By Bonnie Fox and Elena Neiterman
Ironically, at a time when getting married and having children are becoming optional for women, motherhood has acquired a mystique. Even women with advanced educational credentials and successful careers devote phenomenal amounts of time and energy to their babies and young children in the hope of ensuring their current and future security. Popular magazines regularly feature Hollywood celebrities’ stories about how motherhood transformed their lives. Yet motherhood seems not to have changed how these women look. The photos accompanying stories about celebrity moms promise that mothers devoted to their babies can also be trim and fit.
Our study examines Canadian women’s feelings about their changed bodies in the months following childbirth. In 2008-2009, Elena interviewed 27 Canadian women who had given birth within the last 18 months, to find out about their physical experiences of pregnancy. Although she was not asking, these women often talked about how upset they were with their changed bodies: They were upset about the weight they had gained with pregnancy, and very conscious of the messages about “getting your body back” that are so common in the popular magazines read by new mothers. To explore women’s feelings about their postpartum bodies, in 2012-2013 she interviewed another 21 women who had given birth within 20 months. These two samples of women were diverse with respect to age, number of children, income, education and occupation. Eleven women were immigrants and eight were racial minorities. Most women were employed, some were in school, and only five were full-time homemakers. Almost half, however, were on paid maternity leave, and others were back at work after having taken the year of maternity/parental leave that most Canadian women with full-time jobs can take.
Our main finding is that the hugely meaningful experience of motherhood and the intensive daily work involved in caring for an infant so monopolized women’s attention that they had little time to worry about their appearance. Most women accepted the weight gain they thought was essential to the health of their babies while they were pregnant and then devoted themselves to breastfeeding for many months – eating “for two” and honoring the medical guidelines for both activities. Yet, low-level concerns about appearance persisted. These women were happy if they looked pregnant (with “just the bump”) but not if they looked “heavy all over.” And most women felt some degree of upset about their changed postpartum bodies.
At the same time, for some of the women, motherhood meant experiencing their bodies in a new way, one that involved accomplishing something incredibly important. For these women – all of whom had mentioned the ways their pre-pregnant bodies failed to meet the standards of attractive feminine appearance – motherhood offered a positive new relationship with bodies that “gave” them their children. This new respect for their bodies was, however, contingent on those bodies meeting women’s expectations about “normal” (i.e. vaginal) childbirth and successful breastfeeding. Failure to meet expectations about giving birth and breastfeeding left women feeling bad about their bodies and themselves. Feelings about body and sense of self were entangled for all of the women we interviewed, whether these feelings were positive or negative.
Other factors also affected how these women felt about their bodies. Aside from whether they felt like they were “good” mothers, the work of caring for a baby, and often other young children, typically overrode concerns about appearance. Other circumstances shaping women’s lives also affected their feelings: Younger women living on low incomes, with precarious jobs and in common-law relationships, were more upset about their changed, heavier bodies than were women in more secure situations and relationships. We think that feelings of insecurity, based on life circumstances, were often displaced onto feelings about appearance. Partners’ reactions, therefore, also mattered. While many of the men offered the women reassurance about their appearance, some urged their partners to exercise. These kinds of comments increased women’s upset about their bodies.
Many of the women we interviewed returned to regular exercise – sometimes intensive exercise – and even dieting within a year after giving birth. Some did so as early as six weeks postpartum. The prospect of the return to work especially propelled many to begin to try to lose the weight they had gained with pregnancy. Yet, few women seemed to return to exercise, dieting and hair styling for the sake of appearance alone. Some talked of attending to their own needs after months of immersion in the work of mothering. But others said they exercised and attended to their diets as mothers, driven by health concerns or the desire to set a good example for their children.
Our findings indicate that the social construction of gender involves more than social expectations pushing people to “do gender.” Accomplishing proper womanhood involves two achievements that are thoroughly embodied, contingent on women’s self-discipline, hard work and privileged class and racial statuses, and at odds with each other — motherhood and fit, trim feminine appearance.
Bonnie Fox is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. Elena Neiterman is in the Department of Health, Aging & Society at McMaster University. Their co-authored article, “Embodied Motherhood: Women’s Feelings About Their Postpartum Bodies,” is published in the 29(5) issue of Gender & Society.