How Media’s Unrealistic Body Standards Harm Women Postpartum

Author

Alana Van Der Sluys


date published

Sept. 15, 2021, noon


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As a mom of a 13-month-old, I get it. It wasn’t very long ago when I was a mere few days postpartum, looking down at my still-very-pregnant-looking stomach. My mind thought back to all those magazine covers I had seen over the years about this and that celebrity getting her pre-baby body back in just six weeks. They were always on the front cover of the magazine, too, and in a bikini, no less. 


We see these pictures, read these messages, and, on the surface, we go about our day; but inside, something more insidious is happening: we’re internalizing the inferential messages of those pictures and headlines. 


“We are only valuable if we are thin.”

“Even though we’ve had babies, we shouldn’t look like we’ve had babies.”

“Our goal should be to fix our bodily flaws.”

“If she can do it, we should be able to, too.” 


These messages are more harmful than we realize, and here’s why. 


They equate thinness with self-worth. 


If we are not thin or are not actively seeking thinness, then something is wrong with us. We’ve “stopped trying”. We’ve “let ourselves go.”


The truth of the matter is, being a parent--whether it’s your first or fourth, whether you just had a baby or your “baby” is 15 years old--it’s HARD. Watching them grow up and not need you as much anymore, juggling your life and identity alongside mom guilt, not having the manual you so desperately wish you had when they are struggling or acting out. Every day we show up and do the best we can, but there are no guarantees, no safeguards; and we live with the decisions of molding an entire person for the rest of their lives. It’s hard. It’s exhausting.


To put weight loss at the top of the list of important things in your life only makes parenting more difficult. The truth of the matter is being thin doesn’t make you a better person, a better mother, a better anything. It doesn’t even make you healthier, and I can attest to that, as an eating disorder survivor. The correlation between weight and health is not causation, by any means, and rather, simply shows how fatphobic our society has become.


They tell us that our bodies should be our life’s focal point. 


We have so much going on as mothers, whether we are stay-at-home or working full-time jobs. We are more than mothers. We are daughters, aunts, cousins, wives, friends, and students. We have ideas and opinions and voices that the world needs to hear, but those voices are silenced when we are told to focus on our bodies--that our bodies are the most interesting things about us, and we should be putting every ounce of (sparse) spare energy on losing weight and toning up. We cannot make an impact on our children and the rest of this world if we’re doing mental math for calories or experiencing brain fog in an effort to create a caloric deficit to lose weight. 


They tell us that the size and shape of our bodies are things within our scope of control. 


For someone whose eating disorder started with wanting to feel a sense of control at a time I felt I had none, this message is a slippery slope, especially for new moms. Your entire world and identity shifts when you first become a mom. You have a new human with their own schedule that they haven’t even solidified yet so it seems to change daily. You’re not attune to their cries yet so you don’t know what they want. And even when they grow up, they have their own personalities that you can’t control because they’re not simply an extension of you. You lose a sense of control over your life when you become a mom, and naturally, we want to grasp for something to control: that’s when our psyches become most permeable to diet culture’s messages. We can control our food and weight, right?


I know many want to believe in this idea that we’re sold but it’s a fallacy. We can see it’s a fallacy by how many failed diets we’ve tried. We can see it in the weight we can never seem to lose. There’s a reason diets don’t work and the health and fitness industry is a multibillion dollar one. They prey on the idea that we feel less than if we don’t look a certain way and they can give us the way to do it. In reality, though, all of us have a predetermined weight set point, a range where our bodies feel most comfortable. It’s different for all of us, can change as we age, and is largely genetically determined. To fall outside of that range requires a life-long fight with our biology. 


It doesn’t have to be this way.


I recovered from my eating disorder with a philosophy known as intuitive eating. It’s an anti-diet approach where our bodies are put back into the driver’s seat and trusted to let us know what we need with regard to food and fitness. We honor our cravings, allow all foods, consider gentle nutrition and move our bodies in a way that feels good to us. I can honestly say that I am in the best shape of my life (including before the birth of my son), I respect my body more, and have a much better relationship with my body and the food I put into it. I have freed up brain space to be a better mom. I will teach my son intuitive eating, as well, so he grows up knowing that he is enough, regardless of his body size, that food should be celebrated and not feared, and that women deserve more in this life than to be reduced to a dress size. 


So consider: What messages are you letting infiltrate your internal narrative? What messages about food and body will you pass onto your children? How can we cultivate a sense of love and worth within ourselves and within them to stop a generational cycle of disordered dieting? 


Author's Bio

Alana Van Der Sluys is the founder and CEO of Freedom with Food and Fitness (on Instagram @FreedomwithFoodandFitness), where she supports women who want to ditch diet culture, find food freedom through intuitive eating, accept (and maybe even love) their bodies, and reclaim joy in fitness. She offers free resources and online intuitive eating courses on her website (www.freedomwithfoodandfitness.com). Alana is currently studying to become a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. She’s also a full-time English and journalism teacher, boy mom to one, a lover of wine and whisky, and an avid reader of all genres.

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