Social media is filled with plenty of before-and-after pictures of mothers who have “shed the baby weight” and gotten fit. The posts are meant to inspire, but new University of Guelph research finds they often do just the opposite.
The study from researchers in the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences (CSAHS) finds many mothers develop poor attitudes about eating and become discouraged about their body after viewing so-called “fitspiration” images. What’s more, those negative attitudes last longer than they should.
Recently published in the journal BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, the study is thought to be the first to investigate how social media impacts postpartum mothers’ body image. The researchers hope their findings will spark conversations and help health-care providers guide prenatal and postpartum mothers on using social media in a healthy way.
Dr. Lisa Tang, who led the research as a doctoral student in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition (FRAN), began the study after working as a dietitian in a community clinic. She noticed a growing number of new and expectant mothers talking about the need to lose weight.
“Mothers were sharing their feelings around the pressure to return to their pre-pregnancy weight as quickly as possible and feeling the pressure of unreasonable expectations as they were comparing themselves to other mothers on social media,” she said.
Most mothers use social media but little known of effects
Dr. Jess Haines, a FRAN researcher who supervised and contributed to the study along with Dr. Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University in Australia, says while previous research has examined how media such as TV and magazines affect postpartum mothers’ attitudes about their bodies, none had looked at the effect of social media.
“We know that nearly 90 per cent of mothers regularly use social media but there’s been limited research on how the messages and images new mothers see affect their body image and eating behaviours, which is why this study is important,” she said.
The research team involved 132 postpartum mothers of infants under six months of age. Half viewed several dozen social media posts that were body-focused, while the other half looked at posts that offered infant feeding tips.
Compared to the control group looking at feeding tips, the moms who looked at body-focused posts reported higher levels of inspiration to be active but also higher levels of body dissatisfaction, poorer body image, poorer eating attitudes and higher levels of behaviours suggesting they were restraining their eating.
These bad feelings about eating lingered with the mothers.
When the researchers surveyed them again one month later, the moms who had viewed the body-focused images still reported poorer eating attitudes and more restrained eating behaviour than the other mothers — a finding that surprised Tang.
“This points to the possibility that viewing body image content on social media may have a more robust impact on eating behaviours compared to feelings of inspiration to be active,” she said.
That’s concerning given that once disordered eating behaviours begin, they can continue for years, she said.
Past research has found that it takes about a year after giving birth before mothers’ feelings about their postpartum bodies return to their pre-pregnancy state.
“But our research suggests that viewing body-focused social media posts may prevent that natural progression of postpartum mothers feeling better about their bodies over time,” said Tang.
Social media can inspire but also be source of negativity
Haines said she hopes the findings will help raise awareness among health-care providers who work with pregnant and postpartum mothers about the potential negative influence of social media on their self-image.
“We would like to see the development of social media literacy training at prenatal classes or postpartum care appointments that encourages mothers to engage positively with social media and reduce their interaction with ideal body-focused images,” she said.
Tang doesn’t believe new moms should avoid social media. Instead, they should try to avoid content that leaves them feeling down.
“Social media can inspire us, connect us with our community and be a place to go to find support when you’re up at 3 a.m. because your newborn won’t sleep. However, it can also be a source of negativity and unrealistic comparison,” she said.
“My goal — both for mothers and as a mother — is that we learn to harness social media as a positive tool and figure out how to filter out those negative influences.”
The research was funded in part by the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research.
Dr. Jess Haines