Mom-shells: beauty and pregnancy

Image‘When I found out that my due date was May 1st, my first thoughts weren’t of baby blankets and onesies. All I could think about was, how am I going to avoid looking like a wet dish towel in one of those post-delivery photos?’

Yes, these are someone’s real thoughts. They’re the thoughts of Kate Williamson who, writing on, takes us through the lengths she went to to prepare for that photo in a post called How to Look Great During Childbirth.

I’m always amazed at friends of mine who post their brand new mummy photos on Facebook just minutes after pushing out their babies, looking stunning.

But these photos are becoming increasingly common. And this has been accompanied by an ever-increasing pressure to look great before, during and after giving birth.

For example, there are few things as revered in celebrity gossip columns as a hot post-baby body. It seems women in the public eye compete to see who can lose their postpartum weight the fastest. We look on in awe at the new mums posing in bikinis seemingly just days after they were in the delivery room. We’re wowed by these mom-shells because their svelte bodies seem to be contrary to the laws of nature – amazing. New mums shouldn’t look so ‘good’. But the proliferation of these stories makes the rapid return to pre-baby bodies seem like the norm, making those women who do not ‘get their body back’ fast enough – if at all – seem like failures. Actress Hilary Duff took – shock horror – eight months to get back into her 26-inch skinny jeans. And because she ‘took her time’ doing it, with the help of a daily personal trainer and gruelling exercise regime, the celebrity magazines seemed to celebrate her finally reaching her goal weight. Go Hilary!

Janice Min, a former editor of Us Weekly, felt a sense of responsibility at having pedalled these kinds of hot momma stories in the magazine. But she realised the extent of the pain that this caused when she had her own children.

Writing in the New York Times, she said: ‘The notion that instantly stick-thin figures after birth are normal is untrue. Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived nights, I ponder our ideal of this near-emaciated, sexy and well-dressed Frankenmom we’ve created and wonder how to undo her. Even just a little bit.

‘Not only for the pressure to let up on me, and you, but also perhaps so my little baby girl can one day love her own children, too, without hating her body at the same time.’

The all-pervasive nature of modern media means that everyday women, including women in the church, can feel a sense of peer pressure from the example of these celebrity mums.

I am not a mother. I’ve never been pregnant or given birth. But several of my friends have. And I have realised that I too am guilty of giving women the once-over when I see them for the first time after they’ve had their baby. I expect them not to look great, to look less than their former selves. And those who do look great are met with surprised and almost bewildered compliments from me about how good they look – you know – considering…

As far as society’s concerned, women give up their bodies when they have children. And of course it’s a price worth paying. But these women are the same ones who, before they became mummies, longed to feel valued, of worth, beautiful. Motherhood doesn’t change that entirely.

But it does change your body. In ways that I am yet to understand. My survey told me however that around half of women felt worse about their bodies after they had children.

A recent study by the University of Minnesota found women’s body dissatisfaction increased in the months following childbirth, the most dissatisfied time being six months after their child’s delivery. That was the month they were most likely to feel ashamed of their bodies and avoid tight-fitting clothes.

On average, women weighed five pounds more nine months after giving birth than they had done pre-pregnancy.

For women who had suffered from eating disorders, their body dissatisfaction was exacerbated during childbirth, but it also made women who had previously had no such issues feel bad about their bodies.

‘The cultural “thinness” mindset could unfortunately have negative repercussions on a mother’s mental health,’ the researchers said. ‘It’s important to educate women about expected postpartum weight and body changes, and to find ways to enhance mothers’ postpartum self-esteem and body satisfaction.’

Did having children change the way you feel about your body?

Have you felt a pressure from the media or other women to look good after childbirth?

How can we ensure we don’t add to new mums’ post-baby body issues?


Holy anorexia

st catherineWomen were starving themselves long before fashion magazines showed up.

And that includes Christian women.

At the age of seven, after having a vision of Christ, St Catherine of Siena, who lived in the 14th century, stopped eating normally, in an attempt to deny her body, to pay penance, and become more divine. From a young age, she started throwing her food under the table. She tried to survive only on the eucharist, to the concern of all those around her.

Sound familiar?

Reda and Sacco at the University of Siena explored her eating disorder and explain:

“So as not to cause scandal, she sometimes took a little salad, fresh vegetables and fruit, but would then turn around and spit them up. And if it was the case that she swallowed just a single morsel, the stomach did not let up until it could not regurgitate any more: the incessant vomiting gave her so much pain that her face was almost bursting. On occasion she would go away with one of her friends and prod her throat with a stick of finnochio or with a goose feather, until it was thrown open depending on how much she had swallowed. And this she called ‘doing justice’. ‘We do justice for our miserable sins,’ she liked to say.”

St Catherine was a poster girl for holy anorexia.

Some social psychologists have made the link between religious faith and eating disorders. CG Banks in the early 1990s said that religious motives such as asceticism and fasting could sometimes play a role in anorexia nervosa.

