A few hours after giving birth to her second child, fashion blogger DeDe Raad posted a series of Instagram stories from the bathroom of her hospital room, explaining how to make a pain-relieving disposable underwear insert. “This is for my first time mommies that have no idea what to expect,” the caption on one of the frames reads. She listed the items she used, including Dermoplast, Tucks, a spray bottle, an ice pack, and a diaper pad, explaining to her 1.2 million followers what the hospital provided and what she purchased herself, all while assembling the pad on camera.
On Instagram, fashion and beauty influencers are used to sharing carefully curated details of their lives with their millions of followers, including their experiences with pregnancy, labour, delivery, and postpartum recovery. For some like Raad, almost nothing is off-limits, and what’s being revealed is a dramatic departure from the suspiciously idyllic narrative of motherhood often broadcast by public figures — think Hilaria Baldwin’s lingerie photo shoots while holding her newborn, or Gisele Bundchen’s “completely painless” at-home water birth. Instead, influencers like Raad are flipping this narrative on its head; now, the painful, often unspoken aspects of childbirth are not only discussed, but are also photographed without reserve.
Caitlin Covington, a fashion influencer with 1.3 million followers, recently published an Instagram story tutorial on how to use a breast pump and answered DMed questions afterward. When Emily Calandrelli, host of Emily's Wonder Lab, gave birth to her daughter, she explained to her followers what a "foley balloon" is, what her early contractions felt like ("a bit like gas"), and her experience getting an epidural. Dani Austin Ramirez, a Dallas-based fashion influencer, posted a tutorial on how to use the Frida Mom Postpartum Recovery Kit on her Instagram story highlights.
Historically, people have been expected to bear the burden of childbirth alone and endure the painful recovery as quickly and silently as possible. Now, all that is changing, and influencers are a perhaps unexpected addition to the vanguard in the fight to familiarize people with what it means to give birth — the good, the bad, and the bloody.
One of the most important outcomes of influencers sharing their birthing experiences is that it can help untangle shame from childbirth. Krista Horton, a lifestyle influencer with 1.3 million followers, said that she shares freely on her social media because she doesn’t believe anything related to childbirth should be secret. “Why should it be something we can't talk about? Why should it be a secret? I just think the more that everybody is open about these things, the more it will become the norm,” Horton said. She documented the delivery of her third child, including what she ate before, the timing of her contractions, and the pain she experienced the first few hours after birth. Her followers shared with Horton how much they valued hearing about her experiences and sometimes offered stories and advice from their own lives.
For many influencers, sharing their experiences is an opportunity not only to further document their lives, but also to help others better prepare for postpartum side effects such as incontinence, abdominal pain, hemorrhoids, constipation and breast discomfort. “I just had no idea what to expect,” Raad said about her knowledge of childbirth before having her first child. Prior to a friend telling her three weeks before her due date that she would need adult diapers after delivery, Raad said she had no idea this kind of thing could be necessary. Now, she says her goal is to be an educational resource and to highlight what she calls “the nitty-gritty stuff” that isn’t usually shown on social media, even as people often turn to their social platforms to see how other people get by in the world. Because, while many expectant mothers turn to sisters, aunts, friends, or their own mothers, if that support system doesn’t exist, social media can fill the void. “If I had an older sister who went through this, I hope she would tell me these things,” Raad said. “So, this is a way [for me] to be a resource to these girls that are about to go through [childbirth] or who are going to go through it eventually.”
It’s not just new or expectant mothers who benefit from influencers sharing their tips and experiences. Raad said she has received feedback from women who are neither but who still found her stories eye-opening and valuable. “Even women who don't plan on having kids are like, ‘Wow, now I know how it really looks like after having a kid,’” Raad said. It’s helpful, she explained, “just to give grace to your friends or family members who are walking through it as well.” In addition to her own recommendations, Raad posted responses from her followers about “things we all wish we knew:” intense breast pain, night sweats, stool softeners, swelling, and “the postpartum squirt bottle they send home that becomes your best friend for a few weeks.”
