Many women are unhappy with how their bodies look both during and after pregnancy, and it's an issue that can trigger postpartum depression and eating disorders, a new study suggests.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, recently conducted a survey to learn more about body dissatisfaction in pregnancy and the postpartum period. They also worked to identify the factors that contribute to these feelings and to determine what might help.
“I think there can be some shame and discomfort talking about issues of body image in pregnancy and postpartum,” said Rachel Vanderkruik, associate director of research and cognitive behavioral sciences at the Ammon-Pinizzotto Center for Women's Mental Health at the hospital.
“There is still a culture that emphasizes being so happy to be pregnant and such. But women's experience with their bodies changing is significant, and I think there is not always a lot of honest conversations about the impact of that,” she added in a hospital news release.
In a survey of 161 pregnant and postpartum women between the ages of 18 and 45, researchers found that 50% reported feelings of body dissatisfaction. More than 40% said being pregnant or having a baby had made them self-conscious about their appearance.
“It's been really hard. I like to be thin. I have no control over my body gaining weight. It has caused anxiety and depression,” one respondent wrote.
The researchers also found that more than 60% of respondents believed they should be thin or thinner than their current size.
The downsides to pursuing this ideal body image included poor mental health, disordered eating and exercise habits, lost time and money, and negative self-talk.
Some of those surveyed had more positive feelings about their bodies, saying pregnancy and childbirth led to a greater appreciation for what their bodies can do.
“During pregnancy I started to accept my appearance more and learn to appreciate my body for what it could do, not just how it could look,” said one respondent.
Weight gain is normal in pregnancy, though being overweight or obese pre-pregnancy or gaining excess weight while pregnant can increase health risks for mother and baby.
“There's a tension — we want to prevent any body-shaming or unrealistic expectations about returning to a certain body shape or size shortly after delivering. At the same time, we want to support healthy behaviors and a healthy lifestyle, too,” Vanderkruik explained.
“We would need to do more research on these issues; there were limitations to our survey study, including that assessments participants' BMI and mental health were self-reported, and that it was cross-sectional (only captured data from one point in time),” Vanderkruik said. “But judging by the response to the survey study, the issues of body image and eating seem to be something that many pregnant and postpartum individuals care about...”
The results were recently published in the Archives of Women's Mental Health.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on a healthy pregnancy.
SOURCE: Massachusetts General Hospital, news release, Sept. 9, 2022