In See Me Naked, Amy Frykholm explores stories of religious faith and how harmful beliefs about the place of the body can lead to dysfunctional lives. She tells the story of Ashley who in a bid to bring her body into submission and to become perfect, denies herself food. She writes:

 ‘Ashley believed herself to be living out a protest against her culture. She was determined not to be exploited or displayed. Her body would not become a ‘vehicle for pleasures,’ not for others and not for herself. Instead Ashley worked to become a master of the will. Food was a constant, ordinary place to practice. She judged that she was doing well by the fact that her thighs did not touch each other – this was a direct indication of the control of desire. Excess of any kind, except excessive denial, was a sign that she had not given herself completely to God.’

A lot of the blame for women’s poor body image has been put on the fashion industry, the glossy magazines and the Daily Mail. Yes, each of these has a part to play in pressurising women to fit into – or aspire to fit into – a certain body ideal. They have a part to play in the high levels of body satisfaction.

But this week I’ve been realising that so many women’s poor body image, and subsequent pre-occupation with what we eat –  whether it’s bingeing, starving, over-eating, food anxiety – comes from some other place.

I’ve seen studies which show that eating disorders exist among women living in rural tribes in Africa, for example, where glossy magazines are not really available.

I’ve been surprised by the number of Christian women I know who have suffered from eating disorders – at either end of the continuum. This week for example I interviewed Carol, 55, who lost 16 stone after a bypass and realised that it really wasn’t about the weight or the food, but about the soul-pain issues which eventually led to her quest for control and self-worth.

In a survey I did earlier this year (which you can also take part in here), I found that it was around one on five  Christian women – with a further 10 per cent ‘unsure’ about whether or not they had suffered from eating disorders.

Here are just a couple of the things women told me in the survey:

 “Eating disorders are a way to regain control over your life when you can’t control other things and stem from much more than just feeling unattractive. I was bulimic for a while at school, but have struggled with food most of my life. Having an unhealthy relationship with food and/or an eating disorder is really isolating. You can’t separate food from life, it’s there on all major occasions, good and bad, social situations as well as everyday life. Food can be used as a reward and as a punishment. For someone with an eating disorder, food is terrifying, regardless if you are a bulimic, anorexic or compulsive eater. It consumes your world, becomes all you think about.”

 “I spent about three years in a food restriction/binge/purge bulimic cycle, but prior to that was about another five years of very unhealthy food and body image thought processes and action. The main perpetuating factor for this was anxiety/control issues but heavily influenced by a low self-esteem and negative body image. I was healed amazingly by coming to an understanding of God’s love and grace in my life, and was also hugely supported by outpatient hospital care which helped me reset a lot of my thought processes and habitual eating/activity behaviours. I believe I may always be susceptible to the thoughts and behaviours I had during that time but it does not define/control my life like it did.” 

Increasingly, I’m realising that when we talk about body image, beauty, food anxiety – we are talking about something much deeper; something which needs holistic inner healing and an encounter with He who “satisfies the longing soul, and fills the hungry soul with goodness” (Psalm 107:16).

Image: St Catherine of Siena, Creative Commons


mans eye view

I sometimes think that men get a bad rap when it comes to how women see themselves. I’ve written before about women’s craving to seek the admiration of men.

The men in our lives – our fathers,  boyfriends, brothers, husbands – can, and do, have a significant effect on how we see ourselves, our value and our self-worth.

Over the past week or so, as part of the Ending Violence Against Women campaign, the world has been raising awareness of those men who use their power over women for unimagineable cruelty.

Men have the power to make women feel small and insignifcant, ugly.

So I asked two great men – Darrell Vesterfelt of Prodigal Magazine in the US, and Carl Beech, head of Christian Vision for Men – to write guest posts on this blog to the women in their lives, telling them why they love and value them; why they are beautiful.

Have a read:

To my daughters: you are beautiful to me – by Carl Beech

To my wife: you are valuable, beyond measure – by Darrell Vesterfelt

To my wife: you are valuable, beyond measure

Guest post: by Darrell Vesterfelt, CEO of the Prodigal Media Group
We were driving home from vacation with my in-laws last week when my wife looked over at me and said: “Why did you marry me?”“What do you mean?” I asked.“I mean, sometimes I don’t even feel worthy to be married to you. Like I’m not good enough for you, and I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for you to have the same realisation.”My heart dropped.How could Ally not see how valuable she was to me? What was it that was calling her value into question?I started to think about how I could explain to her how much she is worth to me, and the image that came to mind was an auction. It might seem a little strange, but hear me out.

At an auction, an item is only as valuable as what someone is willing to pay for it. So a piece of art might be ‘valued’ at $1,500 by an appraiser, but that doesn’t really matter. Because when paddles start flying, and the stakes get higher and higher, you’ll see how much that painting is really worth. If someone pays $50,000 for that piece of art, that’s what it’s worth.

Forget $1,500. It’s worth $50,000 now.

What if the bidding war went on, and the item sold for $2 million? What then? Then the item is worth $2 million. You can have an appraiser give all the evaluations you want, but at auction, every item is worth what someone will pay for it.

What is someone willing to pay for you?