Information on pregnancy and childbirth has shifted in the past few decades. Dr. Ruta Nonacs, a reproductive psychiatrist and editor of the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health newsletter, said that in the past, books such as What to Expect When You’re Expecting were the most common resources. Now it’s the internet. “Things that are very intimate, which you might ask your sister or your mom, have switched over to this very public platform,” she said. Women can now get information about things that are embarrassing, uncomfortable, or considered shameful, from influencers or other people who have large platforms.
Chanel Porchia-Albert is the founder and CEO of Ancient Song Doula Services, a doula certification organization that provides women of colour and low-income families access to birthing services. “I think that one of the biggest issues is the way that reproductive life course care is treated within the United States,” Porchia-Albert said. “There's so much emphasis on someone being pregnant and making sure that the fetus is safe and there's not enough emphasis on the individual who's carrying the child.”
Of the world’s 10 wealthiest nations, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate. Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women, a problem that highlights systemic racism in healthcare. Porchia-Albert points out that knowledge sharing is easier for white women because of the ways that Black women’s bodies have been dismissed and even criminalized within the American medical system.
“We don’t necessarily feel as comfortable sharing our stories that center us,” she said. “I’ve seen white clients be given pain medication with no hesitation and had things explained to them. On the flip side where someone is not hostile but because they’re asking questions and they happen to be Black, they’re seen as being aggressive.”
Fear of pain and vaginal tearing are commonly reported anxieties for people expecting children. In Porchia-Albert’s experience as a doula, helping pregnant women navigate medical terminology and decisions can help alleviate some fears associated with childbirth. She says access to information about and guidance on medical interventions such as the side effects of receiving an epidural is crucial for helping women make informed decisions about their bodies. “These things are not clearly laid out. And when they are presented, they are oftentimes presented from a fear-based origin to get someone to comply with something, not to get someone to understand and make an informed decision about their care,” Porchia-Albert said.
American maternity culture often centres the newborn instead of the mother during the postpartum period. “Many other cultures have a period of one to two months for moms to recover where family members and the community helps support the mom. They don't come to take care of the baby. It's about letting the mom rest and getting her back to being healthy and being strong. And we just do not do that in the United States,” said Dr. Nonacs.
Openness about delivery and post-birth bodily changes pushes back on the gendered concept of “oversharing,” a consciousness shift that’s been happening more and more over the past decade. In 2014, Lena Dunham told NPR’s Terry Gross that she rejects the idea of “TMI” because she feels as though society trivializes women’s experiences. In an essay published on Slate in 2015 writer Rachel Kramer Bussel argues that talking openly about the body is a feminist act: “...the insistence on privacy does create secrecy, along with shame, lack of understanding and inequality.” Breastfeeding in public, an act that was once and to some extent still considered taboo, was only legalized in all 50 states in 2018. Utah and Idaho were the last two states to pass breastfeeding protections and of course, some lawmakers — mostly men — had opinions.
In early 2020, ABC faced backlash after rejecting a television ad from Frida, a company that makes postpartum care products. The ad featured a new mother replacing her pad, cleaning her vaginal area with a spray bottle, and grimacing as she used the bathroom. Frida ran the ad on YouTube after it was rejected by ABC with a message that read, “It’s just a new mom, home with her baby and her new body for the first time. Yet it was rejected. And we wonder why new moms feel unprepared.
Though knowledge sharing on Instagram can be a positive phenomenon, Dr. Nonacs warns against falling into comparison traps, a problem she says is natural for new mothers. “What I tell people is if it doesn't make you feel better, then it's just not the right place for you,” she said. The goal for many influencers is to showcase the more realistic moments of motherhood, not the nude photoshoots or often celebrated “bounceback” workout journeys that can create anxiety for women planning to have children and shame for those who do.
This is exactly why influencers such as Horton have embraced the messiness of childbirth — while pausing to reflect the beauty of the process. “I would hope that more people appreciate the real and the raw of it all and not feel like you have to be perfect, feeling like it's okay to be a hot mess. It's okay to be a shitshow,” she said. “I feel like it's so much more okay to go through all of it and to feel all of it and not have to hide any of it.”