When Ali Ginestra was expecting her second child, she found herself overcome with negative thoughts about her appearance. “I’ve always been overweight, but I’ve resolved my issues internally. I never get down on myself,” says Ginestra, a mom of three in Hillsdale, New Jersey. “But during that pregnancy, it was like a switch flipped in my brain and I felt unattractive and dumpy. I didn’t want to buy new clothes. I felt like every other woman struggling with the thought, I look terrible.” Ginestra told her gynecologist about her feelings, which she describes as “a little mental dip,” and fortunately, her thinking reverted to normal soon after she gave birth.
Although you aren’t pregnant for long, the dramatic ways your body changes can profoundly influence the way you feel about yourself during that nine-month period and beyond. Many expectant moms embrace the pregnant look and feel healthy, confident and sexy. But some women feel unhappy and conspicuously overweight, even if they have an obvious bump and are within the healthy 25- to 35-pound weight gain recommendation.
New research from Penn State University shows a connection between negative body image and depression during pregnancy, so it’s important to discuss your feelings with a therapist or friend, which isn’t always easy. “There’s an element of shame,” says Claire Mysko, author of Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. “Expectant moms are supposed to be glowing and focused on the child and pregnancy. They don’t feel comfortable reaching out for help because they think it’s too superficial or selfish.”
If you feel like sobbing after looking in a full-length mirror, tell your OB/GYN or see a mental health professional. “It’s extremely important to seek care,” says Helen L. Coons, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health issues in Philadelphia. “Being anxious and depressed affects the quality of well-being, functioning, decision-making and self-esteem, and it further complicates a negative body image.”
Body image issues can affect anyone
You might assume that only overweight women or women with lifelong body image issues are susceptible to negative thoughts during pregnancy, but this isn’t so. “Women who are typically slim and fit may have the most difficulty,” says Diane G. Sanford, PhD, a women’s health psychologist in St. Louis and co-author of Life Will Never Be The Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide. “It feels very unlike them, and because so much of their esteem and identity can be tied up in their appearance, they’re not happy—even when they look great to those of us who are more average.”
Media portrayals of pregnant celebrities may be partly to blame. A recent study from Virginia Commonwealth University found that ordinary pregnant women often have unrealistic expectations about weight gain and postpartum weight loss because of entertainment magazine articles they’ve read about actresses who’ve had babies.
“Celebrities have many more resources than average women, including personal trainers and personal chefs,” says Mysko, who interviewed Hollywood actresses for her book. “They’re often under contract to get the weight off by a certain time. A lot of them said that they regretted the insane focus on weight loss because it took away from bonding with the baby.”
Weight issues can impact pregnancy
Taken to the extreme, body image issues can create problems which may negatively impact pregnancy outcomes. Some women may not gain enough weight because they’re dieting while clinging to images of their former skinny selves, which could cause developmental problems for their babies. Others may gain too much weight, which could lead to other complications.
“We definitely see problems when women think they’re eating for two and say, ‘I can eat whatever I want,'” says Robert Atlas, MD, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Excessive weight gain is now being recognized as a risk factor for complications like hypertension, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes.”
A recent study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that gaining too much early in pregnancy significantly increases a woman’s chances of developing gestational diabetes, and care providers have taken note. “As a physician, I find myself looking at weight gain and trying to keep people more in tune to the recommendations than I have in the past,” says Atlas. “I wonder how much I’m contributing to these negative feelings that patients are having, when they think, ‘I gained four pounds this week but it should only have been two.’”
You can feel good about your body
It may take a conscious effort, but there are several ways to feel better about yourself during pregnancy. Try employing the strategies below to boost your body image:
Shift your attitude. Marvel at the miracle of pregnancy instead of fretting that you’re getting larger. “Women should give up the anger and self-hate to celebrate and appreciate that their bodies are working and creating a baby,” says Coons.
Avoid celebrity comparison. Don’t size up your bump in relation to those of models and actresses. “A lot of women internalize the messages,” Mysko explains. “They think: ‘Why can’t I look like that? I’d feel better about myself if I did.’”
Focus on good health, not weight. Strive to stay fit, rather than worrying about how many pounds you’ve gained. “Pay attention to staying well-hydrated, getting regular physical activity, and eating healthfully,” advises Sanford.
Ignore your weigh-ins. Tell your doctor that unless you’re gaining too much or too little, you don’t want to know about it. Ask him to record your weight without saying the number aloud. “I stood on the scale backward,” Mysko says. “It was an easy way for me to say, ‘I don’t want to obsess about this.’”
Splurge on maternity clothes. Squeezing into your usual clothing can make you feel fat and unhappy. You’ll feel better in something that highlights your new shape. “Buy things that you feel good in, that are cute and sexy,” suggests Sanford. “It’s worth it.”