‘Unrealistic’ media portrayals of pregnancy put women at risk

According to a recent study. 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 childbirth as celebrities purportedly do. Images celebrating celebrities’ lightning-fast weight loss after giving birth and the media’s overall focus on women’s bodies during and after pregnancy can be detrimental to other women and their infants, according to lead author Toni Liechty at the University of Illinois.

During the perinatal period, the time frame shortly before and after giving birth, women are particularly concerned about their appearance and vulnerable to poor body image, Liechty said. Liechty and her co-authors interviewed 50 women about the media’s representations of pregnant and postpartum women and the impact these images and messages have on women’s feelings about their bodies.

Most of the participants, who were 20 or more weeks pregnant or up to nine months postpartum, viewed media portrayals of pregnant and postpartum women as idealistic and far removed from most women’s actual experiences – especially photos of celebrities flaunting their figures in bikinis within weeks of childbirth, their well-toned bodies lacking the sagging skin and stretch marks that pregnancy often leaves in its wake…

“Participants felt that media portrayals of women ‘losing all their baby weight’ in a short time frame set unrealistic expectations and did not account for the realities of giving birth, such as hormones, physical healing and the stress of caring for a baby,” Liechty said. Social media were perceived “as having a unique influence because (these messages were) viewed as coming from ‘real people,’ including friends and family,” Liechty said. Some women found social media refreshing because they provided opportunities for sharing information and honest, supportive communication with other “real” women, in addition to providing a broader array of content than other media.

However, online media also jeopardized some women’s feelings about their bodies. Some women 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 ideals or standards 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. Regardless of the medium, participants cautioned that it was important to be a selective consumer, Liechty said. “These participants felt that they had benefited from being intentional consumers of media – seeking out positive messages and avoiding negative ones.”

Women who were critical consumers of media, had emotionally supportive spouses or were aware that various body types respond differently during pregnancy and postpartum were more likely to maintain healthy body images, regardless of the media messages they were exposed to, the researchers found. The study appears in journal Health Communication..!

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