By Rosemary Rukavina and Kelley Allen
The idealized body image has drastically changed in western society over the past few centuries. It was once attractive to be plump and curvy. In fact, some cultures view being voluptuous as healthy and a sign of wealth. However, it doesn’t take long to realize western societal value emphasizes being slim and toned – just open up a magazine to see celebrities being criticized for having cellulite and praised for dieting successes. Body image is a concern many women struggle with their entire life. It is difficult not to because we are trained at such a young age to be concerned with how we look. This pressure can lead to several mental health complications. As a result, attempts to keep up with the “feminine ideal” of attractiveness may be one reason why women are more likely than men to experience depression.
During pregnancy, women experience what may be the most drastic changes to their body that they will ever experience in their lifetime. Eating habits change. Foods that were eaten now must be avoided, and possibly, foods that were avoided now must be consumed to receive proper nutrition for the developing baby. Although some women may experience relief from maintaining the cultural ideals of being thin, many women experience at least some unhappiness with the shape and size of their body both during pregnancy and postpartum. And although there is strong evidence linking health risks for the baby and mother associated with being overweight, the added societal, familial, or personal pressures one can experience to maintain a certain body, even during pregnancy, can be overwhelming. It can be discouraging, especially when celebrities are observed to return to their pre-pregnancy weight in as little as a few weeks.
In a September 2013 post, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jessica Zucker, who specializes in maternal mental health, outlined four ways in which women can take care of themselves while watching their bodies change during pregnancy and the postpartum period. The article can be read here.
There are some useful strategies that can be used to improve your mood. Some of the awful things we say to ourselves we would never dare say to another person. Whenever I say something bad about myself when my mom is near, she replies, “Don’t talk about my daughter that way.” It stops me. Think about your thoughts and words and remember to be gentle with yourself. Don’t say things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to another person. Remember what your body is going through, what it has done, and remember that it needs to heal. N’tima Preusser recently composed a beautiful “Ode to my Postpartum Body” which discusses this can be read here.
Experiment with compassionate self-talk. If you like to read, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown is a great place to start. Remember that part of being compassionate with your self is setting realistic goals. For example, if you gained 50 pounds during pregnancy, how realistic is it that you will lose this in 1 month, 3 months, or even a year?
Another strategy can be seeking the support of women who are in the same position as you. This can put a more human face to the realities of body changes during and after pregnancy, as opposed to hearing about celebrities and buying into the societal pressure to lose the baby weight as quickly as possible. Talk about these issues with your support groups, online groups, and friends.
Lastly, if possible, it may be important to coach your support system in how to help you; tell them how you are feeling and what encouraging words you would like to hear.
Most importantly, take care of yourself. Our incredible Volunteer Coordinator, Georgie, wrote this post about self-love and putting yourself first a few months ago. I refer back to it often when I am feeling overwhelmed and find it very helpful.