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.

When will my body go back to normal?

I don’t know what the statistics are on this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the top concerns most women have going into pregnancy is about weight:  Will I gain too much?  Will I be able to lose it all when the pregnancy is done?   Will my body ever go back to normal?

I’ve devoted a lot of time to helping my fitness clients establish positive goals.  While I accept that many people exercise in order to lose weight—and that there are many people who do fit the medical criteria indicating a need for weight loss, and that they come to me because I know how to help them achieve that goal—I encourage my clients to think about the ways in which physical activity can build their bodies, rather than whittle them away. 

I can’t think of a more important context for this approach than in working with pregnant and postpartum women. 

I understand from both a personal and an intellectual perspective how hard it is to fight against the cultural grain that compels women during pregnancy and breastfeeding, when they are single-handedly creating and sustaining a whole other human life (or lives, in the case of multiple births), to try to remain as small as possible.   Like many other women, I struggled with body image issues while pregnant and postpartum.  Tragically, body image issues were part of what killed my nursing relationship with my first child after only 4 months.  And with my second baby, body image issues were a lot of what motivated me to go out and run 10 kilometres barely 7 weeks after my c-section, while pushing my baby in a jogging stroller—not something I would ever recommend to a client.

Still, while I agonized over ever again being able to fit into non-maternity pants, and grudgingly bought bras in sizes I thought were reserved only for porn stars and people addicted to cosmetic surgery, I tried to remind myself that weight gain in pregnancy is not only normal, but necessary.   And while some women lose all of their ‘baby weight’ within weeks of birth, there is no moral failure involved for those (like me) who don’t.  

Yet it’s hard not to get obsessive about body image while pregnant.  Everyone has an opinion about your size, and somehow all social graces that normally prohibit unsolicited commentary disappear.  Suddenly, everyone and their brother will tell you whether you are too big or too small, and compare you with their mother/aunt/sister/friend/cousin who gained a ton of weight/didn’t gain enough weight/barely looked pregnant/everyone thought was carrying twins because she was SO HUGE, etc.  

When I was about 14 weeks along with my second baby, I went for a manicure.  I’d spent months on my couch with debilitating nausea, and on the first day when I felt even remotely capable of leaving the house, my husband tried to cheer me up with a gift certificate to the salon. As I sat having my nails painted, the manicurist started trying to sell me electronic “firming treatments” intended to slim “problem areas.”  I explained that I wasn’t interested in trying to lose weight—I was pregnant.  But she didn’t miss a beat:  “Oh,” she exclaimed, “then you’ll really want to know about this for after the baby!”  And she wasn’t stopped when I tried to explain, politely, that no, actually, I didn’t want to know.  The sales pitch continued.  Needless to say, she never got to do my nails again.

But avoiding the rude manicurist didn’t solve my problem because there were more people around every corner waiting to put in their two cents regarding the size of my pregnant body.  And their judgments varied widely.  On one single day, when I was about 7.5 months along, one person declared that I was “HUGE—all baby!” while another –less than an hour later—clucked, “You’re so small!  Are you sure your dates are right?!”   There’s only so much of this crazy-making commentary a person can take.  By 8 months, and after a note on alluding to the hypnotic appearance of my pregnant décolletage (I defy anyone to find maternity wear that is both appropriate for teaching and won’t make you melt while lecturing in an 85-degree classroom—something had to give, and by that point there was no question that I was going to choose comfort over modesty), I was ready to bar the door and just stay home rather than deal with any more of it.

It’s tempting to comment on pregnant bodies.  They’re awesome, and for a lot of us they’re unusual, and when the body is a friend’s or a relative’s, it’s intriguing to see how someone we know so well can change so much in such a short time.   I’m not saying that all comments should be verboten.  But it might be worth thinking about how a seemingly innocuous comment about the size of a belly might also be a judgment of the degree to which a pregnant body conforms to or challenges the dominant culture of thinness.   

It is similarly worth asking why we expect women’s bodies to bear no lasting markers of pregnancy, one of life’s most major events.   When will my body go back to normal?  Never.  Because you’ll never have not been pregnant again.  I wish it were more acceptable to abandon the old normal in favour of the new.  I wish that women’s default would not be to ‘get back to normal,’ but instead to find a new balance, new strengths, and new possibilities.   This does not, by any means, mean welcoming maternity jeans permanently into your post-pregnancy wardrobe.  But it does mean that if you’re still wearing them when your baby is 3 months old, it’s not the end of the world.  New mothers have better things to do with their time than worry about the size of their pants.  And they can have more fulfilling, effective workouts if they can focus their minds on something more productive than shrinking.

When I teach fitness, I try to never talk about weight or shape.  I figure that everyone is already thinking about these things anyway; what if we try a different approach? 

Go with me on this radical idea.  What if, instead of focusing on pounds and inches and lumps and bumps, we talk about strength and power, and feeling capable of meeting life’s physical challenges?  What if we recognize weight gain during pregnancy as a normal and sensible adaptation to new physical demands?  What if we accept that some women’s bodies need more fat stores than others in order to support lactation?  What if we stop cajoling women to have some lovey-dovey, Pollyanna-ish sense of self-acceptance and instead validate that they live in a culture that is hostile to all fat—but maternal fat in particular—and that fighting against it is really, really hard?  What if we take active steps to help women understand that their bodies are as individual as the rest of them—just as no two people think alike, no two people look alike, and no two bodies respond in exactly the same way to pregnancy and nursing–and they need to learn individualized responses to their bodies’ new needs?  What if we talk about building stamina for labour, and preparing physically for the sleep-deprivation and marathon nursing sessions that are par for the course during the postpartum phase?  What if we stop trying to convince women—pregnant, postpartum, and otherwise—to disappear?  What if? 

I don’t think women would stop exercising.  In fact, I think a lot of women who otherwise wouldn’t exercise might start.  Because it would become an activity that helps them feel valuable, powerful and good, instead of something focused on reduction, depletion, and annihilation. 

 I have been scale-free since 2005.  I remained scale-free throughout my second pregnancy the following year (with the support of my midwives), so I actually don’t know how much weight I gained or how long it took to lose it, or whether I have actually lost it all.  I know that by my daughter’s first birthday, most of my pre-baby clothes fit again.   Some still don’t.  Because not only do we gain weight when pregnant, our body shape changes.   That can be hard to accept.  It was (is) definitely hard for me.  But it’s reality, and it’s not all bad.  I’m stronger than I was before Annika was born, and I’ve come through major surgery, nursed for 2.5 years, earned a third academic degree, gotten several new jobs, and done a million other things that make me a different person from who I was before she was conceived.  So my sundresses I bought at Old Navy in 2004 don’t fit anymore.  Big deal.  They’re probably out of style now anyway. 

So, I ask myself frequently how I’ll respond to women who come to my pre- and postnatal fitness classes with the intention of a) limiting their weight gain during pregnancy, and b) shedding the pounds afterward.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with either goal, and in fact there can be value in both.  Moreover, I don’t want to add another layer of judgment to their lives, as if the goals that motivate them to get moving are somehow wrong or inappropriate.  I do, however, hope to help my pre- and postnatal clients to expand or perhaps refocus their goals.  I want to help women understand the physiological changes they are going through, how to make the most of the unique time in life that is the childbearing year, and to find joy in the challenge of moving their pregnant and postpartum bodies.  By working with them to make fitness a regular part of their lives, I want to help women feel proud of the bodies they have earned, and enriched by the experience of using those bodies to create and then sustain new life.

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