Body Image & The Postpartum Experience

Jen Derham
Written by Jen Derham

In our societal narrative, the treatment of women’s bodies has been marred by a complex history of shaming, particularly in the context of my upbringing in Ireland. The roots of this phenomenon, in my view, lie partly at the doorstep of the church and partly within the confines of patriarchal influence.

Over time, however, a realisation dawned on us that such treatment was inherently unjust and erroneous. We embarked on a journey symbolised by the burning of bras and the embrace of contraceptive methods. Yet, in addressing the physical-based shaming of women’s bodies, we encountered a dilemma. Rather than ceasing all forms of body shaming simultaneously, we, in collaboration with patriarchal structures, opted to shift the focus from smaller bodies to larger ones.

Much like the biblical tale of Eve’s creation from one of Adam’s ribs, we fashioned an idealised body deemed worthy of emulation by all women. This ‘perfect’ body was elevated onto a pedestal, becoming a standard against which all other female bodies were judged.

Women were conveyed the message that without attaining this level of beauty and photoshopped perfection, they were undeserving of love, children, careers, friendships, adequate healthcare, or freedom from shame.

In my personal experience, I received this messaging from the wisdom of dear Granny, may she rest in her antiquated beliefs, who held firm to the notion that a woman’s body was best kept under wraps, lest it taint the purity of the world (cue church bells). Then there is Mum, with her personal vendetta against tummies, especially her own. Naturally then, I, in a show of familial solidarity, adopted a wholesale hatred for every inch of my own flesh. My tummy, my hips, my knees, my bum, my freckles, my nose—pick a body part, any part, and watch me cringe in disdain.

Photo by Carolina Basi

It wasn’t until my late 30s, deep in the trenches of postpartum life after birthing three little miracles over the course of two decades, that I stumbled upon the term “body image.” Engrossed in training on non-diet approaches to health, I began to peel back the layers of my own warped perception. You see, I had spent a lifetime chasing after the elusive dream of a smaller body, believing it to be the golden ticket to happiness. But as I began to understand the concept of body image and the impact of diet culture, I had a revelation: I had been held captive by them and allowed them to dictate every aspect of my existence. I hadn’t truly lived – all because of some unattainable, airbrushed ideal of perfection.

When I considered where I reached the peak of my negative body image journey, I could see it was during the postpartum period. I had never even seen a stretch mark before let alone on my breasts! I had scars on my tummy and cellulite on my bum, not to mention some varicose veins that I swear were never there before, when I looked around me all the other mums seemed to have bounced back. The magazines and social media portrayed celebrities with their six packs within weeks of giving birth and promising me the same thing if I would just join the plan, do the detox, drink the shake, or endure the grueling workouts. Spoiler alert! I did them all and none of them worked, at least not in the long-term.

Even when my body shrank to what I considered an acceptable size, I still looked in the mirror and saw flaws. A smaller body did not bring me all the happiness I had been promised, I was fighting a losing battle. That perfect body is, in reality, unattainable. The pursuit of that perfect body can have a detrimental effect on our physical and mental health, especially during pregnancy and postpartum.

A study conducted by Doherty, K., et al. in 2017 suggests that dieting, particularly restrictive dieting, is associated with an increased risk of developing eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa. Furthermore, the study highlights the limited efficacy of diets for sustainable weight loss and emphasises the importance of adopting a balanced and holistic approach to health and wellness.

According to research published in the International Journal of Women’s Health, approximately 80% of women report dissatisfaction with their bodies after giving birth. This dissatisfaction often stems from factors such as weight gain during pregnancy, changes in body shape, and societal pressures to return to pre-pregnancy weight and appearance.

Photo by Sarah Chai

Postnatal depression is a common mental health issue that affects many new mothers. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression. Body image concerns can contribute to or exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety in the postnatal period.

Postnatal depression is a common mental health issue that affects many new mothers. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression. Body image concerns can contribute to or exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety in the postnatal period.

Body image concerns can also impact breastfeeding behaviour. Research published in the Journal of Women’s Health found that women who were dissatisfied with their bodies were less likely to initiate breastfeeding or to continue breastfeeding for the recommended duration.

