Early during my pregnancy, I criticized my body in the mirror. “Oh God, I look so fat.” I thought to myself one day as I was getting dressed. It took me a moment to catch this automatic thought, and remind my self that during pregnancy, my belly is meant to expand and that I am in fact, pregnant, not fat.
This got me thinking about the impact that body image has on pregnancy and emotional health and wellbeing.
Entire industries are built on telling women that they need to be prettier, skinnier, fitter, sexier. We are constantly bombarded with messages about how imperfect and unworthy we are. Women are given two societal roles. The Mother or the Whore. And as June Diane Raphael says, “we are both”.
When it comes to pregnancy, it is expected that women will gain weight. It is normal. And encouraged. Suddenly it is OK to indulge in food as women are “eating for two”.
However, women are still bombarded with perfect, soft bumps, glowing and perfect skin and bodies. Instagram posts show the perfect baby bumps, with elaborately decorated nurseries and well-behaved children. Leaving women feeling inadequate and ill=prepared for their own parenting journey.
So, what does the research say?
An American study by Mehta et al (2011) 1192 pregnant women participated in a study which used the Body Image Assessment for Obesity tool to assess their ideal body size versus their actual body size. The study found that women who stated pregnancy with a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) had an increased risk of excess weight gain if they preferred to be thinner and that women with a lower income had an increased risk of inadequate wight gain, while women with lower education were at risk of excessive weight gain. Mehta et al (2011) suggests that body image and weight perception is not just limited to a desire to be thin but linked to socioeconomic factors such as income and education.
But what about mental health?
A systemic review conducted by Hodgkinson et al (2014) found that women protected their body image by differentiating between “fatness” and pregnancy and utilizing this difference and an excuse to not conform to socially constructed ideals of body image. However, these findings were not consistent during the postpartum period, where studies recognized a strong belief that being fat is not socially acceptable, but pregnancy is. Furthermore, women were forced to re-negotiate their identity due to pregnancy related changes, changing their identity from a sexually attractive woman to a mother identity. Hodgkinson et al (2014) suggests a need to support women to adopt healthy lifestyles with a focus on desired body image, rather that desired weight.
How do we tie this together?
Body images impacts many women during their pregnancy. Monitoring attitudes to physical appearance is especially important during this time.
Women can engage in nurturing practices to support positive body image attitude during pregnancy:
- Maintaining a balanced diet, including a variety fresh fruit and vegetables, and limiting processed food.
- Exercising regularly to support a healthy lifestyle.
- Drinking plenty of water to keep the body hydrated.
- Practicing meditation or mindfulness with a focus on accepting the physical changes of pregnancy.
- Creating positive affirmations to shift mindset, such as “I am Enough”, “I am Beautiful” “I am Worthy of Love”
- Seeking support from a counselor or psychologist to address mental health and body image issues.
There are some days that I look at my now 28-week bump and think “It kind of looks like I just ate a big lunch.” And other times where I feel like I look the way a pregnant woman should. Soft, round, feminine. I know that my body image will continue to change throughout my pregnancy and into motherhood. Awareness of the impact that body image plays on my own health and wellbeing is the first step that I can take to making positive changes and improving my overall perception and identity of who I am as I transition into this new role.
Mehta UJ, Siega-Riz AM, and Herring AH, Effect of Body Image on Pregnancy Weight Gain. Maternal and Child Health Journal. 2011 Apr; 15(3): 324–332. Viewed 12-5-2020
Hodgkinson EL, Smith DM, and Wittkowski A, Women’s experiences of their pregnancy and postpartum body image: a systematic review and meta-synthesis. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2014; 14: 330.