Body image tyranny must not hamper mother and baby bond
Published 01/07/2014 | 02:30
We've all seen magazine stories and gossip columns celebrating celebrity mums who have 'lost the baby weight' or 'bounced back into shape' or 'gotten their bodies back'. Does this commentary have an impact on mum's in the real world and if so, how does this affect their babies?
Earlier this month, psycho-therapist Susie Orbach and body image specialist Holli Rubin produced a report for the Government Equalities Office in the UK called 'Two for the Price of One: The Impact of Body Image During Pregnancy and After Birth'. The report acknowledges that all mothers want the best for their babies but that cultural pressure to appear 'as though nothing as momentously life-changing or body-changing as having a baby has occurred' can interfere with the important tasks of responding to the baby, developing new routines, finding time to sleep and becoming a parent.
Orbach and Rubin explore how women's concerns about body image and efforts to get in shape can interrupt the focus on bonding with baby in the crucial early months when attachment relationships are being established. Attachment is the strong emotional bond that forms between an infant and his/her caregiver.
Attachment theory suggests that these early relationships have a lifelong impact and that secure attachment is a building block for resilience and psychological well-being. The report explains that a mother's insecurities about food and weight can influence her capacity to offer a stable attachment relationship to her infant.
The report, which draws on evidence from a range of sources, also highlights how body image concerns can be passed from one generation to the next. "The way she eats, her attitudes towards health, food and hunger as well as the emotional reasons why she may eat or not eat are all passed on wordlessly to her baby."
This is especially relevant for women who may already be struggling with concerns around food and weight.
Orbach and Rubin suggest that when a mother has a troubled relationship with her own body and with food, this may be reflected in the way she relates to her baby, which in turn can influence the infant's own developing sense of body image.
The implication of all of this of course, is that pregnancy and early motherhood offer an ideal time to break the cycle of negative body image and disordered eating.
The report makes a persuasive case for supporting the body image of new mothers. "The need to provide help in relationship to women's body, food and self-esteem issues is crucial if we are to inoculate the next generation from even more severe body image and eating difficulties including anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating and obesity."
The report outlines a number of steps to support positive body image and healthy nutrition for expectant and new mothers, which can also be taken by healthcare providers as well as new mothers themselves and their family and friends. These include learning about the impact of pregnancy on body image, being sensitive about the language used when discussing food and weight, and getting support if needed.
Deirdre Cowman is a psychology lecturer in All Hallows College and co-ordinator of Endangered Bodies Ireland.