Of all the relationships I’ve had in my life, the one with my body has been the most tumultuous.
My shape has changed a lot over the years, fluctuating from a size 10 to a 16 and then back and forth again (and again). Over time, my body image has changed too.
But contrary to what you might expect, my self-esteem hasn’t always correlated with my size. In fact, the times that I’ve been most at peace with my body were times when my body was the furthest away from "traditional beauty standard" slim.
The one thing that has had the biggest impact on my body image is becoming a mum. And, according to a new study from Italy, I’m not alone.
The study, published in Body Image, investigated breast size dissatisfaction.
Of the 484 Italian women who were surveyed, 69 per cent reported dissatisfaction, with 44 per cent wanting larger breasts.
The authors of the study found that breast size dissatisfaction was associated with higher levels of perfectionist self-presentation (the desire to create an image of flawlessness in the eyes of other people), which is known to contribute to poor body image.
However, the same association wasn’t found amongst the 54 per cent of women surveyed who were mothers. "Our findings suggest that motherhood may help to decouple the link between perfectionistic self-presentation and breast size dissatisfaction,” wrote social psychologist Professor Viren Swami.
Swami notes there are several possible reasons why mothers could be more comfortable with their bodies. But, the most relevant is that becoming a mother and breastfeeding focuses a woman’s attention on breast functionality rather than aesthetics.
Sarah Harry is a specialist in body image and disordered eating, and founder of Body Positive Australia. She tells me that focusing on what your body can do, rather than what it looks like definitely works for some women.
“Sometimes it works – sometimes women resolve their body image and eating disorder issues in pregnancy and early motherhood because suddenly everything is about function," she says.
“They’re amazed by what their body can do and feel more respect for their body - The functionality becomes bigger than body image."
Psychologist Marny Lishman echoes this when she says that pregnancy and birth is a celebration of what a woman’s body can do.
“It can bring a baby into this world and that is truly a miracle. The function of our bodies are so much more than just something to look at. The wonder of this and the gratitude for it is important,” she explains.
But of course, this is not always the case. Harry notes she’s had many clients who have struggled with their post-baby bodies. “Some women will end up feeling worse,” she says.
You only need to poke your head into an online mothers group to see this play out. The societal expectation to lose the "baby weight" and get back into your pre-pregnancy jeans is rife. Celebrity post-baby body reveals on social media add to the poor body image some women experience.
I’ve experienced both. After my first pregnancy I experienced waves of self-loathing – I could barely look at myself in the mirror and when I did, I didn’t recognise the body that confronted me.
But after the birth of my second daughter 19 months later, I experienced a profound sense of body acceptance. Looking back on it now I can see that I’d made peace with my body. Was it an appreciation of function over aesthetics? There was definitely an element of that.
“Look what you created!” my sister urged me when I mentioned my stretch marks.
There was another element, though. Looking at my perfect daughters I made a conscious decision to be a good role model. I didn’t want to pass on my poor body image. So in the years since becoming a mum I have actively strived for a healthy body image.
So perhaps, in a way, my improved body image is a result of function over aesthetics - perhaps for me, role-modelling health body image is a function of motherhood.