Do new mothers who use Instagram feel inadequate? Yes, according to a recent study that cautions social media photos of new mothers may contribute to body dissatisfaction and feelings of inadequateness.
Megan Gow, PhD, the study’s principal investigator and an early career fellow with the National Health and Medical Research Council at the University of Sydney Children’s Hospital Westmead Clinical School, says she was interested in learning whether Instagram images accurately represented postpartum women as a whole.
We were worried that idealised depictions might put postpartum mothers, who are already a vulnerable group, at greater risk.
The results, which were just published in the journal Healthcare, indicate that social media might not be the best channel for reaching new mothers with health messages.
A Precarious Moment
Immediately following the birth of a child, new mothers are particularly susceptible. While taking care of a new child, women deal with significant hormonal changes, lack of sleep, and a significant life transition.
32% of parents in a 2021 Nestle study reported feeling alone, while 54% of new mothers in a 2017 UK online survey reported feeling “friendless.” The American Psychological Association estimates that up to 1 in 7 new mothers will experience postpartum depression, and 9% will experience posttraumatic stress disorder, according to Postpartum Support International.
It’s possible that the pandemic made new mothers feel more alone. According to a research published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in May 2022, postpartum depression rates increased in the United States during the first year of the COVID-19 epidemic.
In the pre-digital era, becoming a new mother was already difficult, but today’s women now have to deal with social media, which exacerbates feelings of loneliness. According to a June 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, loneliness was more common among social media users between the ages of 26 and 35. According to a Gow survey, 39% of Instagram’s monthly active users are women between the ages of 18 and 44. Additionally, 63% of them regularly access the portal.
According to Catie de Montille, 36, a mother of two in Washington, DC, “the postpartum time may feel extremely alone, and being vocal about the postpartum alterations that all women go through helps set expectations and normalise the experience for those of us who are postpartum.”
Instagram Creates False Predictions
According to Gow and her colleagues’ study, new mothers have unrealistic expectations because of Instagram.
600 posts with the hashtag #postpartumbody, which had been used on Instagram more than 2 million times by October 2022, were examined by her and her colleagues researchers. Other hashtags have been used 1.9 million and 320,000 times, respectively, including #mombod and #postbabybody.
409 (68%) of the 600 postings featured a woman as the main image. The 409 posts were examined by the researchers to see if they accurately depicted postpartum life for women.
They discovered that more than nine out of ten (91%) posts featured images of women with low (37%) or average (54%) body fat. Only 9% of the ladies displayed appeared to be overweight. Only 5% of the photos, according to the researchers, displayed characteristics of postpartum bodies, such as stretch marks or caesarean scars.
Gow warns that “what is displayed on Instagram may not be realistic and is not indicative of the great majority of women in the postpartum time,” and urges women to be mindful of this.
Women were not portrayed in the images as being physically strong.
Gow’s team looked for muscularity across 250 photos. 52% of the participants had few or no clearly identifiable muscles. Despite the fact that more than half of the initial 409 photographs featured women wearing workout gear (40%), underwear (8%), or a bathing suit (5%), this result was nevertheless obtained.
The study, in the opinion of Emily Fortney, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with a licence in Sacramento, California, suggests that health care professionals need to put in more effort to create expectations for new moms.
The pressure we have to revert to an unrealistic size, she claims, reflects a deeper issue with how women are generally portrayed in the media. “We need to be encouraging women to focus on the postpartum experience in an all-encompassing way that involves both physical and mental wellness, rather than on images,” said one expert.
Childbirth as a Disease to Be Beaten?
Postpartum women appear to be left out of this shift, despite the fact that retail companies like Versace and Nike have started to feature a greater variety of female shapes in their commercials. Gow and her coworkers cited a 2012 study that looked at photos in well-known Australian magazines and came to the conclusion that the pregnant body was compared to an illness from which women needed to recover.
The Instagram posts show that this assumption is still widely held. Images of postpartum women dressed in athletic attire lead researchers Gow and her colleagues to hypothesise that “women want to be seen to be exercising as a means of loosening the ‘grip’ that pregnancy has on them or’repairing’ their postpartum body.”
Sydney Neal, a 32-year-old mother of two who was given birth to her youngest kid in November 2021, claimed social media influenced how she saw what “healing” would entail.
As a mother of two, Chrissy Teigen has “kept it really genuine” on Instagram, according to Neal. However, she has noticed that “a lot of women on social media drop [their weight] quickly and post as if they were back to normal much faster than 6 months.”
Tools for New Moms to Be More Body Positive
Gow is still researching this subject. In a study that her team is presently doing, women will be questioned about their usage of social media, their opinions of their bodies, and how their ideas have changed as a result of seeing photos with the hashtag #postpartumbody. Women who have young children can view the survey here.
Gow and her team claimed that Instagram might not be a useful medium for disseminating health information to new mothers due to the unrealistic representations.
However, there are alternative choices.
The Washington, DC-based de Montille uses apps like Back to You and Expectful, and she follows Karrie Locher, a postpartum and neonatal nurse and certified lactation counsellor, on Instagram. Her children were born in 2020 and 2022. These methods, she claimed, “are better than focusing on the size of your clothes” because they emphasise the mind-body link.
Women ought to have access to dependable medical providers as well.
According to Fortney, “Providers can start talking about the romanticization of pregnancy and motherhood starting in prenatal care, and they can start talking more about social media use and the advantages and disadvantages of use specifically in the perinatal period.” This “opens the door to a dialogue on a wide range of topics that can genuinely help assess, prevent, and treat prenatal mood and anxiety disorders,” the author writes.
Neal, a New Orleans mother of two, lamented that her doctor hadn’t given her more information on what to anticipate following childbirth.
I don’t really know how to deal with body image issues, but I think starting in a medical environment would be useful, she admits.