Tough love: Here is your body image homework

When I met Dr. Jessica Michaelson, I got the feeling she’d fit in here. She’s a psychologist who specializes in maternal well-being. She didn’t have me at “Hello,” because I’m way too cynical for that, but rather, she had me at “You need someone who really knows what you’re going through and how to get you better,” which she posted on a comment thread about postpartum anxiety.

I’ve invited Dr. M to weigh in on some topics that you guys have asked for, starting with postpartum body image. I hope you find her expertise helpful.


Your hips are objectively wider now, while your lower abdomen may be loose and white-striped. Finished nursing? You might find that your breasts are simultaneously smaller and saggier. Even your feet may be flatter and bigger.

After having a baby, you are not who you were before, physically, emotionally, or mentally. These permanent shifts are disorienting, and, for some of us, incredibly upsetting.


For many of us, before we had a baby, a big part of our self-esteem came from how our body looked.

If your self-esteem is largely tied to your physical appearance, then having a baby is going to mess with your head.  And, it’s going to be a great gift of an opportunity to re-evaluate what really matters about you, and what you truly value.

If, Good Body = High Self-Esteem

Then, Having a Baby = Low Self-Esteem

If this is your equation, here are some variables that can change the math:

What truly makes you someone worthy of love and admiration? What do the people who matter most love about you? When you are 85, sitting in your rocking chair, what do you want to say were your best qualities?

The more you cultivate and pay attention to your awesome qualities that are going to last you a lifetime, and that no one can take away, the more secure your self-esteem is going to be.

Okay, Dr. Jessica, I get the whole “Love yourself regardless thing,” but, seriously, I’ve got to do something about losing this weight!


There are some parts of our bodies that change in ways we can’t control at all — the pelvic width, loose belly, saggy boobs, flat feet — and others that we can, like our weight.

People tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to managing their weight:

Rigid, Flexible, or Chaotic

If you’re rigid about your weight, you have a history of strict diets, intensive exercise schedules, and know your weight on any given day to the exact ounce. You might have a history of anorexic behaviors. Many of us don’t see this rigid style as unhealthy, because it’s so rewarded in our culture.

If you’re chaotic about your weight, you’ve never really been able to stop your junk food habits, you know you should get more exercise but you don’t, and you’ve ignored the scale for decades as you just keep buying different size clothes. You might have a history of bulemic behaviors. This chaotic style is maligned in our culture, and leads to intense shame.

Some people flip flop from rigid to chaotic throughout their lives.

People with both rigid and chaotic approaches to their weight suffer from the Good Body = High Self-Esteem equation. (See above.)

A healthier approach to weight, and to all things in life, is a flexible approach.

To be flexible, you are aware of all the things about you that are valuable, so you care about maintaining good health so you can be around a good long while.

To be flexible, you find pleasure in taking care of your health and your appearance, while not being super anxious about it.

To be flexible, you live by a 80/20 rule. In all areas of life, including eating and exercising, you feel best when you are healthy and productive 80% of time, and let loose and go easy on yourself 20% of the time.

This means, you usually eat your veggies and lean proteins, and will totally gobble down a full box of Milk Duds at the movies on Saturday without guilt.

This means, you like to walk instead of drive when you can, and have no problem sitting on your behind all day in front of the TV when there’s a John Hughes movie marathon.


So, ladies, here’s the take away in a one-two punch.

1) Work on getting your self-esteem from qualities that have nothing to do with your body

2) Work on being flexible with your eating, exercise, and general self-care, following the 80/20 rule.

What’s your experience been with your body after baby? What’s been surprisingly hard? What has helped you deal with the changes? Leave your story in the comments below.

Dr. Jessica Michaelson is a psychologist who has two sons, 2 and 4, and a musical husband.  When she’s not collecting rocks with her guys, she devotes her time to helping new and expecting parents navigate the wild waters of new parenthood.  She works with parents privately in her Oakland office or by phone & Skype, and leads Parent Education Workshops locally and online.  In addition to her private practice, she is the founder and director of Early Parenthood Support, Inc., a team of non-judgmental parenting consultants who support parents around the world.