Recently there has been a media tide of post-partum photos splashing new mothers with waves of guilt and high expectations. This summer, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was photographed 89 days after giving birth, swiping a volleyball with her toned tummy exposed for public scrutiny. The verdict – she scored! Women everywhere marveled and wondered how she was able to snap back to her pre-pregnancy figure so quickly. The Duchess attributed her svelte shape to dog walks, the odd burst on the rowing machine, and ante natal yoga.
More recently, there have been women showing off their post-partum figures who have inspired more wrath than admiration.
Maria Kang, a 32 year old mother of 3 boys under 3, posted a picture of her trim and well-muscled physique with the caption, “What’s Your Excuse?” She was accused of fat shaming and bullying. Kang says that she is no stranger to struggling with weight and fitness. However, what she takes issue with is fat acceptance. On her blog, Kang announced that she was banned from Facebook for a post deemed discriminatory against those suffering from obesity. Kang said,
“What I don’t like is the fine line we are walking today – which is love and accept your body versus love and progress your body. We should celebrate any person who makes their fitness and nutrition a priority. There is no one-size-fits-all in fitness.“
While I agree with her sentiments in general, she lost me at her photo caption, “What’s your excuse?” If the tag line had been “If I can do it, anyone can – tips for reclaiming your pre-partum body!” her message would have likely been heard and her advice followed. The judgment is what killed it.
Another photo making its way around web is of Norwegian soccer wife, Caroline Berg Eriksen. Erikson took a selfie in her underwear, 4 days after giving birth, looking practically skeletal. It’s a pro-ana poster photo, if ever there was one.
In the Jewish world, this translates into more pressure than ever before on new moms to snap back to their pre-baby bodies. We live in a society where having babies promptly and plentifully is expected. A new bride barely sheds her veil before people are sneaking glances at her abdomen to see if anything is cooking. Newly pregnant women are sometimes only weeks or months out from being displayed on the shidduch market, where being skinny is among the top criteria for potential brides. During this time, some young women feel compelled to rapidly slim down, as they strive to fit into the small sizes demanded of them by shadchanim and future mother-in-laws.
In my opinion, girls who feel compelled to quickly shed weight for dating purposes are setting themselves up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating patterns. Severe food restriction/purging, followed by binging and weight regain, can be repeated in an endless loop. This is a pattern that can go on for the rest of their lives, as the starvation and binge pattern throws metabolism out of whack, and regaining seems to happen at the slightest caloric increase.
Starving and binging might become worse around pregnancy and post-partum, when it’s a common struggle to allow yourself to gain needed baby weight, and then lose it all by the bris (or have other women cluck their tongues about how much weight you’ve put on – or conversely, marvel at how you look as if you’ve never been pregnant. Which side of the verdict would you rather be on?). As a population that tends to have more than the average 2.5 kids, weight gain during pregnancy is a big concern for frum women, even if it’s not openly discussed (it’s informally/privately discussed among girlfriends quite often).
Some women decide to forego nursing or stop nursing prematurely, under the misguided notion that nursing prohibits weight loss. Some pregnant and nursing women don’t take in the extra calories they need to nourish both themselves and their babies, in order not to gain weight. Still others engage in excessive exercise during pregnancy, which in moderation would be fine, but taken to the extreme, could be dangerous to both mother and baby. There is even a term for the condition of calorie restriction and excessive exercise during pregnancy, called “Pregorexia.”
Like celebrities who are expected to make public appearances as soon as possible after giving birth, new mothers in the Jewish world also have to face the community shortly after delivery. Shalom zachars, brisim, pidyon habens, and baby naming kiddushes – these are all events where women have to frantically search their closets for something that fits from their pre-pregnancy wardrobe, often resulting in conceding defeat by putting on a maternity outfit. Many times there are photographers present to memorialize these celebrations, during a time when new moms are loath to appear on camera in their current shape.
It may seem shallow and superficial to be concerned with appearances, in light of the new miracle of life that inspires these blessed events. However, after years of grooming young women for the world of dating and marriage, it’s impossible to shut off the message that thin equals beautiful, skinny earns admiration, and acceptance is only for the slender. If we care about our kallahs, our mothers, and our babies, it’s time to stop talking about being thin, and start talking about being fit. When we view food as the fuel we need to be healthy, and not as a temptation that needs to be overcome, the judgment is removed and child bearing can be welcomed with the full joy it deserves.