This feature is part of ELLE’s ‘Modern Motherhood Series’ – exploring the shifting role of ‘mother’ in society and the women choosing to do things differently.
‘I actually have a baby attached to my breast right now!’, exclaims Simone De La Rue, a.k.a. Instagram’s favourite fitness influencer and exercise mogul, Body By Simone. Despite giving birth just a few weeks ago, the 44-year-old is already itching to get back to her regular workout routine. Why? Because when your body is your job, pregnancy brings with it an entirely different body transformation to the ones De La Rue is famous for.
Equal parts delightful, daunting, and, at times, derailing, pregnancy, and the bodily changes that come with it, can be overwhelming enough for, as Mean Girls put it, ‘regular mums’. But what happens when an ever expanding belly affects more than just your ability to wear that new pair of Levi’s Ribcage jeans? What about when it takes control of your career and sense of self? Oh, and you’ve got hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers scrutinising every stretch mark and sumo squat, while you’re at it.
For three fitness influencers, that was the reality.
From unplanned c-sections and post-baby body pressure, to surprise cellulite and working out until you’re literally in labour, this is what really happens to your body when you’re an exercise queen and a mother-to-be…
‘Oh god, my whole life is based around my body’
At 43, De La Rue’s pregnancy was deemed ‘geriatric‘, a fact that the celebrity personal trainer wasn’t phased by. ‘I thought that term was hilarious – I’m 43 not 143! Saying that, having tried for so long, I was overjoyed and thrilled to be pregnant, but of course there was a moment when I was like “Oh my goodness, my whole life is based around my body.”‘
This moment of revelation doesn’t happen across the board, however. Being in the midst of a career that relied heavily on her physical fitness didn’t worry Adidas Global Ambassador Adrienne (@adrienne_ldn), for example. ‘I was a dancer in a West End musical when I found out I was pregnant,’ the fitness blogger and mum of one explains. ‘I was conscious about performing in just a bra and pants with my body changing, but mostly it was other people who had concerns, not me. I had so many mothers say to me, “Wave goodbye to your six pack” or “Good luck with the stretch marks”, but for me, I didn’t care about that stuff. I was 23-years-old and if someone said to me “You’ll never wear a pair of size six jeans again” I couldn’t have cared less. I was just ecstatic to be pregnant.’
‘The thought of not doing any exercise didn’t even cross my mind’
For most of us, exercise is an extra-curricular activity, if and when we can be bothered. And if we’re pregnant? It’s probably dropping off the to-do list almost immediately. But when working out is your day job, how do you balance your new baby body with maintaining the one you’re used to? ‘I normally work out for five hours a day so the thought of not doing any exercise didn’t even cross my mind,’ says De La Rue. ‘There are so many benefits of exercise for you and the baby, but it’s also my therapy.’
However, even professionals have to take a time out when nature has other ideas. ‘Because I had IVF, I knew I was pregnant at two weeks, much earlier than most people’, says journalist, personal trainer and new mum, Gemma Yates. ‘I spent the whole first trimester in a constant state of anxiety, so exercise took a backseat as I was just so overwhelmed by the fragility of the whole thing. As someone who worked out 5-7 times a week prior to getting pregnant, not moving was tough both physically and mentally. While the rational part of me knows that exercise doesn’t equal miscarriage, I experienced some bleeding early on after a (gentle) class, which really shook me up.
‘As a compromise, I started to walk part of my commute. Surprisingly, it often burned more calories than a gym session. After the reassurance of a healthy 12 week scan – and once the fatigue had dialled down – I was back in the gym three to four times a week, mixing low impact cardio like an incline treadmill walk or cross trainer session with weights and swimming.’
‘You know your body, do what you want to do’
‘When I was pregnant, exercise just wasn’t a thing that expectant mothers did’, explains Adrienne. ‘People were just like “You’re pregnant, you should rest” or recommended deep breathing. Now, you’re encouraged to be active because people actually understand that it’s good for you.’
Turns out, your body knows best. ‘I always say to my pregnant clients, listen to your body, and I had to practice what I preach’, says Simone. ‘I’ve been labelled the cardio queen but that’s actually one of the things I didn’t do throughout my pregnancy because I really struggled with my stamina. It was hard for me because normally I can do it in my sleep, but it didn’t feel good, so I didn’t do it.’
For journalist Gemma, it was all about adjusting her exercise to accommodate her growing baby bump. ‘Squats quickly became sumo squats to accommodate my sumo belly. Your body is flooded with a hormone called relaxin during pregnancy, which loosens your muscles, joints and ligaments, so high impact and unilateral (single arm or leg) exercises were off the cards too.’
‘I kind of felt like I’d grown another bum’
Ever changing boobs, butts and bellies are enough to make any expectant mother feel out of control. Add to that a lifetime of being in peak physical form and a body fat percentage we can only dream of, and gaining weight takes on extra significance. ‘For the most part I loved seeing my body grow and change, but I wasn’t totally immune to the occasional negative thought as the number on the scales went up,’ says Gemma. ‘I remember texting a friend saying “Wow, I’ve gained XX pounds already”, then feeling guilty for being concerned with aesthetics rather than the fact that my body was growing a baby.’
And when you’ve spent a lifetime exercising, pregnancy brings with it yet another surprise: cellulite. ‘One thing I didn’t expect was the scattering of cellulite that appeared on my thighs and bum during the first trimester, or the squishier inner thighs as my body laid down fat stores for breast milk,’ the 32-year-old reveals.
