What moms really need: Less body-shaming, more support

Editor’s note: Oona Hanson is a parent coach who specializes in helping parents raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food and their body. 

Flowers and brunch are lovely, but there’s an invaluable gift almost every mom would enjoy: a healthier body image.

The pressure on women to look perfect isn’t our fault. Recognizing and resisting unrealistic appearance ideals can improve mothers’ lives at every stage of parenthood.

While women face appearance pressures throughout their lives, for those who give birth, the postpartum period can be especially fraught.

I’ll never forget being the mom of young kids in 2010 when model Gisele Bündchen posed for Vogue only months after having a baby. During the internet frenzy that ensued, the supposedly reassuring takeaway was that “ordinary” women shouldn’t compare themselves to a supermodel.

But almost all postpartum moms, celebrity or not, face an unspoken mandate to “bounce back” to their pre-baby body. Even if you had Bündchen’s genetics and support staff, it’s unreasonable and even cruel to expect you to focus your energy on appearing as if you’ve never been pregnant.

The reality is that you’ve just created a human inside your body and physically pushed them out or undergone major abdominal surgery. Despite what we see on magazine covers and social media, “there’s no bouncing back from growing a human,” said Jen McLellan, a certified birth educator in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

If you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, the National Alliance for Eating Disorders provides resources and referrals.

‘Bouncing-back’ expectations can be harmful

Since pregnancy and childbirth are among the biggest physical changes someone can experience, bounce-back expectations aren’t just absurd — they can threaten new moms’ health and well-being.

The impact of these harmful appearance pressures is something we need to take seriously, according to Jill Schwartz, a Los Angeles-based therapist specializing in perinatal mental health. “Our society does such a disservice to moms,” she noted, by bombarding them with rules about how they should look instead of providing much-needed support.

These damaging appearance ideals can worsen or even trigger mental health conditions, especially for postpartum women who have a history of depression, anxiety or an eating disorder. If moms feel preoccupied with their appearance, exercise or what they eat (even “healthy eating”), it could be a sign of significant maternal mental health problems.

One of the most important steps for new moms is to work toward acceptance of and gratitude for the changes that come with parenthood.

“The body isn’t what it was before. And you’ve done this beautiful, amazing thing that not everybody gets to experience,” Schwartz said. “You can grow and embrace that. But your body isn’t going to be just like how it was before, just like life isn’t going to be how it was before.”

When feeling pressure to try to control or shrink their body, moms can start by identifying that these ideas aren’t natural or innate but have been “inherited from the culture,” according to Debra Benfield, a registered dietitian in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who specializes in supporting women’s body image.

Awareness of these external diet culture directives can help moms start to push back against unrealistic and harmful ideals. Some women may find strength in actively rebelling against the dominant narrative: “Do the polar opposite of the pressure that society is placing on you,” Schwartz advised. For example, while people may encourage new parents to ramp up exercise quickly, the healthier approach is to “go slow, be patient, give yourself grace and remember you’re in healing time.”

Appearance pressures intensify again leading up to menopause

The devastating mismatch between heightened maternal vulnerability and a fresh onslaught of unrealistic appearance expectations peaks again for women in the years leading up to menopause.

As with the postpartum period, perimenopause brings new challenges at a stressful time of life. Many midlife women are experiencing hormonal shifts and physical changes, all while raising children and caring for aging parents. “The collision of motherhood and perimenopause is a very hard thing,” Benfield said.

It’s no surprise that negative body image and disordered eating tend to increase again in midlife, when women are expected to look as if they’re “frozen in time” rather than experience the natural and expected changes that come with age, noted Benfield, who treats people with eating disorders.

Women of all ages need to hear her important reminder: “Bodies change. And that’s OK. And let’s normalize that.”

A positive influence on family

Moms may find it easier to reject diet culture and the thin ideal when they recognize the positive influence they can have on their families. “We are teaching our children how to love themselves,” McLellan said. Even if a mom isn’t overtly dieting or weighing herself in front of her kids, “children are listening and watching in more ways than you can imagine,” Benfield said.

Benefits to children are compelling, but moms deserve to feel better about their bodies for themselves, Benfield added. By resisting harmful ideals, moms are “less burdened and feel more present and therefore more powerful in their own lives.”

A key step in this process involves unlearning a lot of what diet culture has taught us about the importance of thinness.

“It is really important that we unpack our own weight bias,” McLellan said. “We all have internalized messages because we grew up with them. And the more we’re willing to start doing that work, the more deepened love we can find for ourselves.”

Mothers may find it easier to reject diet culture when they recognize the positive influence they can have on their families. - Agne Jurkenaite/CNN
Mothers may find it easier to reject diet culture when they recognize the positive influence they can have on their families. - Agne Jurkenaite/CNN

One strategy for moms to feel better about their bodies is to practice meaningful self-care.

“I don’t mean bubble baths and fuzzy socks. I mean scheduling our pap smears, scheduling our dental work,” McLellan explained. Finding weight-inclusive providers, especially for moms in larger bodies, is essential not only for body image but for overall health.

By recognizing weight stigma and truly caring for ourselves, moms can start to “unwrite those messages that we grew up with, thinking that our bodies are wrong or bad and instead really focusing on the importance of our overall wellness,” she added.

How can I support other moms?

If a mother in your life is struggling with poor body image, it can be tempting to dismiss her concerns and instead offer compliments. While some mothers may appreciate this type of reassurance, it comes with the risk of backfiring because it shuts down her feelings while also reinforcing the importance of how her body looks.

Really listening and trying to “decentralize appearance” can often be the better way to go, according to Benfield. Friends, family and partners can express their unconditional love and even talk directly about the toxicity of our culture’s unrealistic standards for women.

One potential way to express empathy and start a deeper conversation could sound like this: “Isn’t it a shame women feel so much pressure to look a certain way, especially in this season of life?”

Externalizing and rejecting beauty ideals can be an opening to start resisting the other ways mothers often feel they don’t measure up. There is an important reminder every mom needs to hear all year long, McLellan said: “You are already worthy. Who you are today is wonderful. You are absolutely enough, and you are doing enough.”

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