Body Image During Pregnancy and Postpartum

What is body image and why is it relevant for women who are pregnant?
 

Body image refers to the cognitive, affective (emotional), behavioural, and perceptual aspects of one’s experience of their body[1]. Body image concerns are common for pregnant women[2]. Body dissatisfaction is a component of body image, relating to the degree of dissatisfaction with certain aspects of one’s body[3]. Body image concerns tend to be the highest during early pregnancy and then again post-partum, with women often experiencing relative body image satisfaction during mid to late pregnancy[4]. Along with body dissatisfaction, research on this topic has shown that 40% of pregnant women fear gaining weight during pregnancy, while 72% are fearful that they won’t be able to return to their pre-pregnancy body weight[5]. These numbers illustrate that body image concerns are a shared experience for many women, often shifting and changing throughout pregnancy and post-pregnancy.

Although body dissatisfaction and fear of weight gain are common for pregnant women, some women may also feel very comfortable with their bodies throughout pregnancy, experiencing pregnancy as a time where body image standards are more relaxed[6]. In other words, some women may feel comfortable with, or even proud of the way their bodies look throughout pregnancy, while others may find the body-changes brought on by pregnancy to be very distressing.

What are some factors that may lead to body dissatisfaction during pregnancy?

While body image and body dissatisfaction during pregnancy vary from woman to woman, there are certain common factors that tend to lead to body dissatisfaction during pregnancy. These include:

  • Body image concerns prior to pregnancy
  • Depression during pregnancy
  • The tendency to compare one’s own body with others’ bodies
  • Experiencing social pressure to lose weight[7]

Additionally, considering pregnancy is a time where a woman’s body significantly changes in shape and size, women who hold onto rigid standards of appearance ideals are likely to experience increased body dissatisfaction[8]. Therefore, the more that pregnant women are able to reject rigid appearance ideals and/or take on more flexible appearance-related values especially during pregnancy, the less body dissatisfaction they are likely to experience. This can be challenging, but it is possible!

Why are body image concerns during pregnancy important to address?
 

Body dissatisfaction during pregnancy has been linked to depression, continued body dissatisfaction postpartum, increased risk of disordered eating attitudes and behaviours during and post-pregnancy, and even difficulties with breastfeeding postpartum[9]. In other words, women who are struggling with body dissatisfaction during pregnancy or after pregnancy are more likely to struggle with other mental and physical health challenges. Because of the potential wide-spread impact of body image concerns during and post-pregnancy, it’s especially important to address these concerns as they arise.

If you are pregnant and struggling with your body image, or are wrestling with body dissatisfaction post-pregnancy, one of the best things you can do is talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Body image concerns often bring up shame, which can make these issues especially difficult to talk about. However, working through difficult thoughts and feelings about your body with a caring, understanding family member, friend, or professional can help improve not only body image, but mental health and well-being in general.

Resources:
  • Learning to focus on the value of your body-self as being far greater than the appearance of your body can have a powerful impact on how you feel about your body. In this TED talk, Dr. Lindsay Kite introduces body image resilience and discusses how women can experience positive shifts in the way they live in and feel about their bodies, regardless of how their bodies look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDowwh0EU4w&t=623s
  • Practicing self-compassion can be especially helpful for women who are struggling with body changes during and following pregnancy. Dr. Kristin Neff is a leading researcher and expert on self-compassion. She has written a book, Self-Compassion, and offers many useful resources, including various self-compassion exercises on her website here: https://self-compassion.org. The “criticizer, the criticized, and the compassionate observer” exercise found on Dr. Neff’s website under “practices” can also be helpful for challenging rigid appearance ideals and developing more flexible appearance-related values.

[1] Cash, T. F., Fleming, E. C., Alindogan, J., Steadman, L., Whitehead, A. (2002). Beyond body image as a trait: the development and validation of the body image states scale. Eating Disorders, 10, doi:10.1080/10640260290081678.

[2] Clark, A., Skouteris, H., Wertheim, E. H., Paxton, S.J., Milgrom, J. (2009). The relationship between depression and body dissatisfaction across pregnancy and the postpartum: A prospective study. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 27-35. doi:10.1177/1359105308097940.

Duncombe, D., Wertheim, E. H., Skouteris, H., Paxton, S.J., Kelly, L. (2008). How well do women adapt to changes in their body size and shape across the course of pregnancy?. Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 503-515. doi:10.1177/1359105308088521.

[3] Thompson, J., Heinberg, M., Altabe, M., & Tantleff-Dunn, S. (1999). An introduction to the concept of body image disturbance: history, definitions, and descriptions. In J. Thompson, L. Heinberg, M. Altabe, and S. Tantleff-Dunn (Eds.) Exacting beauty: Theory, assessment, and treatment of body image disturbance.

[4] Goodwin, A., Astbury, J., & McMeeken, J. (2000). Body image and psychological well-being in pregnancy. A comparison of exercisers and non-exercisers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. 40, 442-447.

Skouteris, H., Carr, R., Wertheim, E. H., Paxton, S. J., & Duncombe, D. (2005). A prospective study of factors that lead to body dissatisfaction during pregnancy. Body Image, 2, 347-361. 10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.09.002.

[5] Fairburn, C. G., & Welch, S. L. (1990). The impact of pregnancy on eating habits and attitudes to shape and weight. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 9, 153-160. doi:10.1002/1098-108X(199003)9:2<153::AID-EAT2260090204>3.0.CO;2-8

[6] Davies, K., & Wardle, J. (1994). Body image and dieting in pregnancy. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 38(8), 787-799. doi:10.1016/0022-3999(94)90067-1

Fairburn, C. G., Stein, A., & Jones, R. (1992). Eating habits and eating disorders during pregnancy. Psychosomatic Medicine, 54(6), 665-672. doi:10.1097/00006842-199211000-00006

Richardson, P. (1990). Women’s experiences of body change during normal pregnancy.Maternal-Child Nursing Journal, 19(2), 93.

[7] Skouteris, H., Carr, R., Wertheim, E. H., Paxton, S. J., & Duncombe, D. (2005). A prospective study of factors that lead to body dissatisfaction during pregnancy. Body Image, 2, 347-361. 10.1016/j.bodyim.2005.09.002.

[8] Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M., Skouteris, H., Watson, B., & Briony, H. (2012). Body image during pregnancy: an evaluation of the suitability of the body attitudes questionnaire. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 12, 91. doi:10.11861471-2393-12-91

[9] Brown, A., Rance, J., Warren, I. (2015). Body image concerns during pregnancy are associated with a shorter breast feeding duration. Midwifery 31, 80-89. doi:10.1016/j.midw.2014.06.003.

Shloim, N., Hetherington, M. M., Rudolf, M., Feltbower, R. G. (2015). Relationship between body mass index and women’s body image, self-esteem and eating behaviours in pregnancy: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Health Psychology, 20, 413-426.

About the Author
Chelsea Beyer

Chelsea Beyer

Counsellor with ThriveLife Counselling & Wellness. Find out more about her counselling work here.

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