Between stretch marks, weight gain, and hormonal side effects, your body is bound to change during pregnancy. This is a fact that leaves some women feeling uncomfortable and a little out of control. Maintaining a positive body image can be challenging. This is especially true when faced with the constant pressure to be a super-fit pregnant woman who bounces back to her pre-baby size as soon as possible. Here, experts share five ways to deal with body image issues during pregnancy, so you can focus on what matters most: growing a healthy baby.
Remember that weight gain is normal.
Gaining weight during pregnancy can be scary, says Aaptiv Trainer Amanda Butler. Even though that’s what your body is supposed to do, watching yourself change and grow isn’t always easy. “So many of us have body image issues, to begin with. Pregnancy can make that even more complex,” adds Sia Cooper, a certified personal trainer who specializes in women’s fitness and fitness nutrition. “Body image issues can stem from pregnancy because your body is changing in ways it hasn’t before, and rapidly at that. It’s more the fear of the unknown from experiencing something new.”
There’s also a societal emphasis on thinness to contend with. This puts extra pressure on women to “watch their weight” all the time—even while growing a baby. Cate Brennan, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified lactation counselor who works with prenatal clients, says it doesn’t help that women are surrounded by examples of celebrities quickly losing their baby weight immediately after giving birth. Because bigger bodies are constantly devalued, Brennan says, women face a whole host of body image issues regarding their changing bodies during pregnancy.
“Pregnant women can often feel conflicted about their growing baby bump,” agrees Kayce Hodos, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in maternal mental health. “They are fully aware that their tummy is growing because they are growing a new life inside them. But they may be sensitive to how others perceive their changing size. Every woman is different, too. She may be comparing her body to other pregnant women whose bumps are developing differently.”
Try to embrace how your body changes.
“The number one concern my clients face, and I believe all women acknowledge, is that your body is making drastic changes as it creates a home for your little one,” says Brie Shelly, a Boston-based licensed therapist who regularly works with women pre-, during, and post-pregnancy. “Pregnancy may be the first time that a woman endures changes in her body since puberty. The response can feel both positive and negative. From physical and shape changes to hormones to having to pee all the time, there is not an aspect of your mental and physical health that isn’t impacted by your pregnancy.”
It’s not just weight gain, either. Cooper notes that pregnancy impacts weight distribution, such as fuller thighs, swollen feet and ankles, or bigger breasts. Pregnant women cope with their own perceptions of physical changes, Hodos says. Plus, they also have to contend with the friends, family members, coworkers, and complete strangers who make comments.
“A lot of women really come to associate their appearances with their identities,” says psychotherapist Carla Korn. “When we’re pregnant, our bodies are changing and growing in ways that are out of our control. When this changes so rapidly, it can be really hard to grasp who this new person is and feel comfortable in your own skin.”
Ditch the scale.
One way to avoid dealing with a negative body image? Get rid of the scale. According to Cooper, most women are afraid of seeing that number on the scale go up during pregnancy. It makes them feel as if there’s something wrong or they’re not doing things correctly. Also, she adds, there’s so much pressure on gaining the “correct” amount of weight during pregnancy. Some women may obsess about not going over this number. Another tip from Korn: Ask your doctors to weigh you blindly (i.e., backward). This way you don’t see your weight during an appointment and can focus instead on your overall health.
Use exercise to hit the reset button—physically and mentally.
Exercise is great for your body and mind. It provides an endorphin rush, makes you feel good, boosts energy, and leads to a more positive outlook. Working out may also relieve stress, lift your mood, and help you celebrate what your body is capable of, Korn says. “The simple thought of knowing you’re keeping in the best shape you possibly can during your pregnancy can help you mentally prepare for changes,” Cooper says. “You are more likely to have more energy during pregnancy, have more tools for childbirth, and improve your post-pregnancy outcomes. Exercise can help cut down the risk of gestational diabetes and other complications. It’s so good for both the health of mom and baby.”
Of course, you’ll want to check in with your doctor before engaging in any workout routine during pregnancy. If you notice that exercise starts to feel compulsive or serves as an attempt to compensate for what you’ve eaten, those are red flags, Korn says.
“Exercise can be a wonderful way for a woman to de-stress during pregnancy as well as take some quiet moments to herself,” Brennan says. “For a woman struggling with body image issues during pregnancy, exercise may be a helpful way for her to honor and appreciate her body. However, if a woman has engaged in any sort of disordered or overexercising in the past, she should only engage in exercise under the supervision of a trained medical professional. Overexercise or overexertion could harm her or her baby.”
Surround yourself with support.
You can never have too much support when you become a mother, Hodos says, particularly due to the dualities of pregnancy. It’s exciting and stressful, amazing and worrisome, fun and overwhelming. “It’s important to focus on what you know for sure: your doctor or midwife’s instructions for healthy eating, activity, and weight,” she continues. “Be open and honest with your providers about your feelings, and listen to them. Know that it is their job to keep an eye on your weight gain, size, blood pressure, and other measurements. Your job is to take care of yourself, get plenty of rest, take your prenatal vitamins, and follow their recommendations.”
Don’t compare yourself.
Both Hodos and Korn warn against falling into the comparison trap, whether you’re analyzing your pregnant body against someone else’s in real life or on social media. If certain people or accounts make you feel bad about yourself, simply unfollow, and seek out examples of real women’s bodies during pregnancy and postpartum, says Korn says. Learning how to navigate the physical and mental transitions of pregnancy is vital, Shelly says. Therapy, podcasts, books, and traditional support groups can offer more options to round out your network.
“Surround yourself with positive people who lift you up. Don’t be afraid to ask for support when you need it,” Brennan says. “This can be in the form of family members, friends, or even a doula who can help support you during your entire pregnancy and birth process. If you are really struggling, consider talking to a therapist who can help you explore your body image issues and confront them in a nonjudgmental way.”
Above all, Butler says, keep telling yourself that you’re growing a human—an awesome, wonderful gift. “While your body may change, it’s doing something incredible,” Cooper emphasizes. “Simply knowing that it’s doing its best to nurture and grow your baby-to-be is super helpful. I also like to remind people that even with all of these changes, your post-pregnancy body can be stronger than it ever was before.”