Punk Science talks postpartum

Hello again my fellow punk scientists!
For this final instalment of the semester, it felt appropriate to select a topic that would meet as many categories on the punk science rubric as possible to deliver a truly meaningful glance into the world of science.
To that end, this week we are going to dive into some local research being done here on our very campus.
Dr. Leslie Johnson, associate professor of behavioral sciences at NVU-Johnson, has been studying the effects of stigma on post-partum women in her campus-based research lab.
To break down this concept, the core parts need to be identified before the ramifications can be discussed clearly. The first item of note is the term post-partum, which refers to the time period after a woman has given birth, typically about one year in length.
This period is important for the infant for a myriad of reasons, both physically and mentally. However, there is a little-studied phenomenon that specifically targets the mothers after they have given birth.
Mothers who have recently given birth usually have what is called ‘baby weight,’ basically the weight left over from their pregnancy that takes time to dissipate and may never fully be lost. Because of this, and because of prevailing American attitudes towards weight and anti-fat bias, mothers experience a double-sided stigma that has negative results on their mental health.
This specific stigma has two parts. The first is that women who carry baby weight past their post-partum period are viewed more similarly to people who are overweight in general. They are considered less attractive and can be viewed as having weak willpower or be subjected of other moral judgements because of this excess weight.
Conversely, if a woman works to lose this weight proactively through exercise and dieting, she will be viewed as a poor mother by people around her who see her as spending more time on herself than on her child.
This leads to some problematic thought patterns that can have negative consequences on the mental health of mothers who are effectively damned if they do lose the weight and damned if they don’t.
In her research, one of only two labs to tackle the research in the country at this time, Johnson examined the presence of post-partum stigma and its aftereffects. Not only was the presence of the stigma of interest to her, but the potential factors that could help mediate, or lessen the stigma were also of note.
While not all of the data has been published or released, there are some promising results that certain factors may help to alleviate the negative consequences of this stigma. Having a positive support group is one such method of easing the burden of stigma. Being around other pregnant women may also lower the amount of negative consequences associated with post-partum weight bias.
However, weight stigma of any kind does have its own unique challenges when it comes to effectively managing that stigma. The primary method of managing stigma most stigmatized groups use of is a process of attributing stigma as the cause of a person’s negative behavior.
What this means is that a stigmatized person may have some resiliency to discrimination and stigmatization because they can attribute those attitudes and behaviors to the person stigmatizing them, effectively moderating the stigma. Imagine being a woman and having a male counterpart make a sexist comment. The woman can more easily brush off that comment as sexist, and not let it bother her as much.
The difficulty with weight stigmas and biases is that this method of defence does not work because most people see weight as a controllable value. Therefore, it is because of a person’s moral failures that they are overweight or “fat” and not because of underlying factors that are associated with weight.
Women who have recently given birth face similar stigmas and predictably, suffer similar consequences of being stigmatised. Such trends in behaviour mean that studying the phenomenon has real world applications and could prove valuable in helping to reduce stigma and educate the public.
While studying this stigma, Johnson and her student lab assistants have conducted three individual studies on the post-partum weight bias and its effects, as well as co-authored three papers on the subject and presented the findings at the Eastern Psychological Association, the VCS Student Symposium, and the Northern Vermont University Symposium to name a few. For a smaller research lab at a rural university, this is big news indeed.
For now, that’s all the science we’ll be looking at this week. Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of Punk Science, where we’ll be looking at yet another fascinating area of science and technology. Until next time, farewell from Punk Science, where we’re making science cool again!