Thursday, 5 September 2013

Why Kate Middleton's Postnatal Weight Loss is Not Representative of the Norm

Postnatal weight loss is a bit of a contentious issue. On the one hand, we have mothers to whom it seems to come naturally. Such mothers are often lambasted, as they are not representative of the norm, and they are somehow seen as superficial. On the other hand, it can take months and sometimes years for others. Paradoxically, it is not hard to find commentators willing to call those women out on their slow weight loss, or the absurd idea that lingering fat is somehow an indicator that they are lazy.

When pictures of Kate Middleton emerged with Prince George, it was quite clear that her weight has fallen off easier than most. Whether she has dieted, exercised, or simply breastfed the lot away, she is looking fantastic. That is great for Kate, it is her personal choice—or perhaps fortune—and she is not to be called out for rapid results.

What does sting is the way journalists are quite keen to jump on Kate Middleton as being representative of the female norm. This process began less than 24-hours after she gave birth, when OK! Magazine published a story detailing what her weight loss plans would be. Since then, Vanity Fair and other publications have been quick to highlight her successes, and some have even milked what many will be thinking: "What does Kate have that we don't?"

The Science of it All: Gaining Weight During Your Pregnancy

As we so often hear from the natural birthing crowd, women's bodies have unique mechanisms that accommodate pregnancies. We won't use the term "evolved" here, as evolutionary trade-offs for bipedalism make this sort of crude, but that's a whole other post.  Studies have demonstrated that women accumulate new fat cells during the third trimester. This plays a role in nourishing the foetus during the pregnancy, and during breastfeeding when he or she is born.

These fat cells are incredibly hard to shift. Unfortunately, the media likes to not-so-affectionately refer to them as "baby chub," or "baby weight" if the journalist is having a slightly more classy day.
During your pregnancy, you produce extra prostaglandins. Prostaglandins play an adaptive role in making your blood vessels dilate, which accommodates the increase in blood volume. However, they also soften your muscles—this is in part way you have the odd embarrassing flatulence issue. At the same time, this works hand-in-hand with that expanding uterus to stretch your abdominal muscles to their limit.

A considerable amount of weight gain can be attributed to a 40-50% rise in blood volume, the placenta, amniotic fluid, and of course the baby. However, very few women avoid weight gain during pregnancy, and even less achieve the rapid weight loss goals magazines and newspapers seem happy to promote.
So the blood volume, placenta, amniotic fluid, and foetus will all resolve part of the weight gain during the immediate postnatal period. What about the extra lipid cells? And those new overstretched abdominal muscles?

Here's a little secret: We are not meant to lose those lipid cells, at least not biologically. Okay, so we can force weight loss when we work hard at it. However, this doesn't completely shed the fat cells we accumulate. Lipid cells can swell up to six times their normal size, but you cannot eradicate them entirely through dieting and exercise—they simply shrink. As for those abdominal muscles, they are not irreparable in most cases, but the majority of women will experience a slow return to normality.  

Further to this, we all have our own biological markers for that determine weight loss. Our activity levels, base metabolic rate, existing muscle mass, and levels of hormones such as insulin, oestrogen, and thyroid hormones can determine how long it takes us to lose weight. All of our endocrine systems are different in some ways, let's not pretend otherwise.

Why Does it Even Matter How the Media Approaches Kate?

What Kate does isn't the problem. As an autonomous woman with her own goals for life, she is free to lose weight as rapidly or as slowly as she chooses. When the media chooses to place her on a pedestal of postnatal weight loss normality, it is enforcing a norm that is not achievable for all women. This, in turn, can cause guilt, insecurity, and even low self-worth. Okay, so some people may claim that this is partially dependent on how we let media messages affect us. Despite this, try as we may, some of us cannot overcome those niggling feelings. Emotions are not elements we can turn on and off when it suits us. 

Socially, we receive subliminal cues to return to this perceived state of normality from all angles. Well-meaning friends and family may comment on our lack of weight gain, or they may casually state that we will lose it in no time. Such comments are seemingly innocuous, but they do reinforce the idea that this is something we need to achieve. Combine this with media pressure, and there is this weird idea of what is normal.

Personally, I believe it is healthy to desire postnatal weight loss. What isn't healthy is the idea that we must achieve this within a certain time frame. This works both ways. If a woman loses weight fast naturally or through hard work, great for her. Don't destroy her body image with negative comments. If a woman wants to wait until she cashes in her first pension cheque, yay for her too. Ultimately, it is our personal autonomy as women and a little biology that define when we should lose weight. Not the media, friends, or anything else.