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The pressure to look a certain way, or weigh a certain amount, follows many women throughout their lives.
This pressure is often felt even more at a time when physical appearance should be the least of anyone's concerns: postpartum.
Much of our societal discourse is filled with "bounce back" culture, praising women for losing weight as quickly as possible after giving birth.
Sarah Nicole Landry, a Guelph-based body acceptance content creator known online as The Birds Papaya, opened up about her body image struggles two years after giving birth to her youngest child in a recent Instagram post. She spoke about weighing the same now as she did when she was nine months pregnant, emphasizing how "taboo" the subject is.
"I’ve. Gained. Weight. Postpartum. Not everyone loses it. Not right away. Sometimes not at all," she wrote in the post. "And so I have to carve out this little space to say, 'hey, you too? you're not alone.'"
The post was intended to show mothers they're not alone in facing changes to their body after having kids, and it prompted hundreds of comments from individuals who said they felt seen and validated by Landry's vulnerability and transparency.
Postpartum weight a 'big spot of shame'
Landry opened up to Yahoo Canada about her experience with body image postpartum.
"Two years after having a baby and experiencing weight gain postpartum, I just felt like it was this big spot of shame that nobody really talked about," Landry admitted.
"I didn't want to say it in a way that created more shame or fear for anybody else. I just wanted to acknowledge, like, 'Hey, I've gained weight after having a baby,' and I wish we had more conversations about this, and I wish we had more spaces to be open about how complex that feels."
I've. Gained. Weight. Postpartum. Not everyone loses it. Not right away.Sarah Nicole Landry
For Landry, seeing the overwhelmingly positive response to her post felt like "a collective exhale" — confirmation she wasn't alone, and that her feelings were valid.
According to Allison S. Baker, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, recent statistics suggest more than a third of pregnant women experience body image dissatisfaction, and that body image dissatisfaction generally increases during the postpartum period.
Additionally, women with body image dissatisfaction during pregnancy or postpartum are four times more likely to develop depression compared to mothers who are satisfied with their body image.
The pressure described by women to 'lose the baby weight' after giving birth is immense.Allison S. Baker
"Juggling self-care after pregnancy with newborn care is incredibly demanding, and even harder in a culture that provides little social support for moms, while setting an unrealistic bar for mothers to appear polished and 'pulled together' in their new role."
Landry isn't the only Ontario mom speaking up about this.
Kyla Fox, a mother of two from Toronto, knows this to be true both personally and professionally.
Fox struggled with an eating disorder in her late teens, and she is now an eating disorder recovery specialist and the founder of eating disorder treatment centre The Kyla Fox Centre.
During and after both of her pregnancies, Fox said she experienced constant messaging about how important it was for her body to quickly return to her pre-pregnancy figure.
"Something so miraculous happens within our body, and then the messaging is about making sure that we erase that it happened," Fox told Yahoo.
"At a time in life that really should be about honouring a mother, it takes away from the very magical life experience and makes it all about what our bodies look like or should look like."
This, she said, is an incredibly painful message to receive, especially after doing something as special as bringing new life into the world, and it creates a shift of focus away from what truly matters.
"I remember feeling consumed by it," she said. "It was taking away from where my energy really needed to be."
It takes away from the very magical life experience and makes it all about what our bodies look like or should look like.Kyla Fox
The work Fox did to recover from her eating disorder helped her find peace in her postpartum body years later, she admitted. Fox made it her mission to do the best she could to embrace where she was at and focus on her children — rather than her body.
But it's an ongoing practice, she said. Finding a community of like-minded women with whom she could share openly about both the struggles and the beauty of her experience was one way she found support.
In her work, meanwhile, Fox's centre provides individualized support to people suffering from eating disorders, and one of the demographics they serve is pregnant people and new mothers.
"If a mother has an eating disorder, or if a pregnant woman has an eating disorder, or someone postpartum does, there's a lot of shame and stigma still attached to that," Fox said. "It's actually way more common than people think, and I think that makes it really, really hard for women to come forward and share that."
Having to 'prove' pregnancy doesn't change moms
Expert Allison Baker said often hears her patients describe the feeling that they have to do a lot to "prove" that their pregnancy didn’t change them: not their bodies, their partnerships, nor the structure of their lives.
But the reality is, even in a healthy, uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, the body changes a great deal.
"Many new mothers have unrealistic expectations for how much they can and should control their own postpartum bodies," she said. "This chasm between reality and expectations is a set up for women to feel that they are failing."
Many new mothers have unrealistic expectations for how much they can and should control their own postpartum bodies.Allison S. Baker
In a culture that puts such a strong emphasis on appearance and weight, it can be challenging to move away from this kind of thinking, but there are ways for mothers to reframe how they think of their post-baby body and, little by little, learn to love and accept this new version of themselves, Baker said.
"They can learn to challenge their thinking — that their body image is not their body, but rather subjective judgments in their mind about their appearance, influenced by self-esteem, formative earlier life experiences, and messaging from the media and culture about body ideals,” Baker explained.
"Another way new mothers can reframe unhelpful thinking is to paint a new mental picture of her body image – this extraordinary body that grew a baby, birthed a child, and nursed a human."