When pregnancy messes with your self-esteem

Pregnancy doesn't make all women feel beautiful. It certainly doesn't raise every woman's self-esteem.
Pregnancy doesn't make all women feel beautiful. It certainly doesn't raise every woman's self-esteem. Photo: Getty Images

We've all heard about that pregnancy 'glow', with ads and TV often depicting it through flawless women gently cradling their bumps. Their skin is perfect and their hair is lustrous, but there's also something a little otherworldly about them. They're just glowing – there's no other word for it.

Images like this lead us to assume that most pregnant women must be feeling amazing about themselves, both inside and out, relishing in their increased beauty and sky rocketing self esteem as they grow a human inside them.

But of course, talk to a group of mums and you'll know the reality can be very different. Because even if we rule out the morning sickness, tiredness and generally feeling like a monster from the bog, pregnancy doesn't make all women feel beautiful. It certainly doesn't raise every woman's self-esteem.  In fact, it can do quite the opposite.

"I had terrible self-esteem issues during my pregnancies," says mum Juliet Potter. "I put on 33 kilos with all three of my children, mostly in fluid.  It was completely out of control. 'Glowing' was the last thing I was," she says.

"I felt horrible the entire time, and then felt guilty that I hated the experience. I resented my friends and even my sister who all seemed to look beautiful and normal with just a belly, while I felt that every inch of me was bloated and ugly."

Juliet's self-esteem hit rock bottom when she went shopping for a maternity bra.  Because her boobs had grown so big, she was unable to find anything that fit, and compares her humiliating experience to that of Pretty Women being told there wasn't anything in the store for her.

"I hated being pregnant and I hated that I hated it," she says. "I loved my babies, and love having kids. I just hate the inbetween ride. I hate the misconception that pregnancy is beautiful and amazing, because for some it's just not, and no one talks about it."

Virginia Pessahna, also a mum, experienced similar feelings during both her pregnancies.

"I felt really self-conscious when I was pregnant," she says. "I felt like I had lost the old 'me', and instead had become this frumpy, unattractive woman. I felt like I aged overnight, and found it really hard knowing what to wear or how to style myself in order to feel or look better. 

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"It was a bit of a downward spiral, and I definitely lost all my confidence and self-esteem during that time."

Leanne Hall, a clinical psychologist specialising in body image issues, has heard stories like these before.

"Many women find the changes that occur when pregnant very difficult to adjust to," she says. "The social pressure to look a certain way means that many women find their changing body "fat and disgusting", and also struggle to deal with the uncertainty of how they will look post-pregnancy."

Hall says that while it can be a hard thing to do, it's important that women try to remain focused on why the changes are occurring in their bodies.

"It sounds simple, but remembering that your body is nourishing a life and needs to accommodate the demands of a growing baby can help put things into perspective," she explains. "Download a chart off the internet which shows how the baby is growing each week, and stay focused on the important job your body is doing, as opposed to how it looks in the mirror."

Hall says that positive affirmations can work for some, but warns that it's key to be realistic about what an affirmation can do.

"Affirmations should be used in addition to acceptance.  Accept that the negative stuff is unlikely to go away," she says. "But accepting that it's okay to find all these changes a little difficult to adjust to is a good start.

"With that in mind, affirmations can then be used to balance out the negative stuff, and provide an alternative 'station' to listen to."

Hall suggests affirmations such as:

  • "It's okay that I feel uncomfortable with my body right now, but I understand why it's changing, and I feel amazed at what it can do."
  • "Just because I feel fat and disgusting, doesn't mean I AM fat and disgusting"
  • "Look at what my body can do – it can grow a life!"

Hall also offers the following tips for pregnant women who may be feeling this way:

  • keep doing the things you love (such as work, hobbies)
  • invest more time in those relationships/influences that are positive, rather than those who are critical and judgemental
  • stay focused on being healthy, including eating well, getting enough sleep and exercising
  • practice self-nurturing and be kind to yourself
  • treat your body with respect and do things that make it feel good, such as a warm bath, massage, facial
  • talk through any concerns/anxieties you may have about being a mum, as these can contribute to low self-esteem and low mood during pregnancy
  • seek out the support of loved ones, especially your partner. Although it's your body that's changing, involving your partner in the process as much as possible is not only good for you (both emotionally and psychologically), but helps him bond with his child. It also helps if he understands why your body is changing too 
  • Be wary of well meaning 'advice', as every woman's experience of pregnancy and how their body responds is different.

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