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Social media is triggering a dangerous relationship with our post-pregnancy bodies

“You’re fooled into thinking it’s possible to push a baby out of your vagina and be on a treadmill in your finest Sweaty Betty matching bra and leggings within hours.”

You might remember back in the summer when Kylie Jenner took to Instagram to share a snap of her post-pregnancy body on Stories as she hit the gym. "No days off!" she wrote, flashing a tanned washboard tummy and perfectly defined abs as she posed in a matching spandex set, "4 months postpartum," Jenner added with another shot of her on a treadmill. "I have been dealing w tons of back & knee pain this time so it slows down my workouts but I am on a mission to get strong again 🙏."

I remember it well because, there I was, one year postpartum and still feeling a million miles from my pre-baby self and looking absolutely nothing like Jenner. While she proudly declared she has “no days off” from workouts, I was having absolutely no respite from the burdens of looking after a moany, teething 11-month-old. Of course, being a Kardashian is like being in a parallel universe - when you have billions of dollars to your name, you can have all the help you need. It didn’t stop this being triggering for me though because, yet again, it was another portrayal of pregnancy in the media being something we need to recover from.

A new piece of research just released, led by Megan Gow from the University of Sydney, saw the study of 600 images on Instagram of women who have recently given birth under the #postpartumbody tag. What did they discover? The true extent of the Great Postpartum Cover-up - yup, we really don’t tell the truth about our bodies on social media after having a baby.

Gow’s team found that only 5% of photos actually showed all those things that are pretty common with a postpartum body - that’s stretch marks, a soft stomach, cellulite and scars from caesarean sections (among many more). The team also found that the majority of images showed new mothers in exercise clothes, swimwear or their underwear, and in pictures that suggested their bodies had quickly “bounced back” a la Jenner. Worryingly, researchers concluded that glossy magazines and social media tend to represent “pregnancy as a state that needs to be ‘recovered’ from, similar to illness.”

I had a look at the hashtag myself, there seems to be endless cute mirror selfies of mothers clutching newborns while wearing sports bras but no shots of anyone in those big Tena Lady pants your midwife tells you to buy as they stop the blood leaking out the corners. Or bruised legs from those anti-clotting injections. No mops of greasy, unbrushed hair that’s been sitting in a bun for three days straight or those heaving, lopsided milk-heavy boobs that look anything but dainty in that over-priced nightie you brought because Instagram made you think you’d look cute in it. This was the reality for me - but there’s no sign of it on Instagram.

The hashtags instead show an unrealistic vision of new motherhood, one so carefully curated and edited that you’d be fooled into thinking it’s possible to push a baby out of your vagina or via major abdominal surgery and be on a treadmill in your finest Sweaty Betty matching bra and leggings within hours.

While celebrities seem to be the biggest culprits, seemingly proving to their sponsors that they are ‘back at it’, our own pals are just as bad. I recall seeing someone I once worked with posting a video as she did a workout beside her calm, snoozing baby just a week after giving birth. At this point I was three weeks in and only just about managing to dress myself in between endless cluster feeding sessions, I’d barely been able to put my baby down without him wailing. I felt more emotionally exhausted than I’d ever experienced and this Utopian view of new motherhood made me feel as if I was doing something wrong. My body and getting it back in shape was the very last thing I had time to think about. Quite frankly, for me, it was about surviving another day.

So, what's the real reason some women want to share these unrealistic body goals so soon after having a baby? According to Noor Mubarak, Perinatal mental health counsellor at The Private Therapy Clinic, it comes down to “the urge to be liked and accepted by others."

She added: “We know from research how powerful the impact of social media 'likes' on our dopamine and rewards system can be. We are especially susceptible to this when we are feeling isolated, lonely, anxious or low - all feelings which are frequently reported by postpartum women. When we feel rewarded when we do behave or look how society seems to expect us to, and worry that the people around us will reject us or feel negatively towards us for not meeting those standards, the urge to conform to those ideals can be incredibly compelling.”

Mubarak said: “That squashed sandwich from the bottom of their diaper bag is not particularly Instagrammable, and a postpartum body can be very different to what society deems as the ideal body - so what we are seeing is a cherry-picked selection of the few and far between moments that are nice enough to post.”

It makes me furious to think about how much these unrepresentative images on social media are fuelling postpartum body dysmorphia among more vulnerable groups. While I found them triggering, I had a strong enough support network to stop it becoming anything greater. My husband has always been so positive about my post-baby body hang ups but what about the women who don’t have that? Those who are already at their lowest point, alone and scrolling through images of new mothers who’ve ‘bounced back’, images that make them feel flawed, that they need to be ‘fixed’ because somehow having a baby isn’t as transformative enough. It needs to stop.

What those women need to know is growing a baby is one of the most incredible, life-changing things you’ll ever do. Our bodies have grown another life, our organs have moved around to create an entire human. Strong and resilient, they have capacity to feed, soothe and calm, even after they’ve been beaten up inside. Our bodies may have changed but that doesn’t mean they now need to be reconfigured.

One realisation for me was that, away from social media, postpartum bodies come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve seen my fellow mum friends’ veiny boobs, the wide hips, the bumps and lumps, the over-the-jeans rolls. While these might not exist on the internet, I can assure you, they do in real life.

While many of us might not have the strength to share the ‘true’ side of postpartum on social media (me included), we all need to be a bit more honest about our experiences - the good, the bad and the ugly. And take that #mumtum hashtag with a pinch of salt, it’s probably been through one helluva filter - with a screaming baby to boot.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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