Why Body Diversity in Pregnancy and Postpartum Matters to Moms Everywhere

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Body stigma is everywhere, and nowhere are the damages more consequential than in the lives of women who are growing and birthing new life into our world.  

Countless of women in larger bodies face weight discrimination in multiple ways, and this directly impacts the health and wellness of mothers during pregnancy and postpartum.

Birth is not a one-body-size-fits-all approach, and women should be empowered in knowing that their body is capable of growing and birthing a baby into the world, regardless of their body size, shape or weight.

All mothers deserve access to safe, non discriminatory health care to ensure that they are getting the care and attention they need without fear or shame about their body size. When mothers are cared for, families flourish.

How Weight Stigma Impacts New Moms

What exactly is weight stigma and how can this play out in prenatal and postpartum healthcare?

Sadly, as a culture, we are so inundated with diet culture and weight stigma that it can be hard to realize when it might be happening to you or someone you love.

Weight stigma is the display of prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory actions toward a person based on their weight and body size alone. In the United States, weight stigma is the fourth most common form of discrimination and is widespread in professional settings, including the healthcare field.  

Weight stigma has many known adverse effects on a woman’s wellbeing, including her physical, mental, and behavioral health. For a woman trying to conceive, who may be pregnant or postpartum, weight stigma can be especially damaging to her overall health, putting her and her baby at increased risks for more complications.

What might weight stigma look like for a woman in a larger body who is pregnant or postpartum?

  • Delayed appointments or access to prenatal care and treatment

  • Inadequate treatment options due to body size or weight

  • Misdiagnosis or unnecessary treatment interventions

  • Lack of access to preventative healthcare procedures

  • Feeling ashamed or humiliated due due to body size

  • Lack of a trusting relationship between a woman and her perinatal provider

The presence of weight stigma in maternity care is of grave concern, given that women are already at increased risk for physical and mental health challenges during pregnancy and postpartum. Studies have found that women in larger bodies may be at a disadvantage in regards to perceived quality of their maternity care in comparison to women within a “normal” weight range. Women with a higher BMI were more likely to report negative experiences of care during pregnancy and after birth, compared to lower weight women.

With the increased hyperfocus on management of obesity during pregnancy has come greater potential for weight stigma in maternity care. In the process, many women in larger bodies are not getting the care and treatment they need and deserve to support the best possible outcomes for pregnancy and postpartum.

Risks of Weight Stigma in Maternal Healthcare

Weight stigma during maternity care is not without devastating consequences to both a mother and her baby.

Stigmatization of overweight and obese women seeking prenatal care can increase exposure to negative treatment throughout pregnancy and less positive treatment after giving birth. For example, perinatal health care providers may perceive a pregnant women in a larger body to be at greater risk for complications, requiring interventions that may be unnecessary or even harmful.  

Some of the potential risks and negative consequences of weight stigma during pregnancy and postpartum might include:

  • Poor psychological functioning

  • Increased risk for eating disorders

  • Maladaptive dieting behavior

  • Low self-esteem and negative body image

  • Exercise avoidance

  • Increased risk of developing mental health issues, including anxiety and depression

  • Increased risk of postpartum depression

A recent study found that women experience weight stigma from multiple sources during pregnancy and postpartum, including healthcare providers, immediate family members, strangers, and from the media and society in general.

Celebrating Body Diversity in Pregnancy and Postpartum

It’s easy to fall into a mindset of what we think is “normal” or “healthy” based on what we see through a weight-biased culture and in the mainstream media. In actuality, less than 5% of women fit the unrealistic mold and standard of beauty that society objectifies as acceptable.

In order to practice greater body acceptance, it is important to celebrate body diversity and honor the fact that pregnancy, birth, and postpartum beautifully unfolds in a variety of shapes and sizes. The assumption that a healthy pregnancy can only be achieved through a certain body type is a complete fallacy and destructive to the wellbeing of women and their families.

Women should be encouraged to engage in behaviors that support their overall wellbeing. Dieting is not conducive to health, especially during the vulnerable time of pregnancy and postpartum. There are a multitude of ways to ensure that a woman and her baby are healthy during and after pregnancy, none which involve dieting or punishing themselves unnecessarily for being of a certain body size or shape.

By promoting body diversity while practicing greater body acceptance with ourselves and others, we are challenging the harmful stigmas that are hurting mothers and their families. By embracing the passage of pregnancy and postpartum in all body sizes, we are removing barriers to more fulfilled lives.

"It is of great importance that any experienced disadvantage or inequality among overweight and obese women in maternity care is removed. All women, regardless of body size, deserve equal access to safe and supportive maternity care, and equal opportunities to experience full enjoyment of such a significant life event." - (Mulherin et al., 2013)