Driven by body-conscious celebs, more women battle to get pre-baby bodies back after giving birth, study finds

“I was floored by how profoundly important body image was to these women”

Participants exercise during a Stroller Strides class for mothers in Denver.(Matthew Staver/The New York Times)

When Bonnie Fox, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto gave birth to her son 25 years ago, she pretty much stopped thinking about her appearance. “You start wearing sweats all the time and you just don’t care,” she recalled. So when one of her sociology students proposed to study how images of beauty affect women during the postpartum period, she was skeptical. “I wrote a whole book about how overwhelming it is to have a baby, but I hadn’t thought about women’s body image,” she said. “This is a period where messages about how you look are less important.”

But Elena Neiterman, now an assistant professor at McMaster University in Canada, convinced Fox that things had changed — that women today are never immune to the pressure to look good, even in the weeks and months after giving birth. An Instagram search for “#postpartum” yields countless photos of ordinary women offering tips for weight loss and stretch mark cures. People magazine runs “Body after Baby” features showing celebrity moms looking sleek before and just after giving birth.

And in a new paper in the journal Gender & Society, Fox and Neiterman offer empirical evidence that most postpartum women aren’t solely focused on enjoying the experience of new motherhood — they’re also stressing out about the changes in their bodies. The sociologists interviewed 48 women, drawn from diverse segments of Canadian society, who had given birth at some point in the previous 20 months, and Fox estimates that about two-thirds of the women admitted to being unhappy about their bodies after they gave birth.

“I was floored by how profoundly important body image was to these women,” Fox said in a phone interview with Women in the World. “These women talked about the message that you’re supposed to get your body back. Twenty-five years ago, there would have been tabloids at the grocery store, but the strength of all those images on social media is probably more powerful. They were very aware of those photos of celebrities who are thin and beautiful and holding a baby—they were talking about specific celebrities.”

Other research supports that observation: a 2014 study, based on surveys of 345 Korean women who’d recently given birth, found a link between the women’s interest in celebrities’ postpartum bodies and dissatisfaction with their own.

Most of the women Fox and Neiterman studied were middle-class and in their 30s, but others in their sample were teen moms, immigrants, working-class and wealthy women. The participants were recruited through advertisements in doctors’ offices and daycare centers as well as through posts on social media and the researchers’ own personal networks.

Fox and Neiterman were able to identify certain factors that mitigated or exacerbated the degree of distress women experienced. There were cultural differences: the women from Europe were less likely than their North American counterparts to report negative feelings about their postpartum bodies. And women who weren’t able to breastfeed or had had some problem with the birth were extra upset about their appearance. For some women, pregnancy can be a reprieve from the usual pressures to look fit, but “Feeling released from those pressures is contingent on feeling that you’re a good mother,” Fox said.

The most important variable, though, was social status. “We could see class differences in the amount of upset,” Fox said. The three wealthy women in the study were fairly content with their post-pregnancy bodies, while the lower-income, less secure women — those who hadn’t finished high school, who were unmarried, who were working “crappy” jobs — were the most prone to body dissatisfaction. “We argue that their insecurity gets displaced and focused on the body,” Fox said.

That finding could have implications that go beyond the period just after giving birth, and contradict the conventional wisdom, which holds that higher-status women tend to be more dissatisfied with their bodies than their less advantaged peers.

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