Navigating Body Image and Disordered Eating in the Postpartum Period
The postpartum period can be a challenging time for new mothers, as they adjust to the physical, emotional, and psychological changes that come with parenthood. One of the most common challenges is the struggle with postpartum body image, which can lead to the development (or relapse) of eating disorders. This is particularly true for those who have previously engaged in disordered eating of any kind, even if it was never diagnosed.
What Are They?
Eating disorders are complex mental health conditions that are characterized by altered and unsafe eating habits and a distorted perception of body weight and shape. They can affect people of any age, gender, or background, and can be triggered by a variety of factors, including genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors. According to National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), about 9% of the population will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. This rate is higher in the disabled and LGBTQ+ communities.
Society's Landscape On The Postpartum Body
For new mothers, the pressure to "bounce back" and regain their pre-pregnancy bodies can be overwhelming. The media and society often portray unrealistic beauty standards, and many women feel pressure to conform to these standards. This pressure can lead to negative body image, which can then trigger disordered eating behaviors. This has increased since the advent of social media in particular, as it is so easy to scroll past post after post of a new mom with a seemingly “perfect” body. In reality, these photos are often altered or do not show the whole picture, and are just a highlight reel of that person’s life and experience. However, in the postpartum period, this can be very difficult to differentiate. A study from Makino, Yasushi, and Tsutsui (2020) noted that participants in their research study showed a 67% relapse rate into a previous eating disorder during pregnancy, and 50% relapsed after birth.
How Disordered Eating & Eating Disorders Manifest In The Postpartum Period
Postpartum eating disorders can take different forms. Some people may develop anorexia nervosa, a condition characterized by severe food restriction and a fear of gaining weight. Others may develop bulimia nervosa, a condition characterized by binge-eating followed by purging through vomiting, laxatives, or excessive exercise. Still, others may develop binge-eating disorder, a condition characterized by frequent episodes of overeating. Regardless of the type of eating disorder, the consequences can be severe. Eating disorders can lead to malnutrition, dehydration, and other physical complications. They can also cause mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In severe cases, eating disorders can even be life-threatening, requiring hospitalization and even long-term effects.
Help Is Available & You Are Worthy Of Receiving Help
It can be challenging to seek help about this in the postpartum period. If you’re already working with a therapist, it can be immensely supportive to explore any negative thoughts you may be having about your body. Some interventions that might be helpful include avoiding negative self-talk, positive affirmations, following body positive or neutral accounts on various social medias, and focusing on what your body has accomplished rather than what it looks like.
It's also essential to understand that your body has gone through significant changes during pregnancy and childbirth, and it may take time for it to return to its pre-pregnancy state. Some people never do, and that is okay and even expected. It's completely normal to give yourself time and space to heal and recover, and to focus on your health and well-being rather than your appearance. Remember that your body has accomplished something amazing, and that alone is an incredible thing.
Eating disorder statistics: General & Diversity stats: Anad. ANAD National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2023, February 26). Retrieved February 26, 2023, from https://anad.org/eating-disorders-statistics/
Makino, M., Yasushi, M. & Tsutsui, S. The risk of eating disorder relapse during pregnancy and after delivery and postpartum depression among women recovered from eating disorders. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 20, 323 (2020).