Reader question: Navigating Negative Postpartum Body Image

I answer reader questions in my bi-weekly newsletter, Real Nourished. Here’s the latest. (And if you’re not subscribed to the newsletter, what are you waiting for?)

Q: I gained weight during pregnancy, and I feel so much pressure to get my body back. It has been over a year since my second baby was born. I attend Orange Theory regularly, and I love how it makes me feel, although I’m not seeing the weight loss I’d like. I’m not interested in dieting, but I feel so uncomfortable in my body in its current size. What do you suggest? K. 

A: First, I need to acknowledge that postpartum is such a difficult season of life on so many levels, and we do not need this added pressure to “bounce back.” Can everyone join me in raising a middle finger to this pervasive expectation? 

You grew a human. You birthed them. Maybe you’re breastfeeding. And you have another (small?) child to care for. Maybe you’re also dealing with the pressures of your professional life. Or perhaps you’re recreating your identity now that you’re not going to work anymore. Maybe you’re renegotiating your roles and responsibilities with your partner now that you’re a family of four. Or maybe you’re doing this alone, which brings another layer of complexity. And you’re probably doing it all on very limited sleep. 

That’s a lot. Like a metric sh*t ton of pressure even under the best of circumstances — without feeling like your body needs to look a specific way. And yes, I know life is a miracle, they grow up so fast, and every moment is precious… And it’s all true. Motherhood is beautiful and messy and really, really hard, even if this is something you wanted and planned for. 

Okay, so what do I suggest? I have lots of ideas. (If we worked together we’d try different things until we landed on a few that resonated). But without knowing too many details, here’s where I’d start. 

1|Remember that the expectation to get your body back is bullshit.

That’s a product of our thin and youth-obsessed culture, the 72-billion dollar-a-year diet industry, and the patriarchy. Women aren’t at their most powerful when they’re hungry. 

Can you channel the frustration of being in a body society has told you is wrong into rage at a system that conned us into believing that, as women, our most important attribute is our bodies? Can you shift the blame about how you feel about your body to the system that never casts bigger characters as the lead in movies or shows and tells fat kids to lose weight instead of punishing the kids who bully them for their weight? 

The fact that you haven’t returned to your pre-pregnancy weight is not a reflection of your worth or even how hard you’ve been working to get back there. (Weight loss is not necessarily as simple as moving more and eating less.) Bodies change. That’s just what they do. They change over the course of each day, each month, and over our lifetimes, and we can’t always control how and when they change. Just like there’s no specific age when everyone gets their first period, gray hair, or hot flash, every body responds to pregnancy and new motherhood differently. 

Meanwhile, I’d ask yourself a few questions. Maybe bust out your journal: What do I expect will change once I lose weight? What would happen if I let go of my expectation that I should lose weight? How would my life be different if I could make myself at home in the body I have right now? What would that look and feel like? 

All of that said: I get that accepting your body is way easier said than done. It takes work, time, and a ton of self-compassion and unlearning, and by no means do I think you should read this, reflect a little, snap your fingers, and feel great about the body you’re in. This sh*t is hard. 

2 | Keep going to Orange Theory (and find other embodied activities that feel good) 

You said it makes you feel good. So keep going on a regular basis and have fun with it. Maybe set some fitness goals if that feels good. (Whatever you do, stick with metrics that have nothing to do with weight or body fat.)  I’d suggest having a second type of workout in your back pocket that makes you feel good when you can’t get to Orange Theory or when you need something that’s less intense. 

Now a question: Do you ever look in the mirror and feel better about your reflection post-workout than you did pre-workout? 

Because if the answer is yes (for many of my clients that’s the case), consider this: Your body does not look appreciably different after a workout. Bodies don’t work like that. 

So what’s going on? It’s a body image thing. And body image encompasses a lot more than the way we look. (I recommend the book More than a Body by Lexie and Lindsay Kite if you want to explore body image and how we objectify our own bodies). 

But let’s go back to how you said Orange Theory makes you feel good. Why do you think that is? Is it the endorphins? Is it that you spent an hour engaging in some encouraging self-talk to help get you through the workout? Is it because you feel powerful in your body? Consider getting out your journal once again to reflect. 

Now brainstorm: What are some other ways you can elicit positive feelings toward your body/self? What else lights you up? Obviously, you can’t hit Orange Theory every time you need a boost. Is there a mantra that makes you feel grounded and in control? Does wearing red lipstick or amazing shoes make you feel like a badass in your body? How does it feel to take a bath, dance to 90s hip-hop in your bathroom, walk in nature, or rub your favorite cashmere scarf on your cheek? All of these things can help you drop into your body and find pleasure in it. 

Experiment with “bite-sized” empowering/feel-good strategies like the examples above that you can go to when you don’t have an hour for Orange Theory (or for those times when you already went that day or your body needs something more gentle) and see how you feel in your body. Adding small but more frequent “embodiment snacks” to your routine might help you inhabit your body in a way that feels good. 

3| Take yourself shopping

Assuming you have some room in your budget, can you buy a few new things that fit well (i.e. let you breathe and sit in any position even if you’ve had a burrito)? You don’t need to wait to buy new things until you’re at your goal weight. You deserve to wear clothes that you feel good in and are comfortable right this second. 

And while you’re at it, take anything out of your closet that doesn’t fit. Since you just went through a major life event and you may lose some of the weight, it might make sense to put them in storage instead of getting rid of them entirely. It might not seem like a big deal, but it really feels freeing to let go of clothes that don’t work for your current body. I talked more about this in a previous newsletter, which you may want to check out).

Like I said, I have more ideas, but this is a start. I hope it’s helpful. 

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