during, and after baby.
What inspired you to write this book?
Amadei: We first started talking about the idea when I was pregnant with my daughter. At that point Claire and I had already been working together for many years to raise awareness about body image issues and eating disorders. I had recovered from my eating disorder and stopped obsessing over the numbers on the scale, but suddenly I found that everyone seemed to be interested in talking about those numbers during pregnancy. OB appointments were about getting weighed, other pregnant women wanted to compare weight gain, and new moms were eager to commiserate about post baby weight loss efforts. The fixation and worry was everywhere.
Mysko: Our work has always been about uncovering silences, so once we became aware of what pregnant women and new moms were talking about, we started to take a deeper look at what they weren't saying. There is so much buzz about "how to get your body back" in our culture, but how are women really dealing with those pressures? What fears and anxieties are masked by this chatter? We wanted this book to make women feel less alone. We wanted to inspire moms and moms-to-be to find body confidence and seek support for themselves.
Have you noticed a rise in pregnancy-related anxieties over weight as the media has focused on celebrities and their baby bumps, weight loss and mommy makeovers, such as Kate Gosselin's famous makeover? If so, what can women do to deal with this pressure?
Mysko: There has been a huge increase in media coverage of celebrity pregnancy and post-baby weight loss in the last decade. Between 2003 and 2005 the number of People magazine headlines about celebrity pregnancy, babies, and mommy makeovers more than doubled, and since then there has been a proliferation of blogs and websites dedicated to covering the stars' every move. These images and messages are pervasive--they absolutely have an impact on expectant and new mothers.
Most women we talked to are well aware that celebrities have teams of nannies, trainers, and personal chefs (not to mention professional retouchers!) that the average Jane doesn't have. In fact, words like "ridiculous," "unhealthy," and "frustrating" came up often when we asked women to describe how the media handles pregnancy and new motherhood. Yet women still feel the sting when they compare their own bodies to all those "perfect" images. Aside from minimizing your exposure to those stories--which we definitely recommend, especially for new moms--we encourage women to look at the coverage with a critical eye. Celebrity baby fever is really about selling the "mommy brand"--the must-have products, workout plans, and designer diets. None of that has anything to do with the reality of being a mother.
Kane: This is a very good point- the pressure to ‘lose the baby fat’ is another ploy for companies to make big bucks. If they can make new moms feel unattractive, overweight, and insecure- they will be ripe to purchase whatever supposed “cure” is being sold to ‘solve the problem’. It’s no different from the diet industry which makes BILLIONS of dollars each year selling thinness to countless women with the promise that when weight is lost, all problems will go away magically. Unfortunately, there is so much money that goes into advertising, that most women don’t even question it.
Where does the greatest amount of pressure to stay/get thin for pregnant women come from: themselves, other women, their partners, their families, or is it something else?
Amadei: As with all body image issues, the pressures come from multiple sources and one source might have more of an influence on one woman than it does on another.
After interviewing many partners, we did find that women tend to be a lot harder on themselves than their partners are on them. This can have a negative impact on relationships when a pregnant woman or new mom is so unhappy with her body that she can't build intimacy with her partner. One study we found shows that 16% of new mothers are so insecure about their bodies after childbirth that they won't let their partners see them naked. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most frequent comments we heard from partners were along the lines of "I just want her to feel good about her body" or "I just wish she could see herself the way I see her."
Kane: This is also true for the majority of women who aren’t going through childbearing. We are taught that “thin is in” and since 97% of us aren’t naturally thin, we turn against our bodies and are so self-loathing, we often don’t want our partners to see us naked. I think that the pregnancy spin by the media is just a continuation of the same thing. The basic message? We’re never good enough—our bodies are always in need of improvement.
What was your most positive experience while writing this book?
Amadei: The amount of honesty that came out in women's stories was just amazing.
What was your most challenging experience while writing the book?
