Oct. 17, 2022 – Does Instagram make new moms feel inadequate? Yes, suggests a new study that warns images of new mothers on social media may drive body dissatisfaction and feelings of not being good enough.
Lead researcher Megan Gow, PhD, a National Health and Medical Research Council early career fellow at the University of Sydney Children’s Hospital Westmead Clinical School, says she wanted to find out if Instagram images reflected the actual population of postpartum women.
“We were concerned images would be idealized, placing postpartum women, who are already a vulnerable group, at increased risk,” she says.
The findings, published recently in the journal Healthcare, suggest social media may not be the right platform to target health messages to new moms.
A Vulnerable Time
The months after an infant’s birth are a vulnerable time for new moms. Women contend with huge hormone shifts, sleep deprivation, and a major life change — all while caring for a new child.
A 2021 Nestle study found 32% of parents feel isolated, while a 2017 online poll in the United Kingdom found 54% of new moms felt “friendless.” And according to the American Psychological Association, up to 1 in 7 new mothers will face postpartum depression, while 9% will have posttraumatic stress disorder, according to Postpartum Support International.
The pandemic may have worsened the isolation new mothers feel. A May 2022 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found U.S. rates of postpartum depression rose in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While new motherhood was stressful enough in the analog age, women today must contend with social media, which increases feelings of isolation. A June 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology said social media users between the ages of 26 and 35 reported higher rates of loneliness. That’s in line with Gow’s study, which noted 39% of Instagram’s monthly active users are women between the ages of 18 and 44. And nearly two-thirds of them – 63% — log onto the platform daily.
“The postpartum phase can feel very isolated, and being vocal about the postpartum shifts that all mothers go through helps set expectations and normalize the experience for those of us who are postpartum,” says Catie de Montille, 36, a mother of two in Washington, DC.
Instagram Sets the Wrong Expectations
Instagram sets unreasonable expectations for new mothers, Gow and her colleagues found in their study.
She and her fellow researchers analyzed 600 posts that used #postpartumbody, a hashtag that had been posted on Instagram more than 2 million times by October 2022. Other hashtags like #mombod and #postbabybody have been used 1.9 million and 320,000 times, respectively.
Of the 600 posts, 409 (68%) focused on a woman as the central image. The researchers analyzed those 409 posts to find out if they reflected women’s post-childbirth reality.
They found that more than 9 in 10 posts (91%) showed women who appeared to have low body fat (37%) or average body fat (54%). Only 9% showed women who seemed to be overweight. And the researchers also found just 5% of images showed features commonly associated with a postpartum body, like stretch marks or scars from cesarean sections.
Women need to be aware that “what is posted on Instagram may not be realistic and is not representative of the vast majority of women in the postpartum period” Gow says.
The images also did not portray women as physically strong.
Gow’s team examined 250 images for signs of muscularity. More than half, 52%, showed few or no defined muscles. That finding came even though more than half of the original 409 images showed women in fitness attire (40%), underwear (8%), or a bathing suit (5%).
According to Emily Fortney, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Sacramento, CA, the study shows that health care workers must work harder to set expectations for new moms.
“This is a deeper issue of how women are overall portrayed in the media and the pressure we face to return to some unrealistic size,” she says. “We need to be encouraging women to not focus on photos, but to focus on the postpartum experience in an all-encompassing way that includes both physical and mental health.”
Childbirth as an Illness to Overcome?
While retail brands from Nike to Versace have begun to show a wider range of female shapes in advertisements and on the runway, postpartum women seem to be left out of this movement. Gow and her fellow researchers referred to a 2012 study that examined images in popular Australian magazines and concluded these photos likened the pregnant body to an illness from which women needed to recover.
The images posted on Instagram indicate that belief is still pervasive. The images of postpartum women in fitness clothes suggest “that women want to be seen to be exercising as a means of breaking the ‘hold’ that pregnancy had on them or ‘repairing’ their postpartum body,” Gow and her fellow researchers say.
New Orleans resident Sydney Neal, 32, a mother of two who gave birth to her youngest child in November 2021, said social media helped shape her view of what “recovery” would be like.
While Neal said some celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, a mother of two, have “kept it very real” on Instagram, she also “saw 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.”
Body-Positive Tools for New Moms
Gow is continuing to study this topic. Her team is currently doing a study that will ask women about social media use, how they feel about their bodies, and how their beliefs change after viewing images tagged with #postpartumbody. (Women with children under the age of 2 can access the survey here.)
Because of the unrealistic images, Gow and her team said Instagram may not be a good tool for sharing health information with new moms.
But there are other options.
The Washington, DC-based de Montille, whose children were born in 2020 and 2022, used apps like Back to You and Expectful, and she follows Karrie Locher, a postpartum and neonatal nurse and certified lactation counselor, on Instagram. She said these tools focus on the mind/body connection, which “is better than focusing on the size of your jeans.”
Women also should be able to turn to trusted health care professionals.
“Providers can start speaking about the romanticization of pregnancy and motherhood starting in prenatal care, and they can start speaking more about social media use and the pros and cons of use specifically in the perinatal period,” says Fortney. “This opens the door to a discussion on a wide range of issues that can actually help assess, prevent, and treat perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.”
Neal, the mother of two in New Orleans, said she wished her doctor had talked to her more about what to expect after giving birth.
“I don’t really know how to crack the body image nut, but I think starting in a medical setting might be helpful,” she says.