Advice and guidelines on postpartum weight loss can be extremely confusing, and there is one good reason for this: Everybody is different!
This means that women’s experience of pregnancy and postpartum will also differ, from the way each pregnancy carries out, to how their body responds, how much weight they gain and how fast (or slowly) their body sheds the extra pounds.
What most women in our culture commonly experience, however, is the explicit or subjective pressure to return to what they looked like before having a baby. The messages new mothers receive go something like this:
Take it easy.
Don’t be lazy!
Get comfortable in your new role.
Don’t get too comfortable with the extra weight!
Prioritize bonding with baby.
Just… do it all and keep your house clean while you’re at it!
Your body has done something miraculous!
Now punish it into submission so that it looks like such a miracle never happened.
We say the above only partly tongue-in-cheek. As most mothers can attest, this story is all too real! Pressure to lose the baby weight comes from many sources:
- Media: countless magazines, TV shows and social media feeds fawning over celebrities who immediately “bounce back” post-birth; “viral” examples of new moms who shrink rapidly, etc.
- Family: partners, mothers, mothers-in-law, and other family members who consciously or unknowingly put on pressure through comments, comparisons, suggestions, etc.
- The public sphere: strangers asking women when they are due even though the baby has already been born; unwarranted weight loss advice or suggestions while in public spaces or social events, etc.
Internet gives us access to a wealth of knowledge and information, but it also exposes us to unnecessary and potentially harmful messaging. Thanks to algorithms, new mothers who have googled anything related to babies and being a new mom can now be bombarded with ads for everything from baby bootcamp and weight loss programs, to spandex underwear and tummy-tucking girdles.
The message remains consistent: You must “fix” your postpartum body.
And (surprise!) said “fixing” is meant to happen by shrinking.
I want to fit back into my pre-baby clothes.
I want to look like I did before I had kids.
I want to lose the baby weight.
I want to [burn the flab, get rid of the ‘mom pouch’, feel like myself again]
While there is nothing inherently wrong with this type of goal, we do encourage you to do plenty of active listening. Specifically, we’d suggest you be on the lookout for vocabulary that suggests harsh self-criticism, disapproval, or rejection, since these are often signs of deeper conflict.
One great way to dig deeper into our clients’ thoughts and motivations is to get curious — in other words, ask plenty of questions! Listen attentively in order to understand how you can best be of help to them.
Some of the questions you can ask your client include:
- Why is this goal important for you? What is the significance or value behind this goal?
- What do you imagine will change or improve in your life by reaching X size or X number on the scale? (“I will feel __.” “I will have more energy.” “I will want to dress up again.”)
- Is there a specific motivation behind this goal? Do you have an important event coming up?
- What is your internal dialogue like right now? What is the chatter in your head saying? Is it positive and encouraging? Or is it defeating and berating?
- Is this a goal that you chose for yourself? Or was it perhaps planted or encouraged by someone else (like a partner, a relative, a friend, etc.)?
- How are you coping with life as a new mom in general? Do you feel supported and happy? Are you overwhelmed? Depleted? Thriving?
You’ll want to get a robust idea of where your client is at and where they’re coming from.
Throughout the question-asking process, remain mindful and connected to their responses. Some difficult conversations may arise as a result of bringing up these topics — your client needs you to tap into this struggle and be empathic, compassionate, and supportive.
Meet Them Where They Are
You wouldn’t take a newcomer to exercise and explain the technicalities of periodization to them. You wouldn’t sit with someone who is new to nutrition and demand they start counting macros.
In the same way, if your client is adamant about wanting to look like they never had kids, rather than try to convince them that this way of thinking could bring stress or be harmful, focus on what you can do to bring them closer to where they want to be while keeping their safety and well-being in the forefront.
You do not want to antagonize or negate your client’s wishes; this is a surefire way of losing their trust and their business. At the same time, you never want to encourage practices that you know could be harmful to a mother in early postpartum.
A gentle re-frame of a goal may be in order, and the conversation could look something like this:
Client: I want to be a size 6 like I was in high school.
Coach: Interesting goal! Tell me more about it… What does being a size 6 mean to you?
Client: I was young. I looked great! I want to get back to that.
Coach: That makes sense; sounds like that evokes a good time for you, when you felt really good. Is this accurate?
Client: Yes! I was so athletic and I had so much energy. That has changed so much.
Coach: I hear you! I definitely had more energy when I was in high school, too. I think age does play a role, but you’re right, there’s always room for improvement wherever we are. Here’s the great news: I can absolutely help you feel more athletic and energetic, closer to what you felt like when you were in high school!
Client: That’s awesome! And you think I’ll be a size 6, too?
Coach: That can be difficult to predict simply because our bodies have their own way of responding to the nutrition and exercise strategies we employ… I can tell you this, though: we will definitely focus on the behaviors that will make your goal more likely to happen. Does this sound good to you?
Client: Yes! That’s what I want.
Coach: Perfect. So we will put all of our focus on integrating these new behaviors, and we’ll start seeing the changes they bring. Does that make sense? Now, let’s discuss which new behavior you want to start practicing first…
In the scenario above, notice how the coach is in no way negating the validity of their client’s goal — in turn, there is no resistance from the client, who feels heard and understood. From this agreement, a plan can now be laid out.
Brave Bodies vs. Normal Bodies
Recently, social media has created the phenomenon of the brave mom — women whose viral Facebook or Instagram posts are portraying their real postpartum bodies: softer, wider, rounder, with loose skin, extra fat, more marks, dimples, wrinkles, etc. The accompanying media write-up typically describes these mothers as brave for showing the reality of their postpartum bodies.
While these images are absolutely necessary to counteract the constant barrage of ultra-slim and smooth postpartum figures that women are exposed to, we should also take the opportunity to question why, as a society, we choose to label images of normal postpartum bodies as brave.
If we all saw these postpartum figures as perfectly ordinary, which they are, there would be no implication of bravery or special merit attached to sharing what they look like. Unfortunately, loose skin, flabby tissue and hanging bellies — all inherently normal in postpartum bodies — are still seen as flaws, hence the courage attached to displaying them.
This is where we can all strive to change the narrative.
Although it’s important to recognize the courage required to go against limiting and deeply-rooted beauty standards, we can also hope for the day where such a proclamation of realness will no longer be necessary, and where women everywhere can share their postpartum pictures showing all types, shapes, and sizes of bodies without anyone batting an eye — at all.
As a coach, this is why our work matters: we can encourage the narrative to change every time we help women see the amazing, wonderful, fantastic qualities and abilities of their body.