The worst part of prenatal visits? Going to your healthcare provider’s office and stepping on that scale at Every. Single. Appointment. As if you need any reminder that your weight is increasing at an alarming rate. You know this. You feel huge. No other pregnant mom looks as big as you do. You shouldn’t have eaten that extra serving. Why won’t these pants fit anymore? … Do any of these thoughts sound familiar? Struggling with body image is a huge frustration during and after pregnancy.
Being pregnant can be incredibly challenging if you’re struggling with body image or disordered eating. Yes, rationally you’re aware that this peanut growing inside of you is taking up a lot of real estate. You’ve read all of the instagram posts about body positivity, and know you “shouldn’t” be feeling this way. But, all of that aside, you still feel lousy when you see your reflection or step on the scale. So what can you do? If you’re struggling with body image, here are some thoughts to consider:
Re-assess “normal weight gain” in pregnancy
When you’re pregnant, your body is truly being taken over. Your metabolism shifts, your energy wanes, stretch marks suddenly appear. It’s natural, and it’s hard. When you’ve spent a long time meticulously taking care of your weight and appearance, these drastic changes to your body feel jarring. Check in with yourself about how you are seeing these changes. Is there shame and personalization involved? Are you feeling at fault for gaining “too much”?
Unfortunately, we have been given guidelines that it’s “normal and healthy” to gain 15-30 pounds during pregnancy. But this number is based on BMI, which research continues to point out is a flawed system for assessing health. Your recommended weight gain varies on so many factors. This number shifts based on whether your BMI was over or under prior to pregnancy. Your weight gain will vary if you are having twins. The number on the scale will look different if you’re struggling with hyperemesis gravidarum or if you’re managing your nausea by eating differently. In reality, only a third of pregnancies stay with the recommended weight gain, while about 50% gain beyond this number.
Speaking for my own body, with my first son I gained 45 pounds during my pregnancy, whereas I gained 20 with my second. I didn’t do anything differently. Bodies changes and babies are different. It isn’t personal. You’re not doing it wrong. That number on the scale doesn’t say anything about you or how well you are doing this pregnancy.
It will not be forever
This is not your forever shape or size. I do not have a crystal ball to confirm you will go back to your pre-baby weight, and I won’t deny that perhaps you’ve gained weight. However, the size you are while pregnant does not stay on forever. Whether it’s 6 weeks postpartum or 6 months postpartum, your body will change after delivery. Remind yourself as many times as needed that it took you 9 months to help your baby develop. Give your body at least 9 months to settle back to what it considers is the “new normal”.
Find safe others
It’s easy to feel isolated with our crummy feelings. Body positivity is an amazing trend that our culture is trying to lean into; however, it doesn’t leave much space to acknowledge when we are struggling. When we feel ashamed or alone in our thoughts, it can be debilitating. We become worried that others will judge us, shame us or minimize our feelings. If you have judgmental folks like this in your life, they are not the ones to turn to right now.
Find those who truly appreciate how hard this is for you. They know that you want to be healthy AND they respect that body image is something you’re struggling with today. This person doesn’t need to know how to fix the situation. Instead, they just need to let you know that you’re heard, you’re loved, and you will always be safe with them irrespective of how your body looks.
During pregnancy, find ways to move whenever possible. Let go of the standards that you used to meet whether it was a certain distance, speed, repetitions, or weight level. Focus instead on what movements means to you. For me, movement provides me opportunities to let go of stress, it helps my body feel strong, and it helps me feel energized. Once I stopped trying to meet my old standards, it felt easier to accept that this is what exercise could do for me today.
Our Society and Thin Privilege
I won’t deny that being thin and beautiful doesn’t have privileges (read more about thin privilege). Thin privilege allows for your weight to not define you and how you move through your environment and world. There is an awful amount of discrimination with fat phobia. People living in a larger body have been overlooked, groaned at, or mocked because of their weight. In these situations, being thin means they will finally receive respect and courtesy from other people. Being thin means the ability to walk into a store and actually be able to buy clothes. If you’ve been subjected to others’ fat phobia, you may have coped by maintaining a certain weight. Pregnancy has thrown this weight plan out the window.
If being pregnant or weight gain puts you into a space of losing your self-respect or self-worth, that’s not okay. It’s not okay for society to put you in this position or for you to suffer simply because of the way your body naturally flows. So how do we learn to externalize this? How do we shift from assuming there is something wrong with us to there is something biased and unfair about the culture we live in?
Tips for boosting body image:
- Diversify what you see: Follow influencers of all shapes and sizes. Follow those who look like you and don’t look like you.
- Stop the comparison game: Envy is a tough emotion to contend with, and it leaves us feeling lacking. Start by checking the facts: do you know for sure that this person truly has more than you? Do these factors make them better or happier than you?
- Highlight your own positive attributes: Notice what is awesome about you, and spend time acknowledging these positive traits. e.g. expressing pride in your career or grades, appreciating the health of your relationships
- Become critical of toxic diet culture: We all know it’s out there. Start by challenging these constantly shifting body ideals. Unfollow or speak up about the companies and individuals that make you feel bad about your body.
- Focus on what your body is doing for you: What are your thighs, arms, and belly meant to do? What are their functions? Focusing on their role as a function vs.
What are you avoiding by focusing on body image and food?
Sometimes body image acts as a (horrible, awful, exasperating) scapegoat for our actual struggles. By focusing on that number on the scale, you may find that you can avoid addressing other things. You spend hours staring at the fridge, planning meals, going to the gym, organizing your closet with “comfy” clothes, that you don’t have time to deal with the real stuff.
We all cope in different ways. Previously, you may have turned to a glass of wine, a cigarette, or going out dancing to get rid of all your stress. Now that you’re pregnant, these coping mechanisms aren’t as available. Food, on the other hand, is always there and doesn’t take as much effort. It soothes our stressors and pains. But, using food as a coping mechanism offers a temporary solution. It doesn’t allow us to address the actual cause of stress and turmoil in your life.
So ask yourself, if you didn’t spend all this time on body image and food, what would you be left with? Would you suddenly have to address your loneliness? Are you more aware of your anxieties about work, the state of your finances, or your struggling relationships? If we looked at negative body image as a coping mechanism (again, not vouching that it’s a nice or effective one), we realize it’s trying to prevent you from dealing with a deeper vulnerability.
Addressing the original trauma: When did this struggle with body image start?
Body image rarely shows up in pregnancy without some form of history. Consider when else in your life have you struggled with this issue. Have you been painfully aware of your appearance since adolescence? Have you managed to shove aside any struggles with your appearance by exercising and maintaining a “healthy” diet? When did you make the connection between your appearance and your self-worth? How was this message taught to you?
When it comes to body image struggles, pregnancy makes things worse. However, it’s not the culprit. After your little one is born, things may feel manageable with dieting and exercise, but it’s a fragile set up. Anytime that weight starts to increase, that same panic may come back.
If this has been your experience, then it’s important to recognize that there is some earlier trauma to be addressed. Your body image struggles could have slowly formed while participating in gym class, listening to your mom comment about her (or your) weight, looking at skinny actresses and models, or a myriad of events. These moments stayed with you. That vulnerable part of you still worries about your appearance, fitting in, or whether you will be considered “worthy.” This is where therapy can be helpful in processing these earlier emotional burdens.
If you or a loved one is struggling with body image during pregnancy, reach out. Therapy is a safe space to voice your concerns and work through these difficulties. Schedule a free consult call to see if we would be a good fit.