Loving the shape of a mother: the beauty of a postpartum body and the struggles it can spark

Women in today’s society are sent message after message about how they should look.  What generous gifts these messages are!  According to Western society, women “should” be not too tall, have tanned, unblemished skin or perfectly alabaster skin, shiny modern hair, and of course, you can never be skinny enough.  When a woman becomes pregnant, an event that is the most natural and beautiful process a woman can embody, the messages she is sent about her looks are intensified:  you can’t gain more than xxx amount of weight!  You must wear pregnancy-flattering clothes!  You must not ‘let yourself go’ (my favorite)!  When is a woman just allowed to be?  Allowed to experience the magic of another person growing inside of her without being told she needs to “do this and be that” for the whole nine months?  There also appear to be rules that change when a woman gets pregnant — I have had several pregnant friends lament about the way complete strangers come up to them and put their hands on their belly.  Would anyone do that to you if you weren’t pregnant?

I was recently introduced to the site The Shape of a Mother, which is an inspirational, and amazingly real forum where new mothers “of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret. So we can finally see what women really look like sans airbrushes and plastic surgery. I think it would be nothing short of amazing if a few of our hearts are healed, or if we begin to cherish our new bodies which have done so much for the human race. What if the next generation grows up knowing how normal our bodies are?”.  The intent of this site’s creator is to throw away the shame that be felt when a new mother is not comfortable in her new body — often due to the influence of society’s messages.  When actresses and celebrities are “losing the baby weight” within a few weeks of having a child, it’s difficult to not feel insecure about your own post-baby body.  But this is not Hollywood, and this site is a safe place for women of all backgrounds to share their stories.

The site is filled with photos of “real bodies”, adjusting to life after giving birth.  These pictures might shed light on parts of the body that would normally be hidden by clothes out of shame or embarrassment.  Here, they are proudly expressed, openly celebrated, and joyfully worshipped.  Women of all ages share their stories — not only of body insecurities and observations, but of what their pregnancy and birth experience was like.  Women share photos of their children, their bodies, their families.  They emphasize what is most important to them: health, family, love.  Some share about wanting to hide their post-pregnancy belly or stretch marks, and with encouragement from other new moms, these women find support for being thankful for the gifts they have received from their experience.

One new mom shares: “The only message I have from this post is to love your body, not matter what size and shape.I realized how much time I wasted on wishing I was thinner. Because when I look back, I dont think about how much I hated the way I looked, I think about how my daughter has grown and how smart she has become and how beautiful she is growing up to be. Be your own kind of beautiful, because we are all beautiful!”

The Shape of a Mother is a light amidst a swirling and menacing hurricane.  The honesty shared here is hard to find; society doesn’t talk much about the reality of accepting a post-baby body.  I am inspired by these women and know that this website is a wonderful resource for women who are thinking about getting pregnant, who are pregnant, or who are adjusting to life as a new mother.

Drunkorexia, pregorexia — the rise of new “rexias” in the eating disorder epidemic

Today is the start of “Fat Talk Free Week”, which is a national campaign that visits college campuses, does presentations, and encourages women and men to eliminate conversations that reinforce the thin ideal and that contribute to dissatisfaction in one’s body.  October 18-25, 2010 is a week set aside for motivating positive body image and educating the country about the dangers of disordered eating and negative body image.  I am doing my part to spread the word about the beauty and vitality of our healthy bodies, and encourage you to do so too!

Newspapers, magazines, and internet blogs are bringing focus to this topic in some of their writings this week.  As I was reading an article in the Denver Post this morning about a shocking new eating disorder called “drunkorexia”, it struck me how many different kinds of eating disorders are in development and how there are many diverging opinions about the “trendiness” of these “rexias”.  I wanted to learn more, so I looked online for what people are saying about the “rexia” trend.  The two most talked-about types are “drunkorexia”, which is a sensational term for when (most commonly) college aged women limit their food intake and “drink” their calories instead.  This often involves binge drinking on an empty stomach, which causes ulcers, black-outs, and the lack of nutrients can lead to serious medical concerns.  On the other extreme, the Denver Post article talks about students binge-drinking and then consuming massive amounts of “drunk food” such as hamburgers, pizza, and ice cream and then throwing them up later after feeling guilty.

I had heard of drunkorexia before, but pregorexia is a relatively new term which refers to behaviors that seriously concern me as a mental health professional, as a woman, and as a potential future mother.  Pregorexia refers to women who limit or carefully count their food intake, sometimes significantly, during pregnancy so as to not gain very much weight.  Blogs call this “the pregnant woman’s eating disorder”, and a “buzz word” for this type of eating disorder that some believe is inspired by looking at celebrities who remain slim during pregnancy and then lose the baby weight within a matter of weeks after birth.  When I think about this, it is just another version of the same issue that plagues all women and men with eating disorders: comparing themselves to others and feeling inferior.  It scares me to think of the effect this might have on the child growing inside of the mother and it saddens me that women feel that they cannot embrace one of the most natural and beautiful parts of human life: growing a child and giving birth.

Negative messages are sent to pregnant women through the media every day.  A psychology blog explores how women are told that having a c-section can lead to faster weight loss after birth because their metabolism is increased as their body tries to repair itself from the surgery (and the liquid diet the doctor puts women on after a c-section can “help you lose pounds very quickly”).  These messages are unhealthy, as they insinuate that a pregnant woman’s body is not beautiful (unless it’s thin!), that weight loss is the most important thing to focus on after giving birth, and that every woman must be perfect when navigating life transitions.

It makes me wonder in a sort of which came first – the chicken or the egg type way:  do women who are susceptible to eating disorders get triggered by substance use or changes in their body, such as pregnancy?  Are these new “rexias” part of an already-developed eating disorder that presents itself and gets tangled with life transitions?  What is the link between entering a new phase of life (starting college or starting a family) and coping mechanisms like eating disorders and substance abuse?  Much research has been done about ways of coping as life throws us new curves and paths as it tends to do.  I think that the different facets that eating disorders have found all point to the same underlying issues: needing a sense of control, feeling “not good enough”, and desiring a release of anxiety and tension.

The last blog that I found about this topic is one written by those who have (or currently are) suffered from an eating disorder so it can be very real, sometimes triggering, but incredibly insightful.  An author who wrote about “the rise of the rexics” feels that the many new variations on anorexia (including “brideorexia”) makes fun of or minimizes the seriousness of anorexia.  The author argues that the cutesy terms are meaningless and that we need to get down to the real problem: that a bride has anorexia, or a pregnant woman has anorexia.  In order to validate those who suffer, no matter what their circumstances, it must be heard that the psychological, cognitive, and physical devastation is the same for all and that every form of disordered eating needs to be treated with the same amount of care and seriousness.  The consequences of eating disorders affect not only the person exhibiting behaviors, but also affect their family members, their friends, their community, and their children.

So, in honor of Fat Talk Free Week and in honor of our beautiful, natural selves, please be aware of the messages that we send through our actions and words and notice when you are conforming to the thin ideal.  We all deserve to feel happy and accepted just the way that we are!