Photo by Helena Lopes

All of this can also have a negative impact on how we parent; studies have shown that mothers who experience body dissatisfaction are more likely to engage in negative parenting practices, such as restrictive feeding behaviours or modelling unhealthy attitudes toward food and body image.

So, what can we do to support healthy body image during pregnancy and postpartum?

Well, first, we need to understand what exactly body image is. Body image refers to how we perceive, think, and feel about our bodies. During the postpartum period, body image can be influenced by the significant physical changes that occur because of pregnancy and childbirth, as well as societal expectations and cultural norms.

How do pregnancy and postpartum affect body Image?

The postpartum period is a time of transition and adjustment, both physically and emotionally. Many postpartum mothers experience changes in their bodies, such as weight gain, stretch marks, and changes in breast size and shape. These changes can impact how women perceive and feel about their bodies. For some women, this will be the first time that they may have ever questioned how they feel about their bodies or the first time they will develop negative body image, for other women pregnancy and postpartum might trigger past body image issues and can pose a threat to those in eating disorder recovery.


How can we embrace our postpartum bodies?

Self-Compassion and Acceptance:

Practice self-compassion and acceptance toward your postpartum body. Recognise that your body has undergone an incredible journey to bring new life into the world, and it deserves love and respect just as it is.

Recognising Your Body’s Strength:

Shift your focus from appearance to functionality and appreciate the incredible strength and resilience of your postpartum body. Your body has nurtured and sustained a new life, and that is something to be celebrated and honoured.

Non-Diet Approaches to Health:

Embrace non-diet approaches to health that focus on nourishing your body with balanced nutrition, intuitive eating, and joyful movement. Reject restrictive dieting practices that promote weight loss at the expense of your physical and emotional well-being. Studies now show that dieting is not sustainable over the long term and can have very negative effects on metabolism, self-esteem, and self-worth.

Wear Comfortable Clothing:

Understanding that as our bodies go through a process of change during pregnancy, they do the same during the postpartum period. Expecting to get back into your pre-pregnancy jeans or clothing probably won’t happen anytime soon; accepting this reality is important to support our mental and emotional state. Use it as a chance to update your wardrobe with pieces that fit your now body and remember that the clothes should fit you and not the other way around.

Social Pressure:

We can also start to navigate the social pressures we experience by challenging unrealistic expectations to “bounce back” to your pre-pregnancy body. Every woman’s postpartum journey is unique, and it’s important to honor your body’s individual needs and timelines. Be mindful of media representations of postpartum bodies and their impact on your body image. Remember that these representations often do not reflect the diversity and reality of postpartum experiences. Seek out body-positive media and resources that celebrate all bodies.

Hormone Fluctuations:

We also can’t ignore how the Hormonal fluctuations during the postpartum period can influence mood, emotions, and body image perceptions. Changes in estrogen and progesterone levels may contribute to mood swings, anxiety, and depression, which can impact how women perceive their postpartum bodies.

Prioritise self-care practices that nurture your body, mind, and soul during the postpartum period. This may include getting enough rest, eating nourishing foods, engaging in gentle exercise, and practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques.

Photo by Taryn Elliott

Reach out to friends, family, and healthcare providers for support and encouragement on your journey to making peace with your body. Surround yourself with people who uplift and affirm you; cull your social media and start following accounts that are inclusive and do not promote thinness over health. Please seek professional support if your feelings towards your body are interfering with your daily life, health, and self-care.

Finally, remember, your postpartum body is a reflection of the incredible journey you’ve undertaken to bring new life into the world. Embrace and celebrate every curve, stretch mark, and scar as a testament to your strength and resilience. This is yet another season of your life to embrace in its entirety; this phase of your life is an opportunity for growth and self-discovery.

You are worthy of love, acceptance, and respect just as you are. Every single body is different, and that perfect body, which is portrayed to us in most cases, is not achievable. You are more than just your body, and, to be honest, it is probably the least interesting thing about you!

Main – Photo by Sarah Chai

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