- 25. Jan 2023
The topic of body image and weight has almost become a “taboo” topic. We aim to break down those barriers and support women on their journey as they enter motherhood. Our bodies should be celebrated for what they are capable of. Here are the facts…
Female body changes
Being pregnant almost always comes with changes to the mum’s body and mind. The changes that pregnancy causes on your body and weight may be accompanied by many different kinds of emotions, especially if you are expecting your first child. Many women are particularly sensitive to pregnancy body changes, both good and bad. The changes in body image and weight are very individual. Some feel the changes are wonderful, whereas some unexpected changes may cause a lot of anxiety and even increase the risk of unhealthy eating and exercising habits 1.
The term body image covers all emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that you have of your own body 2. Very often, changes in weight and thoughts around weight are strongly linked to body image. Your background and experiences, as well as culture, media, beauty ideals, your partner’s views on your body, and other people’s comments all influence how you think about your body and your weight.
Weight gain during pregnancy
Weight gain during pregnancy is different for everyone. Some may lose weight due to severe nausea and loss of appetite early on in their pregnancy. Whereas some women start to gain weight as early as the first trimester. Usually, weight gain starts at around the 20th week of pregnancy 3. Weight gain is monitored by the health care team, as it is one of the metrics used to check if the pregnancy is proceeding normally. Weight gain will increase for a few reasons3:
- The growth of the baby
- The placenta increases in size
- The womb grows larger to accommodate the growing baby
- Amniotic fluid is created
- The mother’s blood and water volume increase
- The body is also preparing for breastfeeding
While there are some guidelines regarding weight gain during pregnancy, it is important to remember that every journey is unique. The expected weight gain is between 5 to 18 kg, depending on the mum’s circumstances before pregnancy 3,4.
”In the beginning, I remember hoping to gain only a few kilos, but during pregnancy, I actually gained 18 kg. I didn’t actually notice it myself in any other way than the growing belly and occasional bloating, as the fat had gathered all over my body.”
”During pregnancy, I gained 25 kg, a lot of which was just fluid, as half of it was lost at the hospital. The weight gain did not really bother me that much, though I was a bit bothered by my puffy face towards the end of the pregnancy. It wasn’t that big of a deal, though it did make me slightly uncomfortable to be in photos.”
Monitoring weight during pregnancy
Weight monitoring allows the health care personnel to offer help at critical points for the well-being of both the mum and the baby. However, it is important to recognise how weight measuring impacts your thoughts and habits when it comes to eating and exercising.
If weight measuring makes you feel uncomfortable, you should let the health care staff know and they can monitor your weight without you having to see the results. If seeing your weight feels difficult and causes you anxiety, it can be beneficial to have a chat about it with a professional.
”Gaining weight felt pretty neutral to me, but when it was constantly monitored and talked about at the appointments, something about it felt wrong. Maybe it is due to the whole diet culture and how it is ingrained in us that gaining weight is a ‘bad’ thing.”
Weight should not be obsessively monitored, as it is not the only measuring tool to determine the wellbeing of you or the baby. The most important thing is to follow a sufficient and balanced diet and to stay active when possible. Well-being and health are a lot more than just weight.
If you were overweight and considered weight loss for health reasons before getting pregnant, keep in mind that pregnancy is not the best time to do so 5. Significant weight loss endangers the energy and nutrient intake of the baby, and it is especially detrimental at the later stages of pregnancy.
“When I was pregnant with my first child, I only gained about 3 kg, so I was actually losing some of my own weight throughout the whole pregnancy. I lost 12 kg within a couple of weeks after giving birth. During that pregnancy, I felt okay about my body changing and didn’t find it stressful at all. During my second pregnancy, I gained a lot of weight, and it gave me a lot of anxiety, as my BMI had always been at the overweight category anyway. After birth, I lost all the baby weight and some more.”
Can pregnancy help to develop a healthier body image?
Your body image before pregnancy can sometimes indicate whether you will have difficult or positive reactions to your body image during pregnancy and postpartum 1. Often those with a positive body image have a more positive reaction to their body during pregnancy and postpartum, and vice versa.
However, studies have highlighted that most women have a more positive body image during pregnancy than before being pregnant 2,6. This can mean that your body image could improve with pregnancy. You might find a new sense of meaningfulness during pregnancy, as you focus more on what your body is capable of rather than just how it looks. Growing a new person within you can feel magical and make you appreciate your body on a whole new level.
”My pregnancy actually improved my body image. Gaining weight did not bring about any negative feelings, but rather it felt amazing to grow a new person in me, so the weight gain just felt natural.”
“Although I am at my heaviest now that I am pregnant, I am happier with my body than ever before.”
“I was prepared for all kinds of negative emotions, and my partner and I thought about all the different kinds of thoughts and emotions that may arise and thought of ways to handle them. In the end, my experience with my body image was wonderful.”