Mysko: The honesty in women's words was also painful and difficult to hear sometimes. When we put out the call asking women to share their thoughts about body image, pregnancy, and new motherhood, I don't know that we were fully prepared for how the floodgates would open. It was incredible, and it filled us with a tremendous amount of responsibility to make sure that this vast range of experiences was represented in the book.
What was the biggest surprise of your research for the book?
Amadei: We surveyed over 400 women for our book. I can't say we were surprised to learn that 80% expressed concern about the body changes of pregnancy, but it was startling to learn that less than 50% talk about those concerns with their friends and partners, and even fewer (less than 20%) discuss their body image issues and histories of disordered eating or eating disorder with their health care providers.
Mysko: That is a huge void in prenatal and postpartum care. The majority of healthcare providers don't ask about eating disorders and body image issues. And as much as women worry about weight and body changes, it's not something they discuss in the doctor's office. Obstetricians and midwives shouldn't be expected to diagnose eating disorders, but they should be aware that millions of women suffer from eating disorders and 2/3 of all women have some form of disordered eating (from chronic dieting to emotional eating) and poor body image. It's just common sense that many of these women will become--or already are--mothers. Healthcare providers need to be more tuned into these issues, and women need to find the courage to be forthcoming about their histories so they can find doctors who are sensitive and supportive.
Kane: I couldn’t agree more! In North America 80% of women are dissatisfied with the size and shape of their bodies when not pregnant. Since pregnancy adds much more weight to the body, one would expect much higher percentages of body dissatisfaction when women are pregnant. I hear stories all the time from post-partum moms about how hard it was psychologically to put on weight while they were pregnant and how they couldn’t even look at themselves in the mirror when they got really big.
Is the anxiety over pregnancy-related weight gain apparent in countries outside of the U.S.?
Amadei: I'm from France, and I can confirm that body image worries are not just a U.S. phenomenon. That said, there is certainly a different attitude about nudity in most European countries. Women here are taught to cover up, and I found that body shame particularly unsettling when it came to breastfeeding. I grew up seeing women's naked bodies--of all shapes and sizes--as a normal part of life. In the U.S., everything is Playboy-ized.
Did you notice that anxiety over weight/appearance in pregnant women or new moms varied between demographic groups, such as socioeconomic status, race, or age?
Mysko: It's a big myth that body image issues affect only white, middle-upper class women. Women of all ages, ethnicities, and incomes experience appearance-related insecurities and pressure. Pregnancy and new motherhood can bring up so many feelings of self-doubt in all women, and the message that we should focus our energies on getting "back" to the body we had before is far-reaching.
Did women who had battled eating disorders or disordered eating have more anxiety/depression when dealing with pregnancy weight/appearance issues than those who had not reported past issues?
Mysko: Women who have a history of eating disorders need to be very proactive about getting a support system in place during pregnancy and beyond and being aware of some of the triggers that can come up, such as lack of control, perfectionism, and isolation. But we also must be aware that there is a very broad spectrum of disordered eating. Many, many women fall into gray areas that might not be diagnosable eating disorders, but would certainly limit their ability to pass along healthy attitudes about food and weight to their children.
Are there any other thoughts you would share to make on this issue?
Kane: I think we are just starting to delve into body image and pregnancy and it’s high time we did with the new focus on Mommy-branding in the media. It seems to me that this is yet another instance of women’s power being undermined by having them obsess about the size and shape of their body during and after pregnancy. What we are missing here is the celebration of our body’s ability to create human life and to perpetuate the human species—no small act, if you ask me. As with all toxic body-focus propaganda, the aim is to make women feel insecure and always slightly on-edge. “What are people afraid of?” is my question? What if women celebrated the natural size and shape of their bodies, and all of the incredible miracles in can perform? What would happen to our society if women weren’t constantly shaming themselves and each other and instead, focusing on enjoying all of the gifts of being human? I think we’d have a very different experience indeed.
Editor's note: For more on disordered eating, visit Eating Disorder Hope, which offers information, hope, and resources for those struggling with eating disorders, their loved ones, and their treatment providers.
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