Postpartum Body Image Tips From An ED Therapist With Lived Experience
Originally appeared on National Eating Disorder Information Centre
“It’s a strange thing to hold reverence for the body that withstood such a major medical event and brought my treasured child into the world, while also resenting the bodily evidence left behind.”
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At first, I thought I was successful in combating ED thoughts and the diet mentality that followed the birth of my child. Sure, my ear would initially be tickled with ED whisperings of fatphobia and diet culture. But just as quickly as they appeared, self-compassionate and comforting hums would replace them. But as time passed, I began to feel more stress about my new body shape and size. I had a number of friends and acquaintances who gave birth very close to when I did, and I really began to struggle with body comparison. Why was my body larger than theirs? Why did it seem like they were restored to their pre-pregnancy body sizes when I wasn’t? These fatphobic thoughts and expectations hung like a cloud as I squeezed my body into my too-small clothes.
At 4 months postpartum, I was horrified to come across a post in my social media feed from my local hospital’s pregnancy unit for an upcoming Q&A on C-sections. The post included a naked, very thin, flat-tummied, stretchmark-free, White person, from the navel down to the thighs. Laying on top of this body was a newborn baby, peaceful in slumber, blocking the birthing person’s labia but also positioned low enough down to wonder how this person had no pubic hair. It was a completely unrealistic picture of any body, let alone a postpartum body. I was so upset that a reproductive-focused medical facility was perpetuating such a harmful body standard (not to mention a weirdly sexualized one). I felt shame about my postpartum body and at times bought into this diet-culture idea that my body should be getting smaller the further away I got from my child’s birth date.
Pregnant people are often highly encouraged to try breast/chestfeeding at any cost (a whole separate conversation) and one of the “benefits” often included is weight loss. I hate to admit it… but when breastfeeding was going well with my baby I was partially relieved, because in the back of my mind, I thought breastfeeding would help prevent me from needing to adjust to a drastically new and different body. But, I was wrong. I was experiencing shame that my postpartum body was “too large” or differently-shaped. And, then I had shame about my fatphobia-induced shame, as that was not aligned with my values.
It’s a strange thing to hold reverence for the body that withstood such a major medical event and brought my treasured child into the world, while also resenting the bodily evidence left behind. To admire the softness and smoothness from stretched skin where my child was held in their first home, then to shortly thereafter hold disgust for new skin/fat folds and stretch mark scribblings. The good news is, with a lot of work, over time my relationship to my new body as a result of pregnancy and childbirth is becoming easier. If I’m being honest, I’m not yet at a place where I like my postpartum body and I’m willing to accept that maybe I will never be. But, I am at a place where my feelings toward my body are much more neutral and compassionate. My body has been and is capable of great things. My body is worthy.
These are some of the things that have been helping me move toward body acceptance:
- Remind yourself that eating is especially important during this time
Our bodies need energy in the form of food. Providing consistent and adequate nourishment following labour and delivery is extremely important—especially for postpartum bodies. The last thing your body needs right now is to have its starvation response triggered.
Whether your birth was vaginal or Caesarean, your body needs to recover and it needs food to do that.
You will need the energy from food to help you combat the sleep deprivation you’ll be experiencing. I was able to have several family members and friends provide food and meals in the weeks after my birth so that I didn’t have to worry about cooking. This was an absolute life-saver. I also made sure I had Ensure and meal supplements on hand to quickly consume nutrients with little time/effort.
Eating enough consistently and regularly will also help your milk production if you are breast/chest-feeding.
- Respect your body by dressing in clothes that fit and are comfortable
Stop trying to squeeze into your old clothes. Wearing clothes that are too tight does not feel good.
Pregnancy/maternity clothes are meant to accommodate a changing body. Your body may keep changing postpartum so just because you’re no longer pregnant doesn’t mean you should stop wearing pregnancy clothes if they are comfortable and fit. If it helps you feel better, stay away from the items that accentuate a “bump”.
If you find that your new body shape does not fit in any of the sizes provided in a store, consider buying a size that is too big and then taking to a tailor or a family member who has some sewing skills.
Get familiar with thrift stores. I have bought some items new, but I have found most of my success with thrift stores. I’ve even bought a couple items with the tags still on.
- Engage in re-embodying activities
With pregnancy, labour, child-birth, and breast/chest-feeding, there is a long period of time where you may feel like your body isn’t fully your own anymore. And, if you have a history of disordered eating and disembodiment, these feelings could be exacerbated. Where possible, engage in pleasurable activities that help you reconnect with your body in positive ways. For me, that was prioritizing walking, getting back to choir rehearsals and singing, and maintaining sexual intimacy with my partner.
- Reject the Diet Mentality
Shortly after giving birth, I completed my Intuitive Eating Counselling Certification. Immersing myself in anti-diet values, principles, and scientific research really helped me to reject the diet mentality and ED thoughts as they arose.
There is no research to indicate that long-term weight loss is a realistic endeavour.
Speak out against harmful diet culture when you see it. For example, that Instagram post I mentioned— I commented something along the lines of “I’m really happy to see this event on C-sections will be taking place but I am very disappointed you chose to use a promotional image that perpetuates an unrealistic body standard”. Many other commenters followed suit and the account ended up removing that promotional image.
