One of the top concerns women have going into pregnancy is weight: Will I gain too much?  Will I be able to lose it all afterwards?  Will my body ever go back to normal? These are questions I hear all the time from my pre- and postnatal fitness clients, and I understand on a personal level where they are coming from.

Like many other women, I struggled with body image issues while pregnant and postpartum. They were part of what killed my nursing relationship with my first child after only 4 months.  And with my second baby, body image issues were a lot of what motivated me to run 10 kilometres barely 7 weeks after my c-section while pushing my baby in a jogging stroller — not something I would ever recommend to a client.

While I agonized over being able to fit into non-maternity pants, and grudgingly bought bras in sizes I thought were reserved only for porn stars, I tried to remind myself that weight gain in pregnancy is not only normal, but necessary. And while some women lose all of their ‘baby weight’ within weeks of birth, there is no moral failure involved for those (like me) who don’t.

Yet it’s hard not to get obsessive about body image while pregnant, and it’s worth asking why we expect women’s bodies to bear no lasting markers of pregnancy, one of life’s most major events.   When will my body go back to normal? Never. Because you’ll never have not been pregnant again.

When I teach pre and postnatal fitness, I try to never talk about weight or shape.  I figure that everyone is already thinking about these things anyway; what if we try a different approach?

Go with me on this radical idea. What if, instead of focusing on pounds and inches and lumps and bumps, we talk about strength and power, and feeling capable of meeting life’s physical challenges? What if we recognize weight gain during pregnancy as a normal and sensible adaptation to new physical demands? What if we accept that some women’s bodies need more fat stores in order to support lactation? What if we talk about building stamina for labour, and preparing physically for the sleep-deprivation and marathon nursing sessions that are par for the course during the postpartum phase?  What if we stop trying to convince women — pregnant, postpartum, and otherwise — to disappear?  What if?

I don’t think women would stop exercising. In fact, I think a lot of women who otherwise wouldn’t exercise might start. Because it would become an activity that helps them feel valuable, powerful and good, instead of something focused on reduction, depletion, and annihilation.

I try to help my clients understand the physiological changes they are going through during the childbearing year, how to make the most of this unique time, and to find joy in the challenge of moving their bodies.

When you make fitness part of your life, you can feel proud of the body you’ve earned, and enriched by the experience of using that body to create and then sustain new life.

Alisa Harrison, PhD, owns and operates Mid Vancouver Island Fit 4 Two; leads ICAN of the Cowichan Valley; and maintains a private research and consulting practice. She also blogs about pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and parenting.