Where is the pressure coming from?
Whenever the subject of body image is mentioned, fingers are immediately pointed at photoshopped celebrities on magazine covers and filtered social media images.
Is social media the culprit?
Dr Yager says that it isn’t necessarily where the pressure is coming from now.
“There isn’t data on this, but from my experience, in the past decade there has been a big shift away from social media pressuring women to have unrealistic expectations of their body after birth,” she explains.
“What we see now, are more celebrities, and mums, posting their real after birth bodies and the process of their body’s changes from those first initial weeks to months after.
“Having that real visual imagery actually helps other women set their expectations of what is going to happen, or that changes to getting their body to what they want will take time.”
So, where is the pressure coming from?
Probably from women themselves Dr Yagers says.
“What we hear in the research is that we have this inbuilt pressure that we put on ourselves,” Dr Yager says.
“That critical voice in our head that says we are a failure as a mother because we don’t look like we are holding it all together.”
When we dislike our bodies
In 2019, researchers found that over a quarter of all women (not just mothers) were somewhat to extremely dissatisfied with their body, while over half of the respondents had moderate or significant shape and weight concerns.
The research also identified that negative body image significantly corelated with poorer wellness behaviours, negative emotions, quality of life and functional impairment.
“In maternal health care, there are two main concerns. First, perinatal mental health and second gestational weight gain,” explains Dr Yager.
“If we help mothers feel better about their bodies, we have found that actually promotes physical activity and increases dietary quality.
“Those physical behaviours increase a mother’s mental health by reducing anxiety and depression.
“If women feel good about their bodies, then they will engage in healthy physical behaviours which can positively impact their mental health.
“So, we get a reduction in the two original maternal health care concerns by addressing a mother’s body concerns.”
Dr Yager also emphasises that it is not necessarily about body positivity, but rather body acceptance.
“It’s about that appreciation of the functionality of your body,” she adds.
The good news is mothers are halfway there.
In 2020, Dr Yager and her colleagues found that women with no children had the worst body image as they still valued their body based on their appearance while women with children valued their body in relation to what their body could do, for example safely carry their children during pregnancy.
Poor body image can also trickle down to the next generation.
Dr Yager explains that role modelling from parents and the family environment are the main influences on body image in children until they turn nine. After that a child’s peers and the media start to play a role.
“Every time a mother says something negative about her own body, children learn that is how women should behave about their own bodies,” cautions Dr Yager.
“It is really quite damaging in laying down those early pathways for the way we think about food, physical activity and our bodies but also the way that we value ourselves.”