Prenatal & postpartum weight: giving up and giving in

“All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.”

How’s that for a major generalization? 

True, many new moms worry about this, maybe even most.  But all is a troubling superlative, not only because it’s almost guaranteed to be untrue (find one exception, and the hypothesis crumbles) but more importantly because it reinforces the cultural imperatives for women to be thin no matter what, and to put weight at the top of their list of concerns at all times. Statement:  All new moms worry about losing the baby weight.  Subtext:  If you aren’t worried about this, you should be because everyone else is.

Note that the article linked above, about so-called “mommyrexia” (could there be a more infuriating term?) invites women to share their methods for “stay[ing] slim in pregnancy or los[ing] weight after giving birth.”  I’m all for women sharing their experiences, but I find this formulation troubling. Surely there are better and less sensationalist ways of acknowledging women’s fears about the changes to their bodies during pregnancy.

As a pre and postnatal fitness instructor, obviously I have a vested interest in helping women maintain their health during and after pregnancy. This includes promoting healthy weight gain while growing a baby, and appropriate weight loss in the months following.  But I won’t do it in a way that upholds the paradigm in which weight plays a disproportionate role in determining a woman’s worth or which shames women whose bodies don’t conform to current weight and shape ideals.  Yes, exercise burns calories and can reduce body fat; no, we won’t talk about that in my classes.

I work to support prenatal and postpartum women’s health, not to help them police the size of their bodies.  Body size and weight are only two variables among many that indicate a person’s level of fitness and capacity for activity, and the jury is still very much out when it comes to conclusions about the relationship between weight gain, weight loss, health and pregnancy. Science and Sensibility’s recent series on maternal obesity demonstrates this beautifully.

Different women gain different amounts of weight during pregnancy for reasons that often have less to do with food intake or exercise than you might think. This can be scary for a lot of women. Larger women have reason to fear being treated as if they’ve done something wrong if their weight continues to increase during pregnancy, and they are likely to be categorized automatically as high risk and subjected to a variety of  prenatal and birth interventions as a result. Smaller women may have their own set of fears, especially if they usually go to herculean efforts to keep their weight at a certain level or maintain a particular shape. It’s hard to drop that mentality and to weather the pressure not to ‘let yourself go’ just because the stick has turned blue. 

But what does ‘letting go’ really mean?  There is some implication that it means giving up, giving in, and that these are inherently bad things to do.  But we could re-frame the concept as giving up our culturally-determined beliefs about how our bodies should look. And rather than giving in to the TV-land stereotype of gluttonous-pregnant-woman-eating-for-two, how about giving in to pregnancy, which is designed to ensure that women gain the fat and fluid they need to carry a baby to term, and have the energy necessary to labour and birth a healthy baby.

In this framework, giving up and giving in are important steps toward good mental and physical health, and they are perfectly congruent with staying active and eating a diet of nutrient-rich foods in amounts that satisfy hunger and thirst.  This framework promotes health for all women, all of the time, without prejudice or judgment about size and shape.

The more we learn to listen to our bodies during pregnancy, to explore how they grow and change and to support their new needs, the more likely they are to respond appropriately to pregnancy’s demands.  And the happier our bodies are during pregnancy, when we’re feeding, moving and resting them well, the more likely they are to recover appropriately in the months that follow.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nathalie Boulanger
    Jun 17, 2011 @ 19:36:17

    Thanks for this great post! I will link to it on my Facebook page… Being pregnant right now and nursing a toddler, I find I am sooo hungry, it must be for a reason. My body and my baby need the extra nutrition. My job is to choose healthy, nutrient rich food and listen to my hunger cues…And of course, join the prenatal fitness group to keep my body happy.


  2. helena
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 23:33:49

    You are singing my song…it’s been a while since I’ve had to address this issue but it is a deep and insidious one indeed in our culture. What used to particularly piss me off is the universal guideline that women should only gain “20-35 lbs. during pregnancy.” Really? For ALL women, of all heights and weights and body types, you feel comfortable arbitrarily setting that limit, huh? I am tall w/really big bones, such that even when I’m super fit and running regularly I guarantee you I weigh at least 12 lbs. more than you think I do. When pregnant, I gain an average of 65 lbs. no matter what. In fact, pregnant w/my second I suffered such horrible nausea that I puked 2-5 times a day for 4 mos and lost 10 lbs in the 1st trimester, then STILL gained 55 lbs! The good news: most new moms are so in love with their babies they couldn’t give two shits about stupid magazines and unrealistic cultural guidelines anyway.


    • thejugglingmatriarch
      Jun 23, 2011 @ 00:17:11

      Like you, I was also sick and puking, lost weight in the first trimester (well, at least to my knowledge–I didn’t weigh in at all during my second pregnancy) but still gained a ‘normal’ amount: somewhere around 30 lbs. the first time, when I was measuring such things. The second time I don’t know, but I defnitely gained weight, despite hyperemesis. I need to do more research on it, but I remember reading somewhere that women tend to put on a certain amount during pregnancy regardless of what else they do.

      I’m less convinced that most women are able to ignore the cultural messages post-pregnancy and focus on their love for their babies. I wish that were true, and for the women for whom it is true, that is AWESOME. Oxytocin can certainly do wonderful things for our outlook postpartum! But I know that I certainly wasn’t free of these feelings after either pregnancy, and nor are many others. I haven’t read the statistics on body image concerns postpartum, but my guess is that most women postpartum are like most women at other times: the cultural ideals matter a great deal, as destructive as they are. I think it’s important to validate that; it’s extremely difficult to resist the cultural messages, even when we have “better things” to think about.


  3. Trackback: This is news? « Thejugglingmatriarch's Blog
  4. Cin
    Aug 11, 2011 @ 19:27:38

    This drives me particularily bonkers, because of this: I had hyperemesis gravidarum with pregnancy 3 and 4 (take morning sickness and make it into a potentially fatal condition, with hundreds of vomits a day, inability to eat or drink, etc. and you’ve got HG.) I lost 20 lbs with pg #3 — and people COMPLIMENTED me, told me they were jealous I wouldn’t have baby weight to lose, etc. That’s sick — I was DYING. But our societal obsession with “the baby weight” makes people think weird thoughts.

    Great blog, A!


    • thejugglingmatriarch
      Aug 11, 2011 @ 19:33:30

      I had HG, too (twice)–fun, eh? HG is the primary reason that there is a 9-year space between my two kids. After the first time around, I swore I would never go through that again, at least not until I’d found some way to control the vomiting. Spent a lot of time in that 9 years researching and gathering info to that end–but that’s another blog post for another day!

      Being complimented for HG-related weight loss is really mind-boggling, indeed, and points out just how messed up we are. Thanks for your comment!


    • thejugglingmatriarch
      Aug 11, 2011 @ 22:15:39

      I have HER linked in the blogroll, I believe–it’s fantastic! Definitely have to meet–sounds like we share some pretty key interests! 🙂


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