Consume weight-inclusive content, media, and literature that aligns with anti-diet values, fat-liberation, and Health at Every Size. Some of my favourites are:
- Virgie Tovar’s podcast “Rebel Eaters Club” for fat liberation
- Elyse Resch & Evelyn Tribole’s book “Intuitive Eating: A revolutionary anti-diet approach
- Christy Harrison’s podcast “Food Psych” for anti-diet & Intuitive Eating
- Sonya Renee Taylor’s book “The body is not an apology” for self-love
- Christyna Johnson’s instagram page for anti-diet & fat liberation content
- Bri Campos’ instagram page for fat acceptance and body image content
The Grief Year
Originally appeared on Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Centre
“… there was nothing wrong with me, there was something wrong with the system. The patriarchal systems in place that keep pregnancy loss our dirty little secrets.”
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(content warning: ectopic rupture, surgical intervention, silent miscarriage, Trying To Conceive, death of a pet)
2020 was my grief year. Not to say grieving or bereavement was contained to that year (I wish) but that the amount of types and ways that grief interacted with my life during such a short time is pretty astonishing.
- In January, I experienced a life-threatening pregnancy loss through an ectopic rupture and had to have emergency surgery. I was hospitalized for 3 days. I lost 1/3 of my blood, my right fallopian tube, and almost my own life.
- In February, my dog died.
- Also in February, after (physically) healing from my surgery, I returned to my job as a professional grief therapist (I ended up leaving that job a couple of months later because surprise, surprise— I couldn’t handle all the grief).
- In March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
- In April, my partner and I entered into the world of “Trying to Conceive” for the first time (which as you probably know, completely sucks)
- In September, I found out I was pregnant (finally!) but then,
In October, at 10 weeks pregnant I found out I had a silent miscarriage.
- In November, after complications, I finally finished miscarrying my baby.
I’ve learned that most people don’t really know anything about ectopic pregnancies because they’re pretty rare (1-2% of diagnosed pregnancies). I didn’t even really know much about them or the symptoms prior to having one myself. I knew something was wrong with my pregnancy and within one week I went to 3 primary care physicians and twice called my provincial nursing helpline; but, no one caught that it was an ectopic pregnancy and no one told me I needed to go to the ER. I was only 6 weeks pregnant when my ectopic pregnancy became an ectopic rupture.
My ectopic rupture was the most painful and scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. The doctors told me their hope was to do a tiny laparoscopic incision to remove the pregnancy, but when the procedure began they realized my blood loss was severe and I quickly became unstable. They shifted gears to invasive abdominal surgery. They removed the pregnancy tissue and my obliterated fallopian tube. I was given 2 blood transfusions. I legitimately almost died.
When I tell people about my ectopic pregnancy loss, I often feel the need to give all the gory details and explain the life-threatening nature of a rupture. People don’t understand the seriousness because they don’t understand ectopic pregnancies. I did have friends and family who provided support for my baby loss but not really for my loss of safety. I was simultaneously devastated my baby was dead but also relieved I was alive. Then I was angry people seemed to care more about my baby loss than almost losing me. It was extremely confusing.
After my surgery, I was in shock. I think I stayed in shock for a while. I’ve had a lot of professional support for my own mental health issues and I do this work for a living. So, I didn’t really think I needed grief support at the time. My relief for being alive slightly outweighed my sadness for losing a baby and I was embarrassed to admit that to anybody. It wasn’t until after my 2nd pregnancy loss 10 months later, the cumulative effects of my multiple losses over the year came to a boil and I acted promptly. I took time off. I got therapy. I got back on medication.
Being a therapist and doing grief work professionally does not make you immune to experiencing grief. Logically, I knew that. But, emotionally it was hard to wrap my mind around it. I saw my clients’ bereavement and loss as more valid because that’s what we are socialized to believe and it’s what our culture supports. When I initially tried to access grief support for pregnancy loss, there was little to none in my area. I wondered how this could be with the miscarriage rate being 15-25%? Even over my multi-day hospitalization and many subsequent medical appointments, there was no appointed person to communicate any grief support options. I felt like I was a detective, trying to find someone I could talk to about my experiences. I had multiple medical staff tell me people “don’t want to talk about pregnancy loss” as a reason for having little to no grief support options for patients. I thought “Well… I want to. Is that weird? Is there something wrong with me?” What a way to further perpetuate the stigma of pregnancy loss bereavement.
I came to a conclusion, there was nothing wrong with me, there was something wrong with the system. The patriarchal systems in place that keep pregnancy loss our dirty little secrets. We are to deal with these issues in private because that’s a uterus owner’s issue. I find there’s almost an apathy around miscarriages especially because they’re so statistically common— that it’s just part of life for many people with uteruses. I refused to buy into these ideas and guess what— you can refuse too. I was pretty open about my losses with the people in my life. I get that not everyone is comfortable or ready to talk about it and that’s okay. But, there should be an environment and culture established where if and when someone is ready to talk about it, the support is there and ready. We all deserve the option to talk about our baby loss. If you do want to talk about your loss, about your experience, there is nothing wrong with you.