Thoughts about body image and weight
Many women feel that for the first time in their lives it is acceptable and expected to gain weight and have a round belly as they get pregnant 6. It is sad that in many cultures the mums have to feel as if their weight and stomach are somehow less acceptable and valuable when they are not pregnant. This is a sign that body positivity and neutral thoughts about weight still have a long way to go in our societies.
It is important to feel that your body is valuable and acceptable despite its shape or weight. Though it is great that with pregnancy many women start to respect their body in a new way and therefore have an improved body image. Remember that your body is valuable just as it is, whether you are pregnant or not!
”At first, I was super excited about the small bump which started to grow. However, I do remember having negative feelings when it grew so large that it was difficult to cover with clothing yet small enough that people couldn’t tell for sure if I was pregnant or not. As the bump grew, the love I felt towards my own body grew again.”
”Most body changes during my pregnancy felt good. The growing belly made the pregnancy seem even more real, and for the first time in my life, I never had to think about how bloated my belly was. (I have stomach issues and bloating has always made me feel uncomfortable, no matter how skinny I otherwise was.)”
”The most core feeling was freedom, when I didn’t have to suck my belly in or try to hide it with clothes – it felt like my belly was beautiful and worth celebrating. I used more form-fitting clothes than ever before and was still able to breathe more freely.”
What if weight gain and body changes during pregnancy cause anxiety?
Even though you know that changes in your body and weight are part of a normal pregnancy, they still may bring about negative feelings. Fortunately, problems with body image and thoughts can be fixed.
Child’s perception of body image
Being pregnant can be an excellent opportunity to work on your body image, as how you see yourself will influence how your child will see themselves in the future. If you value and appreciate your own body, it will send a message to your child that they have value just as they are.
Difficulties with body image in expectant mothers are important to take seriously, as they have been shown to increase the risk of depression and decrease overall wellbeing 2. Mums with poor body image are more prone to eat unhealthily and smoke, which risks the health of both the mother and the baby.
Behaviours linked to poor body weight and image
Negative body image can also lead to limiting life experiences and certain behaviours, such as intimate moments with a partner, taking part in exercise classes, or being in photographs. Our minds tend to find ways to avoid situations that make us feel uncomfortable or uncertain.
Without even really noticing, some people start to behave in such a way that they can avoid facing the difficult feelings and thoughts that come with their body image. Blocking the uncomfortable feelings around weight and image, e.g. by avoiding certain situations, does not protect your body image but rather damages it further. Avoidance and other defensive behavioural patterns can further worsen body image, as they stop you from accepting your body.
Changing a negative body image to a more positive one often takes a lot of active work. A negative body image usually does not change by itself with time, but rather it takes decisive action to try and work towards turning it more positive. It is important to keep in mind that accepting your body can take a lot of time, and even at the best of times you might not always feel good in your skin.
How do you talk to yourself?
Have you ever noticed that your internal speech about your body can be rude and unkind?
We can be our own worst critics at times when we would need comfort, attention, and care the most. It is crucial to change our inner attitudes instead of the external factors. Self-compassion and talking nicely about ourselves can feel most challenging at the best of times, especially when you do not feel good about yourself. But at those critical moments, its importance is the greatest.
Instead of trying to change any external factors, it is good to stop and think about what kinds of things your body enables you to do and what you value about yourself. You can practice by completing the following sentences:
- The thing I like about myself the most is…
- The best thing about me is…
- The qualities about myself that I am proud of are…
- The thing I value about myself is…
- While I have been pregnant, I have been able to…
- The baby’s movements in my body felt like…
- The most wondrous thing that my body was capable of was…
- I am skilled at…
- The thing in my changed body I want to show the most love to is…
How do you talk to others?
Many women feel that their bodies are almost public property when they are pregnant. These feelings appear when family members, friends, and even strangers want to touch their growing belly or comment on their appearance, weight, or actions 6. When our body image is positive, we can block the negative messages from others more easily. When our body image is negative, it is quite easy to unconsciously pick up negative messages about our bodies from others. Every expectant mother should be entitled to be just as they are, just like everybody else.
Asking questions about weight changes or commenting on size is not supporting body positivity. Sometimes even compliments on weight or body shape can be toxic and have a negative influence. It can be surprisingly damaging to forming a healthy body image if you get compliments on quickly losing the baby weight after birth or how small your belly stays during pregnancy.
It is vital to remember that everyone has their journey and background with their own body and weight. I implore everyone to give themselves and others the freedom to be as they are during pregnancy and after.
”When I was pregnant, many people commented on my weight gain in various ways. The older generation were horrified of the weight gain and the size of the belly, whereas my own peers thought it was very normal and even admired the growing bump.”
