In an effort to be positive and affirming towards mothers and the difficulties they experience, bystanders are often quick to comment on how well women “bounce back” after giving birth.
These remarks almost always come from a genuine desire to uplift mothers with sentiments such as: “You don’t look like you’ve had a baby!” or, “Don’t worry—breastfeeding will help take off the extra weight,” or, as more time goes on, “It takes some moms a little more time to bounce back than others.”
All too often, though, these comments are a double-edged sword.
I first noticed the problematic language surrounding how (and why) we talk about mothers’ postpartum bodies after having my second child. After asking about my cooing infant, friends and strangers alike would eventually offer some form of the phrase: “You don’t look like you’ve had two kids!”
These words always brought me a fleeting moment of confidence, but more often than not, they left me feeling uncomfortable and hyper-aware of how my postpartum body was being perceived. Additionally, I was going through my second, more severe round of postpartum depression, and I found myself frustrated at the focus on the superficial ways women have recovered after giving birth.
The more I thought about those compliments, and the bad aftertaste they left in my mouth, the more I came to realize that these attempts to affirm women actually promote many subtle negative narratives about mothers’ bodies and their postpartum identities, instead of affirming the innate goodness of their newfound role.
Beauty over well-being
The truth is, society’s fascination with a woman’s physical appearance is anything but new. Yet, even in a cultural time that boasts of body positivity, new and seasoned mothers feel the pressure to look like they were never affected by pregnancy or birth.
“Even during pregnancy, women reported that society expected them to reclaim control of their body following the birth of their baby, and described this as a distressing and fearful prospect,” a group of scholars wrote in a metasynthesis of literature and studies on women’s postpartum body image. “The postpartum body was portrayed as a project to be actively worked on and controlled to get back to normal, with many women perceiving this to be a bigger goal postpartum than before pregnancy.” This attitude of viewing the postpartum body as a “project” only perpetuates an ongoing narrative for women to prioritize weight loss over holistic health and genuine well-being.
Even worse, it undermines the life- and body-altering experience of giving birth. Just as no one would put those who have been through other intense medical experiences on a strict timeline for their aesthetic bodily recovery (if that is even of importance), so too we should avoid suggesting to mothers that the return to their pre-pregnancy bodies is the sign of a successful postpartum experience. The language of “bouncing back” insists that women should appear like they never gave birth, without acknowledging the unique response each woman’s body has to this experience.
Of course, many postpartum women do want to return to their pre-pregnancy weight for reasons unrelated to a sense of external pressure. Perhaps a compliment on the progress of your new-mom friend’s journey would be appropriate in the context of your relationship and what she has shared with you, and she would sincerely welcome the affirmation and support.
But it’s important not to assume that this is every new mother’s immediate goal (even if it is a long-term one); it may even feel like the last thing within her control. For many women, it is difficult to lose weight whether or not they are breastfeeding. And while it is true some mothers may return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly than others, this doesn’t necessarily indicate the mental or physical work it took to get there; some women have high metabolisms and their body responds to pregnancy and birth relatively flexibly, while others’ bodies may require a more intentional approach to nutrition and exercise.
No one is better than the other: these bodies simply are. What is important isn’t returning to the body they had prior to this breathtaking event, but rather caring for the body they have—the body that bore and nourished life.
More than body changes
Another transformation overlooked by the focus on a mother’s appearance is her mental health.
“A woman’s brain, it seems, may change more quickly and more drastically during pregnancy and the postpartum period than at any other point in her life—including puberty,” writes Jenni Gritters for The New York Times, citing a number of recent studies. Amid these changes—in addition to all the other challenges that come with new motherhood—mental health can slip. One in seven mothers experience postpartum depression within the first year of having a child.
Since external appearance doesn’t always correlate to physical and mental health, it’s important to be sensitive to the dramatic but unseen ways childbirth affects a mother. Speaking about one’s mental health is a very personal decision, and we may not be able to address that need directly, but we can create a language that encourages and affirms women instead of projecting expectations on them. And it’s never too soon to offer support: studies suggest that a woman’s body image during pregnancy can be a predictor for postpartum depression.
Social support also helps new mothers recover mentally and emotionally. While postpartum depression cannot always be avoided, attempting to normalize providing help and encouragement to new mothers is important for their all-around flourishing.
A language that rejects motherhood
The idea that they should return to their pre-pregnancy bodies in order to look like a woman who has never had a baby inadvertently diminishes the importance and goodness of the role of the mother entirely. It asks that a woman remain physically unidentifiable as a mother, unmarked and unaffected by her baby, thus distancing her identity from her role. The intent may be to acknowledge the difficulty some women experience when their body changes for another person. But this way of thinking suggests a woman’s beauty holds more value than her role as mother or even the baby she produced.
When you step back to think about the physical strength, mental elasticity, and emotional selflessness this event demands, you can’t help but esteem the body of a mother. Emphasizing superficiality over the innate beauty of the postpartum body—stretch marks, soft stomach, and all—diminishes the way we value and respect mothers and the role their bodies play.
A solution: non-physical affirmation
Although I have been a mother just a short while, I have seen first- and secondhand that affirming the talents, parenting, or, simply, the love of a mother is more impactful than positively noticing her appearance. Instead of saying, “You look so good for just having had a baby!” or “How long did it take you to lose the baby weight?” try phrases that affirm the beauty of their motherhood such as: “You’re doing an amazing job,” “You radiate as a mother,” or, “Your baby is so in love with you!”
Or, instead of praising postpartum mothers’ for their weight or physique, praise their bodies for all it has accomplished: “You should feel proud of your body; it has done so much!”
What women need most during the postpartum period is affirmation and encouragement that doesn’t add pressure but instead encourages their transformation into their role as mother. Comments that suggest their body can and should return to its pre-baby state detracts from the enjoyment and self-discovery to be had within her role as a mother. As mothers navigate many unknowns, the best thing we can do to help them is to aid them in their weighty task of raising little ones when possible, and encourage them to care for and admire their wondrous bodies.