Body Dissatisfaction and Pregnancy
Pregnancy is associated with dramatic changes in women’s body shape and size, and for many women, these changes trigger mixed emotions.
For some, pregnancy weight gain can lead to “body dissatisfaction,” or a negative body image. A recent study evaluated changes in women’s weight and body satisfaction from before pregnancy to one month after delivery. It found that mothers were on average 11 pounds heavier after delivery than before becoming pregnant, and were less satisfied with their weight and shape after delivery.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota followed 506 women over a longer timeframe, up to nine months following birth. The women’s body dissatisfaction increased significantly over this time. Despite losing an average of 10 pounds, their mean weight remained an average of 5.4 pounds above the pre-pregnancy weight.
Body dissatisfaction after nine months was associated with overeating or poor appetite, higher current weight, worse mental health (particularly depression), bottle-feeding, being single vs. married, having fewer children, and smoking during pregnancy. But the importance of social factors such as close relationships and employment status remains unclear.
The researchers say, “It’s important to educate women about expected postpartum weight and body changes, and to find ways to enhance mothers’ postpartum self-esteem and body satisfaction.”
A decline in body satisfaction is important in its own right, but is also important because it may contribute to other problems. Many research studies suggest that women who are preoccupied or less satisfied with their body shape are less likely to breastfeed, and more likely to suffer depressive symptoms or psychological distress.
This may contribute to a vicious cycle in which depression provokes body dissatisfaction through diminished self-esteem or overeating, and body dissatisfaction itself lowers self-esteem and contributes to depression. The cycle may heighten the risk for postpartum eating disorders.
Body image prior to pregnancy and the tendency to compare oneself to others physically are also linked to post-pregnancy body dissatisfaction. Women with pre-pregnancy eating disorders are at particular risk. Experts from the University of Illinois say, “The combination of psychological stressors of new motherhood and body image concerns, intensified by the residual bodily changes of pregnancy, may predispose women to have an exacerbation in eating disorder symptoms as well as the development of postpartum mood disorders.”