However, for women more used to six packs than Spanx, a little extra to love was exactly that. ‘Growing up, I always had an athletic body that I was bullied for,’ says Adrienne. ‘I had no boobs, no hips, I basically looked like a boy. Now, it’s cool to be a woman with muscles, but it never used to be. So, when I got pregnant and my body changed, I loved it. I went from an A cup to an E when I was feeding and had boobs for the first time in my life. Being pregnant validated my womanhood so I loved my new body and embraced it.
‘Although, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about stretch marks. I slathered myself day and night in different oils – Bio oil, vitamin e cream, coconut oil, olive oil, you name an oil and I was slathering myself in it. I was very shiny and very sticky for my whole pregnancy!’
For Simone, her ‘new’ body came with unexpected perks. ‘As a teenager I used to carry my weight in my glutes and quads so that’s the area that I put on the weight. I kind of felt like I’d grown another bottom, although my husband was quite happy with that. I had a booty!’
‘Prepare to experience daily discharge dilemmas’
Instagram might tell another story, but even fitness influencers experience the gross parts of pregnancy. For London commuter Gemma, the daily struggle was real. ‘Commuting in a heat wave that peaked at 36 degrees (hotter than you’re legally allowed to transport cattle in) was not fun,’ she divulges. ‘I was in my first trimester and nauseous 24/7. I thought morning sickness entailed actually being sick, but apparently not. An ever-present need to pee also made the hour long commute unbearable. It was a particularly cruel catch 22 – the heat and pregnancy made me insatiably thirsty, but I was terrified to take a sip in case I peed myself on the central line.’
For Adrienne, the bladder woes took a different turn, ‘Jude came almost three weeks early so when my waters broke at home I was like “Oh did I just lose bladder control or is this my waters breaking?”‘
Ultimately, we’re all going through the same weird bodily functions as each other, whatever your BMI. Or as Gemma puts it, ‘Prepare to experience daily discharge dilemmas. Is this too much discharge? Too little discharge? Is it too thick/watery/yellow? Accept that ferocious sneezes and coughs will, at some point, be accompanied by a little bit of pee. And if you’ve got a dog, he or she will come in handy to blame your newfound flatulence on. Oh, and if you’re not farting, you’ll probably be constipated.’
‘I exercised right up until the day before I was induced’
Nausea and flatulence aside, when you’re used to exercising everyday, even pregnancy won’t get in the way. ‘In the first and third trimesters I was exhausted and tired and emotional and didn’t feel like I had the strength to work out as much, but I still worked out five to six days a week’, says Simone.
A commitment that Gemma echoed during her own pregnancy, ‘I didn’t feel I had to exercise, but I definitely wanted to. Towards the end of the third trimester those treadmill walks felt like climbing Everest and my face would be so red I looked like I’d had a chemical peel, but in the end I exercised right up until the day before I was induced. At 1.5 stone heavier than my usual weight, that was hands down the toughest yoga class I’ve ever done.’
‘Whose belly is this? Who belongs to this body?’
Understandably, most women have mixed emotions when it comes to their post-baby body and the delightful pressure society puts on them to immediately ‘get it back’ once they’ve given birth. And the majority of them don’t have an keen social media following awaiting their next work out tutorial. When you’re put on a pedestal as an expert on ‘getting a hot bod’, how do you balance social media’s expectations and the human reality of giving birth?
‘Post-pregnancy, I’m struggling’, says Simone. ‘Everyone posts pictures of themselves with their body back but they don’t show the in between or the build up to that. I had a c-section which wasn’t how I imagined or dreamed my delivery to be and it’s making my recovery a lot longer. I’ve always worn a bra top and leggings for work and I’ve always had a six pack, which is something I’m proud of. Now, I don’t know what my belly is going to look like, it’s got a new scar from the birth, but I’ll happily share that with all of my followers because the reality is that right now I still look pregnant.’
As another new mum that had a last minute c-section, Adrienne swapped her strong pregnant body for a post-birth one that could barely walk, let alone exercise. ‘After hours and hours of pushing and then having a c-section, I just felt like everything was hanging on by a thread,’ she says. ‘The thought of going to the toilet for the first time was terrifying, I remember thinking “I’m just not going to poo”. For the first couple of days I was almost too scared to eat because I thought everything was going to fall apart and rip open.’
‘I knew that to get strong again my body needed adequate rest and recovery’
However often people might say the ridiculous phrase ‘too posh to push’, there’s nothing casual about having a caesarian. And for a new mum that’s used to storming through a couple of cardio classes without breaking a sweat, being physically incapacitated is a psychological and physical challenge.
‘One of the first things that ran through my mind when the C word was mentioned was the six week recovery period,’ says Gemma. ‘I’ll admit that before I went into hospital I imagined myself working out again a week or so post birth. Yeah right! The post-op pain is more agonising than I was prepared for and simply walking was a monumental task – it honestly felt like I’d never set foot in a gym again. But I knew that to get strong again my body needed adequate rest and recovery, and it was four weeks before I braved some restorative core exercises recommended to me by a women’s health physio.’
Moving forward, being a new mum doesn’t mean sacrificing exercise altogether, more a change of pace. ‘Six months of lifting significantly lighter weights followed by 6 weeks of no training has left my strength and muscle mass seriously depleted – 4.5kg weights felt more like 10kg,’ reveals Gemma. ‘I can no longer do a press up unless it’s on my knees, leg pressing 130kg is a distant memory and the post-workout DOMS are real. But, I’m a big believer in reframing things – instead of seeing of it as a set back, it’s a chance to start over and retrain my body.’
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