”I had a very small bump and it was only during the last trimester that others started to notice that I was pregnant. Many people were surprised how quickly the due date was about to come, and both that and the size of my small belly were commented on and wondered about out loud. No one had any bad intentions, and I wasn’t too bothered. But when I was pregnant with my youngest child, I gained a lot of weight and it stayed on for quite a while. No one said anything. So it’s crazy that you can freely comment on someone being small in size, but no comments can be made about being big/gaining weight (and of course no one should be allowed to do so). I was totally fine with both changes in my body.”
Do you have to get rid of the ‘baby weight’?
After giving birth, many mums feel pressure to lose the baby weight and obtain the same form they had before pregnancy 6. The expectations we have for our postpartum bodies before or during pregnancy can often be unrealistic, which can then lead to disappointment. Pregnancy and birth change our bodies without fail and often our bodies do not return to how they were before. It is very individual how your body and weight react to breastfeeding and the hormonal changes after birth. Some lose weight quickly, whereas some may even gain more weight after giving birth.
”It has now been 2.5 weeks since the birth and I’ve already lost 12 kg, but I am not concerned about losing the rest, as that will probably be a slow process anyway. At the moment I am just enjoying life in the baby bubble, and I will slowly start to build up the strength and firmness in my body.”
”After birth, I actually did not lose any weight nor did my body return to how it was, and that was even more challenging than the feelings I had during pregnancy. It felt like I had no good excuse to have a big belly and weight. But slowly with time I have learned to appreciate my changed body, as it did achieve the greatest thing in life. And maybe my weight will also return to how it was when I eventually stop breastfeeding.”
Love your body
The new chapter in your life with a new baby can pose challenges to maintaining healthy habits and diet. Tiredness and mood swings can easily guide towards unhealthier options, and exercising can be challenging. Maintaining healthy habits during and after pregnancy is known to decrease the risk of obesity, which can pose health risks for the mother. However, there is no need to get too stressed out about losing the baby weight. Stress and self-punishment are not the routes to making permanent and healthy lifestyle changes to support your wellbeing.
In the best-case scenario, you can see your newly changed body as a lovely thing and learn to appreciate the new curves and functions. Your body has enabled the growth and delivery of a brand-new human being. You should appreciate and value your body by taking good care of it through nutritious food and activities that you enjoy. It is so important to show compassion to yourself and allow your body the time it needs after birth and breastfeeding.
”I had wondered how my body image would change after birth, and I was positively surprised – for the first few months my belly was magically soft and lovely, on a wholly different level than it had been before pregnancy.”
”My weight returned to the same level on its own during the first year. Of course, my body did change in other ways, for example, my hips are now permanently wider, and my breasts changed a bit. I was a bit upset about not being able to fit into my favourite trousers. I did not make it into a bigger problem though. Those things somehow feel very secondary now.”
Do it for you and no one else
If you feel any pressure to lose the baby weight or you are trying to get back into a certain shape, take the time to stop and think about where the pressure you feel is coming from. If your body image gives you problems during or after pregnancy, it is a good idea to ask a professional for help.
”Now that it’s been a while since I was pregnant, I sometimes wish that I’d be at the same weight I was before. But on the other hand, I am quite compassionate towards myself, and I think about focusing on my baby and my wellbeing, not on my weight…”
How we feel about our bodies is a very personal thing but it is important that we keep the doors open for conversations about body image and weight changes. We hope this article brings you peace and reassurance to hear from other mums, and that you know there is support available should you need it.
Get advice from our panel of women’s health experts and ask any questions on topics you need support with.
(1) Zaltzman A, Falcon B, Harrison M E (2015). Body Image in Adolescent Pregnancy. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology 2015;28:102-108.
(2) Coyne S M, Liechty T, Collier K M, Aubrey D S, Davis E J, Kroff S L (2017). The Effect of Media on Body Image in Pregnant and Postpartum Women. Health Communication 2017;33:793-799.
(3) Tiitinen A (2022). Raskaus (normaali kulku). Lääkärikirja Duodecim 2022. https://www.terveyskirjasto.fi/dlk00159 (accessed 19.6.2022)
(4) Schwab U (2020). Tietoa potilaalle: Raskaus ja ruokavalio. Lääkärikirja Duodecim 2020. https://terveysportti.mobi/dtk/hpt/avaa?p_artikkeli=dlk01046 (accessed 19.6.2022)
(5) Odottavan äidin käsikirja (2020). Lihavuus ja raskaus. Terveyskirjasto Duodecim 2020. https://www.terveyskirjasto.fi/odk00043 (accessed 19.6.2022)
(6) Hodgkinson E L, Smith D M, Wittkowski A (2014). Women’s experiences of their pregnancy and postpartum body image: a systematic review and meta-synthesis. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2014;14:330.
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