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Pregnancy Shaming

by Rachel Tomlinson, Registered Psychologist.

For any mother (first time, or the fifth time around) pregnancy is synonymous with transformation. Becoming a mother for the first time includes a wealth of changes, welcoming a new family member, an expanding and changing body…and don’t forget those fluctuating pregnancy hormones. For many these new changes are not altogether comfortable (literally and figuratively) and it is not uncommon for women to be reliant on stories and anecdotes to find out what this pregnancy and birthing business is all about.

Unfortunately some of the “advice” out there isn’t always helpful, in fact, sometimes it is downright unhelpful and judgmental. It seems that as your belly expands it becomes public property; for people to pat (as though you are a lucky Buddha at a lottery kiosk) or pass comment on.

Pregnancy is usually something revered in our society; however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there are also messages laden with criticism and shame associated with the decisions pregnant women make daily about their bodies and unborn children. This judgment is often played out on the internet, and whilst we might attribute unkind and cruel messages to trolls and keyboard warriors, there is actually a lot of criticism that falls under the guise of genuine concern for the mother or her baby and also the way pregnant women are spoken about in the media. Judgment also might be a little more undercover, and appear as pressure to keep up with those staged, insta-perfect images we see on the internet.

These internal comparisons between very manufactured images of glowing pregnant women in designer clothes, not a hair out of place can set unrealistic expectations and can leave many women feeling inadequate or imperfect in comparison. The constant messages can leave women disempowered and lacking confidence in making choices for herself and her baby.

These messages, even those of false concern, can intentionally and unintentionally make women feel shameful about their appearance, health, or that of their unborn child. Common themes can include;

  • How women dress their bumps. There is a fair amount of shaming around what clothes women choose to dress in, mostly centred around tight or revealing clothing somehow translating to the moral fibre of the woman. I’m inferring because I wholeheartedly disagree with clothing choices having meaning about a woman’s sexual choices, values or morals. This is also an extension of general body shaming that women experience.
  • What women eat and drink. There are cultural and personal differences which impact a woman’s choice…but it’s just that. A woman’s choice, in discussion with her trusted healthcare professional…and no-one else’s. However, there is a large percentage of people out there (usually the “well meaning”) who see it fit to cast judgement or question a woman’s decisions.
  • Exercise. Too much, too little? Women cant win this one. Messages often centre around “Too much exercise and you’re putting the health of the baby in danger” versus “Not enough and you aren’t looking after yourself which could again impact on the health of your baby or have an impact on the birth itself”. Both of these messages are unhelpful as they don’t reflect the woman’s previous fitness level, any clearances or restrictions she might have received from her doctor, and her own experience about how her body feels.
  • The size of her bump. It seems as though pregnant bellies are public property. Although it’s generally considered rude to comment on a person’s body shape or weight when a woman is pregnant there is no such suppression. Free flowing and often rude comments about how many months along she might be, the gender of the baby, how much birth is going to hurt etc. This is often coupled with conversations and judgement about how much weight she gained. Our bodies are all different regardless of pregnancy and shouldn’t be the subject of public discussion. These kind of comments can make a woman feel inadequate and somehow as though she is doing pregnancy “wrong” or feel pressure that her pregnancy isn’t measuring up against others. This is demoralising, and can reduce confidence, self-esteem and can influence low mood or anxious feelings.

So, what can you do if you are feeling worn down or are being shamed about your choices in pregnancy?

  • Take a social media detox or limit time you spend online. A period of detox helps separate yourself from the pressures online and get some perspective.
  • Find yourself a village of people who support you, rally around you and who have similar values to yourself. The messages you get are more likely to be affirming and positive.
  • Set yourself positive affirmations throughout your pregnancy and repeat them daily, e.g. “I am a strong woman and I am grateful for my body’s ability to grow this baby”. Affirmations have positive impacts on our wellbeing and get us in the mindset of finding a positive perspective and increase our mood. Find an affirmation that really makes you feel strong and confident as a woman. You can even write it out and stick/hang it in a place you can see every day; On your mirror, in your handbag etc.
  • Find an activity that makes you feel good and do it often. It could be getting your nails done, reading a book, cook your favourite meal etc. Any intentional self-care is important to your wellbeing and resilience. Doing something nice for yourself or something you enjoy puts value back on you and focuses on your worth (a direct counterbalance to shameful messages)
  • Have a ready-made comment if anyone says anything to you in person. A simple “Thank you” and walk away, or “I appreciate your comment”. Just because someone makes a comment or suggestion doesn’t mean you have to take it on board.

This is your pregnancy and your baby. No-one else’s. The only one who knows what works best for you and your family is you. Not the beautiful social media blogger who is groomed within an inch of her life, not Sharon down street who gives helpful advice and certainly not the faceless troll sitting behind their keyboard. Take heart and confidence in your instinct as a mother, create your own space where you feel valued and affirmed and most importantly enjoy your pregnancy!

Written by Rachel Tomlinson, Registered Psychologist.


About Rachel

I am a Registered Psychologist and whilst I can speak on a variety of mental health topics, my primary areas of expertise are relationships, parenting and child development. I have experience working with children (birth-18) and families in general counselling, play therapy, women’s refuge, education settings, children’s care homes, domestic violence and trauma counselling. I also have a parenting book due out in November 2019.
I have experience working with journalists in Australia, USA and the UK providing content on a variety of mental health topics, including: relationships (including divorce, sex, friendships), child development, parenting, and mental health conditions (amongst other topics and I can provide links to the articles should this be of interest). I have also written and delivered presentations at national conferences on trauma, including the refugee experience and play therapy for children.