Postnatal body positivity is a loaded topic. Every day we’re presented with images of beautiful women who’ve “snapped back into shape” just days after giving birth and yet, spend too much time worrying about what you look like after having a baby, or how your fitness levels are, and you’re at risk of being labelled “self-absorbed".
How are you meant to catch a break?
Shakira Akabusi, personal trainer, athlete, mum, founder of the #StrongLikeMum campaign (and yes, daughter of Kriss), knows a thing or two about this. She gave birth to her son Rio two years ago and, since then, has trained loads of new mums, helping them to reach their fitness goals. “You’re almost made to feel guilty for thinking about yourself in that situation,” she says exasperatedly. “Everything is catered around how to make this baby comfortable and safe and that is your priority but it is important also that women feel like it’s okay to think about themselves at times.”
“When I first started blogging about this," she continues, "I had people messaging me saying, ‘Why don’t you spend more time looking after your baby than you do on fitness?’ Or they’d say, ‘Gosh you’re so self-obsessed.’ But they’re missing the point. I do think happy mum makes happy baby.”
For Shakira, using exercise as a way to recover after giving birth wasn’t about dropping a dress size. She always loved being active and, before having a baby, fitness was a key part of her identity. Regaining it was important to her.
However, it wasn't just the physical aspects of fitness that helped. As everyone now knows, exercise plays a huge role in maintaining good mental health and having a baby is a notorious trigger for messing with your head. Shakira herself suffered from postnatal OCD. “If my son was not well I’d exaggerate it," she says. "I'd check his temperature five times in the night, it would be like, 'Does this mean this or this or this…?'”
New mothers don’t have time for the gym. By the time you’ve packed your gym bag, your baby’s pooed the nappy, then they have a nap, then they’re waking up.
Postnatal mental health issues come in many different guises. “Everyone talks about postnatal depression,” says Shakira. “But there’s so many different things that can happen and it’s sort of accepted, like, ‘Oh you’re going to go through baby blues and you’re going to feel a bit rubbish’ and sometimes it’s a little bit more serious and some women just suffer in silence.”
“For me," Shakira says, "exercise was and still is a massive way to destress and evaluate. If I get out and go for a run or do a 20-minute workout in the garden when he’s having his nap, it’s a massive benefit.”
Starting exercise at any time can be daunting – especially for women who have never tried it. Back in 2014, This Girl Can found that 75% of women would like to exercise more but don’t, many for fear of being judged. When you’re a new mum, the obstacles between you and exercise multiply tenfold. These range from self-confidence issues to myths and rumours about what’s safe and what’s not (Shakira says the number one question she gets asked is how exercise is going to affect breastfeeding – for the record, the short answer is, “It's not”), to how the hell new mums are expected even to fit exercising in?!
“New mothers don’t have time for the gym,” Shakira says firmly. “By the time you’ve packed your gym bag, your baby’s pooed the nappy, then they have a nap, then they’re waking up, if you’re breastfeeding your baby is constantly there…”
Exhausting, right? So what’s the alternative?
“Get creative!” she says. “For the first four or five months I used everyday objects and made my house a gym. I use my washing basket and fill it with tin cans, shoes, wine bottles and use it to do squats or lunges. I use our heavy cooking pots for shoulder presses.” If that sounds too much, think smaller. “You can start with just pelvic floor exercises! You can do those as soon as you’re ready.”
For many women, postnatal exercise is their very first foray into exercise. Which is fine. Everyone needs a catalyst. But knowing where to start can be tough. Luckily, this is 2017, and everything from YouTube to Instagram, Reddit to Facebook is packed with free tutorials, videos and tips for exercising at home. “I know social media has its pitfalls,” says Shakira. “But everyone knows that having an exercise buddy is one of the best ways to stay motivated and social media allows that on a broader scale. You might have to sift through airbrushed accounts of rubbish but if you can find the right people they can motivate you every day.”
Proceed with caution, though. We all know that social media can be a trap of its own making. From airbrushed celebrities to influencers with great posing skills, delve too deep and it can do more harm than good. Especially problematic if you’re postnatal, feeling unsure about your body, your mental health and the brand-spanking new feather to your bow labelled "mother". So choose wisely who you look to, and ditch anyone making you feel bad.
"I think we're looking for more organic, realistic information and you can't trust everything that you see on social media... it's not realistic for the everyday woman." One thing she has noticed, though, especially in the fitness community, is the growing trend of women (whisper it) supporting each other on social media. "Women are feeling more empowered as a community," she says. "There's less competition against each other and more 'Let's empower each other to do stuff.'"
Because at the end of the day, coming to a place where you understand your body – and your mind – after giving birth is the shared experience of millions of women the world over. Could fitness, with its mental and physical benefits, finally make this a more easily attainable goal?
“It's SO much more than dropping a dress size,” says Shakira. “There’s nothing wrong with thinking that but there’s so much more that comes with it, whether it’s teaching your child to be healthy and active, having that stress relief, it’s about taking some time for yourself and doing something amazing for you.”
"I want to encourage people to view postnatal women as strong, powerful and confident," she continues. "You can be a mum and still be just as active and confident as any woman. I want kids to grow up and think, 'I can be strong like Mum' – not purely physically but mentally, spiritually, emotionally, strong in the complete sense."