For my wife, I was willing to pay my life for hers on our wedding day. In one sense I auctioned myself for her, and she for me. That kind of exchange is powerful, and it is why we perform such a beautiful ceremony in front of our friends and family. It’s part of why marriage is so sacred.

We are worth each other’s life. We deserve each other.

But people don’t always recognise our worth. It is why so many of us live insecure.That is why it is important for our lives to be anchored to something greater than us. Our lives were purchased in the death of the Son of God. That means the ‘price’ of our life so to speak was increased from what we could accomplish to what He could accomplish. Our lives were bought with God. We are worth His life.
That begs the question, what is God worth?
The pursuit of understanding God’s worth is something that seems beyond measure, completely unfathomable, outside of our grasp. But the more we come to comprehend the worth of Jesus, and the worth we have because of him, the more we are able to live as if it is true.
Whatever God is worth, you are worth that. Do you believe that? Are you living like that is what you’re worth?
People who live like they know what they’re worth live in freedom. Freedom from worry, freedom from striving, freedom from being someone who they’re not.
When we forget how much we’re worth, it helps to have people who ‘gospel’ us back to truth. They act as reminders, and maybe even teachers to us, schooling us in our inherent value. We can do that for each other. That’s what I did for Ally that day.
I reminded her that she has infinite value, that she doesn’t have to do a single thing to earn it and that no one can take it away. It doesn’t matter what any appraiser says. A “buyer” has spoken. He’s lifted his paddle. That’s what she’s worth.
That’s what you’re worth.

Your value does not lie in the ever-changing circumstances of life, or the fickle feeling that you are beautiful, or accepted, or capable. It goes beyond good hair days, and beautiful clothes and perfect figure. It stands outside of works-oriented value. You did nothing to receive your value. It was freely given, so there is nothing you can do to lose it.

The only thing we’re called to do is live in a reality where our value defies human reason.You are valuable, beyond measure. Do you believe that?
ImageDarrell Vesterfelt is the CEO of the Prodigal Media Group – a storytelling firm based in Minneapolis where he lives with his wife Ally. Darrell is the original #unblogger. You can connect with him on Twitter.
Image by Creationswap

To my daughters: you are beautiful to me

Guest post: by Carl Beech, director, Christian Vision for Men

Dear Emily and Annie,

I know you know this, because I tell you often enough, but I was there when both of you were born. In fact, I “cut the cord” and almost immediately gave both of you your first cuddle. In Emily’s case you blew bubbles at me and Annie just screamed! They were for me incredible moments and brilliant memories. I have never since had a feeling like those ones, when we met for the first time. I wanted to shout it from the roof tops. When I drove you home, both times, I remember looking constantly at you in the baby seat next to me. They were real ‘wow’ moments and I was totally besotted with both of you from the word go.

Sorry if I don’t say that enough.
carl beech kidsIt’s been amazing watching you grow up to be young ladies. I’ve seen you navigate your way through friendship upsets, challenges at school and in various clubs, developing interests and hobbies and dealing with winning and losing. I think you are both amazing in the way that you have tackled some tough moments and kept your heads in it.

I love it when I hear either of you laughing.

Some of my happiest moments are when I see either of you with that glint of mischief in your eyes. I love it that both of you have a mad sense of humour! Never lose your laughs, your love of life and never lose the truth that you are both incredibly beautiful people.

Please, don’t listen to what the TV programmes tell you and ignore what the magazines say.

They talk about a different kind of beauty – a more plastic and shallow beauty that really counts for nothing. The truth is anyway that most of the models you see in the adverts have been photoshopped and most of the people on TV have so much make-up on they hardly resemble the real person.

It’s such a false picture and stops you from thinking about true beauty. Now I happen to think that your are both very pretty. But to me, true beauty is what’s on the inside of a person that then shines out. No amount of foundation, eyeliner, lip-gloss, varnish, powder, cream, hair extensions, mascara and highlights can mask the true beauty or ugliness of an individual.

I was once praying for people in India when a woman came forward who was incredibly beautiful. In fact she was stunning and had a compelling sense of peace about her. I asked the interpreter what she wanted prayer for and he just looked at me blankly. I asked him again, to which he replied “but can’t you see?” When I looked at her again, I noticed for the first time that she was completely disfigured on one side of her face and that one of her arms was like a small twig, where she had obviously had something like polio. I remember feeling like my head was spinning in confusion. After all, I hadn’t noticed any of that before!

As I stood there, I felt God quietly whisper to me: “You just saw her the way I see her all the time, beautiful to me.” Wow!

It was, for me, a life-changing moment. Remember that true beauty is on the inside and as a final aside – the men worth giving your heart to? They really get that.  Remember always that I love you, without condition.

With huge love,


carl beechCarl Beech heads up Christian Vision for Men, a national movement focused on introducing men to the Church. He has been married to Karen for 19 years and has two daughters, a dog, a cat and a hamster! He enjoys sporting challenges and has in the last few years cycled from Lands End to John O’ Groats, Calais to Nice and the length of Italy – all in under nine days. Follow him on Twitter.