Loving your pregnant body, even when it's tough by Chanelle Thornton
When a woman is pregnant, the community surrounding her generally sees this as joyful and a necessary physical process with expected physical changes. And, of course, this is largely true. But just because most pregnancies LOOK the same, it doesn’t mean they FEEL the same. In the blog, Chanelle explores how some women experience the physical changes that pregnancy brings.
In recent years, I’ve seen society take encouraging steps towards empowering women to love their postpartum bodies. The physical changes that may have previously gone hidden under a modified wardrobe or fewer beach photos, are starting to be recognised as normal, beautiful marks of giving life. I live in hope that my daughter’s generation will be at peace with this and celebrate a women’s body in all its stages.
However, I also wonder if the conversation needs to start moving to include the way we view our bodies during pregnancy. When a woman is pregnant the community surrounding her generally sees this as joyful and a necessary physical process with expected physical changes. And, of course, this is largely true. But just because most pregnancies LOOK the same, it doesn’t mean they FEEL the same. Millions of women are pregnant ever year, in different countries and cultures, with individual mind-sets and a myriad of specific circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. It just doesn’t make sense that this would add up to a universal feeling about our changed bodies. Is this an area of women’s work where feelings are being silenced? And if so what does that mean?
In short, it may mean that women are at risk of feeling that they can’t express negative emotions about their bodies during pregnancy which could have a knock-on effect to general well-being. What is an almost universal feeling amongst pregnant women is a desire to do what’s best for their babies. That beautiful connection and instinct sometimes gets mixed with external pressures; we “should” be aware that our bodies will change, we “should” be willing to sacrifice physically because we knew what we were getting in to, we “should” not complain as we are lucky to be blessed with a baby. If our thoughts and emotions feel at odds with all these “shoulds” then we often feel pretty guilty, ashamed even.
The impact of body image on self-esteem
The International Journal of Women’s Heath conducted research into body image and self-esteem during pregnancy. Their study showed a sharp increase in women feeling less attractive during pregnancy and a correlation with anxiety symptoms. In severe cases this even manifested in diagnosable psychological disorders such as depression. Is this subject taboo and are we not talking enough about these feelings in pregnancy due to a sense of guilt and shame?
I spoke to many women when researching this blog and their responses to me were often like hushed confessionals. All these women are committed and loving mothers, who choose pregnancy and welcomed their baby happily …. they just struggled with the changes to, and sacrifices of, their body during pregnancy and most agreed talking about it would have been helpful.
Dani fell pregnant with her 3rd child unexpectedly:
A third baby really wasn’t in our plan. I had spent a lot of time and energy getting fit and healthy, I thought pregnancy was in the past, and I was feeling really strong and happy about my body. With this pregnancy, I felt I hadn’t prepared for the change, I’d been taken over and I was out of control. I struggled to enjoy the first half of my pregnancy. With that came a lot of guilt and I didn’t feel I could tell anyone. After my daughter’s birth, we were so happy she was here but I still feel really guilty that I was so focused on myself during the pregnancy.
Joanna struggled with how different the pregnancy felt to how she had expected:
I was so happy to be pregnant, I’ve always wanted to be and I thought knew just how I’d feel. In the last trimester, I just felt so tired, sick, hot and clumsy. I couldn’t sleep, I had huge ankles and stretch marks. I tied to see myself as beautiful but it was too hard. It was physically demanding, I avoided mirrors. I struggled to let my husband touch me. I just didn’t like the way I looked and I felt selfish for feeling that way. I was too ashamed to admit to anyone how I was feeling.
What is common in Joanna and Dani’s accounts is the fear to talk about how they struggled with body image.
Other women I spoke to had conceived through IVF or after miscarriage and their guilt about having preoccupations with their body image was overwhelming. Pregnancy is a demanding physical process and it can be difficult to give yourself over to it. It’s not always easy, sometimes it can feel like a sacrifice, the changes are not always easy to see as beautiful. Very simply; we need to give ourselves a break and be assured that we are allowed to have different reactions to our pregnant selves and, vitally, this is not a reflection on how we feel about our babies!
Loving yourself, loving your pregnant body
So, if you find yourself struggling, know you are not alone and consider these tips for moving forward:
- Do something for yourself – paint your nails, have a bath, get a haircut, recognise something you like about yourself. A little self-compassion goes a long way in reminding us to love our bodies. This may extend to exercise, but keep in mind this is for general prenatal health, relaxation and stress relief rather than to achieve a certain physical state.
- Take some time to connect with your baby – however you are feeling about your body can be separate to how you feel about your baby and the miraculous gift of life you are giving. Who knows, the two mind-sets may meet harmoniously if given time and space. Take time to grow and indulge in your bond. Meditate with your hands on your bump, visualise your meeting, take a prenatal yoga class, talk to your baby.
- Let your feelings come – if you push your feelings down they will remain unresolved. Find some time and a safe place and sit with the feelings you are having. Let them rise, question them, turn them over and consider them. If you need more support with what arises then….
- Talk! What you are going through isn’t uncommon or selfish. Seek out a sympathetic ear and speak out your fears. This may be a BACP registered counsellor, a friend or a prenatal group.
- Ditch the toxic images – if pictures of a Hollywood star in her bikini or workout clothes at 9 months pregnant are making you feel bad then CHOOSE not to participate. These images are rarely a representation of real life. Who needs them!
- Perspective – you won’t be pregnant forever, although it may seem like it at certain point. This is a natural stage in your life, it will come and go. You don’t have to be positive for the whole pregnancy just because its fleeting, but by the same token it is a brief period in life and this thought may change any feelings you are having. When the pregnancy is over you will be making new choices about your body, whatever they may be.
Imagine the miraculous thing your body is doing. revel in your ability and your gift/sacrifice.
This won’t last forever. You will change again. You will make decisions again about exercise and diet which may result in body changes, or it may not. The point is you will make a choice and you are in control.
You can create a wider relationship with your body. Your body will move and change with lifestyle choices, age, pregnancy. Much of this is inevitable. How can you change your mind-set to celebrate all your body has done and represents as these changes happen?
Love yourselves mamas. What you are doing is challenging, wonderful, demanding and miraculous.
Chanelle Thornton is a guest blogger for ZenBirth. She is a qualified psychotherapist and counsellor who specialises in supporting parents who have experienced birth-related trauma. She is mama of three and has experience using hypnobirthing.