The Psychology Behind How Mums Feel About Their Post-Baby Bodies After Giving Birth And How To Build Confidence
It’s common knowledge that a woman’s body goes through immense change during pregnancy, but what’s less talked about is how their body looks after giving birth.
A government report in 2014 found there was a “relentless pressure” on women to go back to their pre-baby weight quickly after welcoming a child, so it’s no wonder many new mums are unprepared for the reality of how they look.
This pressure is causing women to suffer body image issues post-birth, and the report found these concerns can be passed on to their children.
“I remember immediately post-birth being somewhat repulsed by the way that my sagging stomach became a cone when I tensed to pull myself up into a sitting position,” Mum Millie Copeman, 22, from West Midlands told HuffPost UK.
“That frightened me. I was shocked about how wrinkled my stomach was and I was left with stretch marks around my bottom and under my boobs that looked more like wounds.”
Copeman said she couldn’t help but focus on how different her body looked since she had welcomed her daughter into the world.
And that’s an issue many women face after giving birth, because the constant comparison in their minds to the body they had before is a hard voice to ignore.
Professor Sarah Grogan, professor of psychology, health and wellbeing at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has studied the psychological effects of women’s bodies after birth.
She said the postnatal period presents many body image challenges for some women, which cause them to think negatively about their body.
“Cultural ideals for women’s bodies tend to focus on slimness, firmness, and muscle tone,” she said, speaking to HuffPost UK.
“Since the physical changes associated with pregnancy can take women away from this toned and slender ideal, some women feel less attractive directly following childbirth.
“This is usually because mums compare their own bodies against media-ideal images of how women’s bodies should look, including media ‘success’ stories about celebrities who have recently given birth and are already toned and slender.
“These kinds of comparisons are not helpful for any women and our research suggests that most women feel more dissatisfied with their bodies after viewing these kinds of images.”
According to Grogan, women go through a desire to “get their body back” and, overwhelmed by the exhaustion of caring for a newborn, it can add to the notion of feeling “out of control” of their own body.
Janet Fyle, Royal College of Midwives’ (RCM) professional policy advisor, said the issue isn’t just about the media, but the general discourse in society that is portraying this “ideal” body.
“There’s a discourse in the media, on TV and through Instagram mums, about portraying mums in a certain way when in reality, things are not like that,” she said.
“The message that size and shape does not matter just doesn’t come into play. Mums should have an understanding that having a baby is not a one-off event that happens to you and then you just go back to wearing your jeans.
“How do we even begin to say to people: ‘You can’t be wearing the same jeans?!’ We need to shift the focus away from how mums look and the perceptions of bodies. We should be focusing on mothers being healthy – physically and mentally – as these issues will contribute to how they feel about themselves.”
Holli Rubin, psychotherapist and body image specialist, agrees and said the fact these “body ideal” messages are constant makes them hard to avoid.
“This pressure women feel to look a certain way comes from what society has told us is ‘beautiful’ and the media communicates this narrow messaging 24/7,” she told us
“So what’s going through women’s minds? Well for some: ‘How will I get back into my skinny jeans?’, for others: ‘How do I take care of this little baby and how do you actually be a mother?’ and for others, no time is spent thinking anything at all, they are just trying to muddle through motherhood.”
But it’s not true to say that all women who have given birth don’t like their bodies, as Grogan has noted that this pattern of body dissatisfaction could be changing.
Through her own research she has found that women interviewed 20 years ago, tended to say they felt that their bodies had become “less attractive” after pregnancy, particularly mentioning stretch marks and lack of body tone.
However, in interviews conducted by Grogan’s previous research partner, Victoria Fern, in 2012 and 2014, many women in the postnatal period didn’t seem to be particularly unhappy with their postnatal bodies and they understood the pressure they were under.
Women who weren’t as dissatisfied with their bodies reported “feeling sorry” for celebrities who were seen to be under “significant pressure” to look slender and toned shortly after childbirth.
These women focused on what their bodies could do (”such as carrying a baby to term and feeding the baby,” Grogan explained) and were more accepting of the physical changes that had occurred through pregnancy than those who focused on how their bodies looked postpartum.
This is true for Copeman, who gave birth to her daughter eight months ago.
“I really have accepted my body now,” she said. “When I bend down, the skin sags a lot and I do notice it, but I find confidence in my body because it’s capable of so much.
“I practice self-care and self compassion and I think it is so important to remember what your body went through to have a baby.
“When I look at my daughter, I feel invincible. I grew her and birthed her and my body has some of the scars to prove it, but they are beautiful reminders of the journey into motherhood.”
So how can we build confidence in women so they appreciate their bodies after they’ve given birth?
Fyle said it’s difficult to educate mums about how their bodies will change because all bodies are different after giving birth. What should be done, she suggests, is promoting healthy eating and food in general.
“Women need to understand it’s not about going on a diet after you’ve had a baby,” she said. “We need to support them and make sure they’re eating well and focusing on themselves as a mother who has had a baby, not a woman who going to jump straight back to a size 8.
“We need to talk to them about keeping fit and healthy to make them feel empowered.”
Rubin said the main thing women can give themselves is time: “Time to be in their new bodies without trying to change it to what they looked like before”.
“They also need time to attempt to shift the focus onto newfound motherhood and connecting with their new baby,” she said.
“Most importantly, they need time to actually appreciate the miraculousness of what their bodies have accomplished.”
Grogan said there are three main things women can do after having a baby to help improve their body image.
1. Focus on what your body can do rather than how it looks.
“Women who focus on what their bodies can do rather than how they look tend to be more satisfied with their bodies,” she said.
“One woman in Victoria Fern’s interviews said: ‘Seeing [my body] go through the changes pregnancy brings has made me appreciate it more and the amazing things it can do’.”
2. Focus on the positives.
Body acceptance strategies can help make women feel better about their appearance.
“There is some evidence that people who are very positive about their bodies engage in what is called ‘protective filtering’ where they tend to believe positive messages about their appearance and reject negative messages,” Grogan said. “All of us can choose to focus on the positives.”
3. Don’t compare your body to idealised images of other women.
“Women who compare their bodies to idealised images, like carefully chosen and digitally-manipulated images on social media, tend to feel less good about their own bodies afterwards,” Grogan said.
“Challenging the validity of these ideals, finding ways to bolster self-esteem, and avoiding making these comparisons can be effective in reducing body dissatisfaction.”
HuffPost UK Parents is running a week-long focus on ‘Mumbod’ to empower mums and mums-to-be to feel confident about their bodies pre- and post-baby. We are launching a section on the site that focuses on all aspects of mums’ bodies and highlights the amazing things they are capable of. We’d also love to hear your stories. To blog for Mumbod, email ukblogteam@Babyquater.com. To keep up to date with features, blogs and videos on the topic, follow the hashtag #MyMumbod.