I distinctly remember the moment I fell in love with my newborn son. It wasn’t the second I pushed him into the world and held him in my arms, but actually a few days after he was born. (After all, the moment I met him he was a goo-covered stranger with an oddly-shaped head.) During a serene nursing session, I looked at my son and was hit with a wave of love and admiration so intense it took my breath away. I didn’t love him right away, but loving him was effortless.
I can’t say the same about my postpartum body, though.
Like most women, I had a difficult time loving my body long before I used it to start a family. Years of navigating a deluge of unhealthy messages about what my body should look like, how much my body should weigh, and what size clothes my body should be able to fit into did a number on the way I viewed my physical self. In short, I didn’t like my body very much. But after giving birth, I plunged into the deep end of body negativity. From the way my body still looked pregnant, to the lingering physical reminders of the nearly 40 weeks of pregnancy, I couldn’t stand to look in the mirror, let alone bring myself to say even one positive thing about the body that had given me my son.
Of course, I’m not alone. In a BabyCenter survey of 7,000 mothers, 64% of respondents said their body image had gotten worse since having a baby. Sixty-three percent of new moms said they didn’t like their body, and 62% of moms who’ve been at the parenting thing for a while said they didn’t like their bodies, either. This is not a rare bug, but an ever-present feature of a society that diminishes bodies that don’t fit the very narrow and unforgiving description of white and thin.
So if you, like me, had a very difficult time loving your postpartum body — and years later, still have a hard time feeling grateful for your physical self — take some comfort in the fact that you’ve been conditioned to think so negatively about the body that helped make you a mom. That’s why it’s damn-near impossible not to. Then consider why we’ve learned to effortlessly hate our post-baby bodies, and focus on how we can unlearn these nefarious lessons and free ourselves from a negative shame-spiral of body-negativity in order to truly love the bodies that have done so much for us and our children.
1. We’re inundated with unrealistic beauty expectations as children
Rarely do we see a variety of body shapes and sizes when we’re children. Instead, movies, television shows, and other media created for children show straight-sized characters (and usually they’re white too). We’re encouraged to eat “good foods” and to stay away from “bad foods,” taught outdated lessons about body mass index and food pyramids, and, sadly, told that being fat is one of the worst things we can become. As little girls we’re told to quiet ourselves, shrink ourselves, and take up as little space as possible. It’s no wonder that after our bodies spend 40 or so weeks expanding, we’re left feeling nothing but disdain for it.
How you can unlearn this: Start consuming media that shows a plethora of body types — fat, Black, disabled, brown, tattooed, trans, pierced, you name it. We can’t appreciate what we don’t see, so look for more inclusive movies, television shows, and online content that can work to normalize body types that aren’t thin and white. Pour over authentic pictures of postpartum bodies that don’t hide the physical evidence of pregnancy, labor, and delivery, but embrace it.
2. Our bodies are separated into “pre-” and “post-pregnancy” categories
From the moment the postpartum time period begins, we’re told we should be constantly striving to get our “pre-pregnancy body back,” as if there are multiple versions of our body and one went missing. This erroneous categorizing of our bodies only makes it easier for us to hate our bodies after giving birth.
How you can unlearn this: Stop saying you’re working towards getting your “pre-pregnancy body back,” like, yesterday. And challenge anyone who does say this to or around you. Your body didn’t go anywhere during pregnancy, it simply transformed. You don’t have to work to find it again. For now (and maybe for forever), it looks different, and that’s OK.
3. The media portrays postpartum bodies in unrealistic ways
Raise your hand if you’ve watched a movie or television show featuring a pregnant person, and upon giving birth they’re back to looking as if they’ve never been pregnant at all. Ah yes, look at literally all of us with our hands raised — this image is everywhere.
From the celebrities we follow to the beloved television characters we just can’t quit, rarely do we see accurate representations of postpartum bodies. Instead, a new mom leaves the hospital with a blowout, wearing a white dress (um, can you say “postpartum bleeding,” anyone?!), wearing heels and sans a bulging belly that still looks pregnant. This certainly doesn’t help us feel anything remotely positive about our post-birth bodies.
How you can unlearn this: Consider following celebrities who aren’t afraid to buck the unhealthy and unfair standards they’re told they should adhere to, and have been candid about their post-birth bodies and what they really looked like. And remind yourself that your favorite TV character doesn’t still look pregnant after giving birth because, in all likelihood, they weren’t pregnant to begin with. It’s easy to look like you’ve never been pregnant before when, you know, you haven’t.
4. We’re bombarded by weight-loss products trying to sell us an “ideal” image of a postpartum body
So much of the unhealthy messaging we’re exposed to regarding our bodies is a result of brands attempting to sell us weight-loss supplements, exercise products or gym memberships, or other items designed to shrink our bodies, not take care of them (thanks, capitalism!). Just Google “postpartum weight loss” and you’ll be overwhelmed with this magical product and that expensive workout regimen and yet another miracle cleanse. When we’re constantly being sold an image in order for a brand to sell us stuff, it’s difficult to not come to rely on that image as our post-birth body North Star.
How you can unlearn this: It’s seemingly impossible to untether ourselves from the web of capitalism (just look at the impossible choices people are making when it comes to working during a global pandemic), so this one is tricky. If you have a friend trying to hock you some multi-level marketing weight-loss shake, kindly tell them to take it somewhere else. You can also read about the fraud that occurs in the weight-loss industry, and how the $72 billion dollar weight-loss industry is specifically designed to make sure you lose money, not weight.
5. The patriarchy exists
We live in the country where political leaders actively attempt to control pregnant people’s bodies. We live in a society that thinks discussions about menstruation are “unseemly,” and where breastfeeding parents should “cover up.” We’re supposed to be sexually appealing but can’t be overtly sexual or even celebrate our sexualities; we should want to have babies, but should hide any physical evidence that our bodies gave birth.
With the patriarchy hard at work, it’s a miracle we’re able to feel even a modicum of gratefulness and positivity about our bodies. Loving ourselves is an act of rebellion, frankly.
How you can unlearn this: Smash the patriarchy (and watch this space for more actionable ways to do that).