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Media Depictions of New Moms Make Actual New Moms Feel Bad

Whether it’s a pregnant character on a TV show, a celebrity’s baby-body magazine spread, or a friend’s selfie of her post-baby physique, portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women on traditional and social media tend to be unrealistic, women respondents said in a new study published in the journal Health Communication. And it’s giving them poor body image.

Nearly half — 46 percent — of women who participated in the study reported that exposure to unrealistic images and messages fostered a host of negative emotions, such as self-consciousness about their bodies and feelings of depression, frustration and hopelessness when they’re unable to lose weight as rapidly after pregnancy and childbirth as celebrities purportedly do.

A research team led by Toni Liechty, a professor of recreation, sport and tourism at the University of Illinois, interviewed 50 women (admittedly a small sample size), all of whom were 20 or more weeks pregnant or up to nine months postpartum. The women called media portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women idealistic and far removed from most women’s actual experiences — especially photos of celebrities flaunting taut bodies in bikinis within weeks of childbirth.

It’s doubtful that anyone is surprised by these findings. But here’s where the study finally gets interesting: It found women perceived social media “as having a unique influence because (these messages were) viewed as coming from ‘real people,’ including friends and family,” Liechty said.

In other words, even with #nofilter, we’re now making each other insecure about what their pregnant or post-baby body looks like.

Some women in the study found social media images of ‘real’ pregnant and postpartum women refreshing, others felt judged by other users’ remarks, even when they didn’t interact with those people directly. And the selfies that peers exchanged online fostered feelings of competition and even guilt when participants failed to live up to the ideal body image set by others.

Regardless of the medium, women in the study appreciated images and stories that portrayed pregnancy and postpartum authentically and in relatable ways. But they were nearly unanimous in the belief that media outlets focus too much on pregnant and postpartum women’s bodies at the expense of their experiences of labor and delivery, or early parenting. We couldn’t agree more.

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