Pregnancy stimulates a wide range of feelings about the body. Even a seemingly sturdy pre-partum body image can be ravaged by the subtle and permanent changes that often accompany the process of becoming a mother. Our culture, especially among certain social classes, makes no secret of how very important it is that women “get their bodies back” instantaneously. There is too little attention paid to the vital reasons our bodies morph, hold on to baby weight for a period of time and how these processes positively serve both baby and mommy. Body shame proliferates and leaves women feeling stymied during a time when identity is shifting so completely. As disorienting as it may be, pregnancy and the months following provide a supremely important time for women to muster a newfound understanding of letting go of ultimate control — control over the body, control over “getting it back” and control over striving for an image of perfection our babies surely don’t need us to embody.
Here are four ways we can endeavor to take good care of ourselves as we witness our bodies changing during pregnancy and in the postpartum period:
1. Acknowledge the Transformation. When you learned you were pregnant, what were your initial body-related thoughts? Joy, dread, awe, fear? Being keenly aware of our reactions to body change can help yield a more graceful experience during pregnancy and beyond. Research reveals that eating disorders and body image concerns are quite robust during the prenatal phase as a result of the myriad shifts taking place in the body. Our responses to our body’s metamorphosis during pregnancy might provide a ripe opportunity to better understand how we react to change. Perhaps negative feelings that erupt as a result of your ever-changing body in pregnancy might be about something other than the actual bodies surface, or in addition to it. This is an optimal invitation to investigate why we are who we are.
2. Notice Self-Talk and Cultural Feedback. We benefit greatly when we identify patterns of body-related thinking that sting rather than support. Adopting mantras of body compassion might be the very antidote to succumbing to full-fledged body angst. Looking at our reflections as our tummies bulge and clothes fit differently can enliven shame-based internal chatter. Are you prone to beating yourself up when you glance in the mirror at your ever-increasing bump? Excited to see your body change as life grows in your womb? Strangers commenting on your shape who you’d like to silence? People get tempted to poke, stroke and prod bellies that are expanding because in some ways, pregnancy is a community event. Physical and emotional boundaries seem to get blurred during this nascent period, invariably inviting passersby to weigh in on body size, glow, anticipated due date and gender. Mainstream media images mixed with unsolicited body comments can create challenging roadblocks that thwart feeling at ease in our newfound maternal skin.
3. Body Acceptance. The more we resist the plethora of alterations that happen to our bodies during pregnancy, the more difficulty we might have embracing the actual experience of creating and sustaining life. Acceptance can be a tall order in the midst of body fret, self-loathing or anxiety that your body will be forever enlarged or tattooed by stretch marks. But here’s the thing: worrying doesn’t modify what may or may not happen to your body as you swell over these wondrous months. Body preoccupation steals us from the present moment and rarely results in anything fruitful. It can be tricky to embrace one’s juiciness in pregnancy, but since it’s happening, attempt to enjoy these burgeoning moments with an eye on the end result, your baby.
4. Keep an Eye on Role Modeling. Being gentle with ourselves as we navigate body image concerns during pregnancy and in the postpartum phase is an ideal template from which to parent from. It’s tempting to think that our little ones don’t pick up on our body dis-ease, but they do. Being conscious of how you talk about your body — the way you criticize and/or adore your post-pregnancy curves, will inevitably impact how your daughter/son thinks about bodies. Intergenerational transmission of body image concerns is something to hold in mind as we journey through motherhood, modeling for this little person what it means to be a woman.
— Jessica Zucker, PhD
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles based clinical psychologist. She specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. Informed by her extensive international public health work, Dr. Zucker speaks and consults globally on projects related to women’s health and the motherhood continuum. She is an award-winning published author and has been featured on NPR. Dr. Zucker earned advanced degrees from Harvard University and New York University in Public Health, Human Development and Psychology. Find Dr. Zucker at www.drjessicazucker.com and follow her on Twitter @DrZucker.
This article originally appears in The Huffington Post.