When you’re a full-time mama milk factory, checking your own weight is the last thing on your mind. Luckily for all the new mums out there, plenty of strangers are willing to do it for you. Leandra Cohen, founder of fashion and lifestyle website, Man Repeller, recently came under fire on Instagram for being 'too skinny' just weeks after giving birth to twin girls. Her response? "Breastfeeding shrunk my ass. Literally. Kids are getting chubby which indicates milk is good and that’s all I care about at the moment." Indeed, feed them babies, girl!
According to La Leche League, breastfeeding mothers tend to lose more weight when their babies are 3-6 months old than formula-feeding mothers who consume fewer calories. Breastfeeding burns around 800 calories a day and some – but certainly not all – mums lose weight because of this. Anna Burbidge of La Leche League GB says that the amount of extra calories a breastfeeding mum needs depends on how much body weight has been put on during pregnancy, how much breast milk she is producing (which is influenced by the baby’s age and whether she is exclusively breastfeeding or combining with formula milk), body size, percentage of body fat and how active she is.
For most new mums, losing weight post-pregnancy is hard, and doing so while breastfeeding is rarely a given because it makes mums hungrier. And hungry, sleep-deprived new mums tend to satisfy their cravings with food that is quick and easy to make, rather than the recommended increase in grains, vegetables and fruit.
Despite the fact that this is all rather complicated, attacking new mums for being 'too thin' seems to be fair game.
Reny Andrade has been breastfeeding her son for 11 months. "People always comment on my 'thin figure' followed by things like, 'Oh my god, get him off your boob already he’s eating you alive' or 'You’re getting way too skinny', and the tone isn’t always very uplifting," she says. "It’s hard to be a nursing mum, and the criticism from outsiders doesn’t encourage me to want to continue breastfeeding. I love the bond I have with my baby and it hasn’t been easy, but it’s well worth it."
Jessica Lane, who breastfed her son until he was 9 months, had a similar experience. "At first I mistook it for a compliment, people were saying I’d lost lots of weight," she says. "But then it became a criticism. I wanted to carry on feeding my child but I felt like people were implying I was dieting and not taking care of myself."
Pregnant women’s bodies are a site of explicit public debate. In most circumstances it would be unheard of for work colleagues, strangers or elderly relatives to comment on your body, but when there’s reproduction involved, it’s another matter. Charlotte Faircloth, a lecturer in the sociology of gender at UCL, says that even women who are trying to conceive, let alone those who are pregnant or looking after a small child, will have their bodies measured and assessed in a variety of formal and informal ways.
She says criticising women for being 'too thin' has become yet another stick with which to beat women who step too far out of line one way or the other: "Women’s bodies become a visible marker of their 'commitment' to their children at the same time that they can be read as being 'selfish' (because being thin is these days considered desirable, but not necessarily maternal). It gets to the heart of a big motherhood dilemma: Selfishness vs. Maternalism."
Siobhan Freegard, founder of Channel Mum agrees and says that new mums’ bodies are not public property. "Most of us would never dream of commenting on a stranger’s body – so why do it when a woman has just given birth and is at her most vulnerable? Body shaming in all forms is wrong, but criticising a woman for looking a little different when she’s grown a whole new human is ridiculous."
She thinks that being attacked for being too thin is a form of control and an attempt to undermine mothering skills by slyly insinuating the woman is more bothered about her own body than her baby. "Some new mums are curvier, some are thinner – we're all different and that's something to celebrate, not criticise," she says.
Ultimately, body shaming in any circumstance is not okay. The UK has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and the 11th largest breast milk substitutes market, with sales projected to reach $907m (£688m) by 2019. The idea that women should be achieving and maintaining the 'perfect' post-baby weight is not helping the cause.
Decisions about parenting shouldn't be influenced by things such as weight and unwelcome comments from others. If it’s not your baby and it’s not your life, then it’s probably not your place to say it. And anyway, as Reny says, these changes – whether welcome or unwelcome – can be temporary. For her, it's about putting her baby first, above her own body hang-ups. "I have a lifetime to shape my body how I want in the future," she says. "I know I gave my baby the best of me, even if he did 'make me skinny'."