Words: Rachel Sharp
It’s demoralising, it’s ignorant and it starts long before the baby is born. For anyone who’s ever experienced mum-shaming, Steph Claire Smith’s recall of pregnancy criticism will strike a familiar chord. Here’s how to keep both you and your baby safe in the prenatal period, and how to turn down the volume on the nay-sayers.
She’s made a fortune as a model, Adidas ambassador, and fitness guru, and engages an impressive group of highly qualified health experts on her wellness platform Keep It Cleaner (KIC), but that didn’t stop Stephanie Miller (aka Steph Claire Smith) attracting a slew of unsolicited advice, verging on ignorant bullying, for staying super fit while her first baby bump grew during Melbourne’s pandemic lockdown last year.
While the Royal Australian New Zealand College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (RANZCOG) says exercise is not only safe during pregnancy but highly recommended to retain muscle strength, improve sleep, mood and energy levels, and help keep gestational diabetes and aches and pains at bay, strangers still felt they had the right to pass judgement via Steph’s social media channels. From the flippant “I don’t think you should be doing that” type quips under cardio demonstration clips, to one downright hateful “don’t kill your baby” note under another home-filmed workout (note: that delightful human hid behind a ‘private’ Instagram account with no photo, of course) it was critique that might have devastated anyone less used to internet trolls than her.
“It was definitely coming from highly uneducated people,” says Steph, now the proud mama of healthy nine-month-old Harvey, her first child with husband Josh Miller. “They were basically saying that I was doing harm to my baby because pregnant women shouldn’t move their bodies, and that I must have some sort of exercise addiction if I couldn’t even take a break until after the birth.” One male stranger felt compelled to point out expectant mums shouldn’t lift weights. Truth was, super-fit Steph had already spoken with her own health professionals who’d given her the green light to keep training. “So, when I got [negative] comments like that, they’d piss me off a little bit.” It’s also worth noting that for every judgemental message, she’d get 20 comments from grateful women, inspired by her commitment to fitness as her bump grew. “I always get so nervous while I’m working out pregnant! Thank you for this! You look amazing,” said one. “This is incredibly powerful to see,” said another. We asked Steph about her own experience and best advice to other mums to be.
Should women expect to be nervous about exercise once they’re expecting, especially if it’s their first bub?
“Yes, absolutely. Like most women, I was quick to jump onto Doctor Google early in my pregnancy. Exercise is part of my life, and part of my career, so I was interested to know super early on if anything I was going to be doing to my body would put myself or my baby at harm. But everyone is different, and that’s the most important thing to remember. Empower yourself and educate yourself through going to your health professional.”
You were inspiringly fit before your pregnancy. Was there anything you stopped doing?
“Later in my pregnancy I suffered with pelvic girdle pain, so working with my physio Ashleigh Mason, we realised the pain came after certain exercises. I had to really strip my walking back to no more than a kilometre a day and walk a lot slower. The other thing I had to strip back in my routine was running and any HIIT exercise. Any time my heart rate went too high, I felt lightheaded and dizzy, so that’s something I caught onto early in my pregnancy. I did miss HIIT training, but it just did not feel right for me.”
People assume women should stop doing weights when they’re pregnant. Did you?
“Health experts say the more you keep up your muscle strength doing pregnancy, the more it helps with recovery – and that was my experience. I was lucky to feel well during my pregnancy and I was fine to do weights. While I obviously wasn’t lifting heavy ones, I did include strength work in my fitness, and I did feel strong in my labour, as well as later when I was recovering.”
What’s your take-home advice to women wanting to start a prenatal exercise regime?
“Don’t try anything new. If you’ve never run before, don’t take up running. But if you’re a runner, unless you’ve been told otherwise because of some complication in your pregnancy, you should be OK to try it. Again, it really comes down to what your body is used to. I really liked doing things like our Pilates program, yoga flows and some of our strength sessions, but I only really learned that through connecting with my own doctors and listening to my body. If anything doesn’t feel right or it’s abnormal, just slow down on it completely.” And of course, speak with your health care team – your obstetrician, midwife etc – about what’s best for your personal situation.
You’ve already mentioned the criticism you copped for exercising on social media. Did you consider that to have been bullying and early-stage mum-shaming?
“Yes, I’d say so for sure, and I don’t really understand it. I probably passed silent mothering judgement at some point before I had a child myself because I didn’t know any better. But I just feel like it’s a shame when I see other mums – people who have experienced pregnancy and motherhood – passing strong judgement, out loud, in an aggressive tone. That really disappoints me. Motherhood is most rewarding thing ever, but it is super challenging, and any way you can survive and thrive with your baby, what works for you, should be fine.”
Pregnancy hormones can make even the toughest of us more sensitive at times. Did the criticism ever upset you?
“Because of my following [Steph has more than 1.5 million followers on Instagram] I’ve gotten used to different types of trolls in the past, and I’ve grown a really thick skin. I know who I am and who to reach out to for advice and reassurance on things if I want it – and it’s not the strangers who do or don’t follow me and comment online. Because I went into my pregnancy knowing my body and who I am as a person, I wasn’t as affected. I was more upset for other women who maybe aren’t as confident who can get really lost in the mixed messaging out there. That’s why we started our KICBUMP program. Instead of focusing on things you should avoid when you’re pregnant, we want to highlight the incredible things your body can still do – once you’ve got the go-ahead from your own medical professionals of course.”
What should someone reading this do if she’s feeling pressured to slow down by the people around her?
“The unfortunate thing is that pregnancy really is just the beginning. There’s so much [unsolicited advice] and judgement when it comes parenting: what you feed your baby, where it sleeps, all that sort of stuff. Do your best to set those voices aside and just be really connected with health professionals you trust. When it comes to well-meaning friends and family, know they never mean to criticise you in a bad way. But they do have their own opinion, just as you have yours, so take on board what you want to and forget the rest.”
Steph’s KICBUMP Exercise Tips
- Aim to be physically active on most days, preferably all days of the week. We recommend you aim to accumulate 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week, which averages out to about 30 minutes a day.
- If your healthcare professional approves, we also suggest two strengthening exercises (weights or resistance work) per week on non-consecutive days.
- Start with guided exercises. Whether in person or online, having an expert with you every step of the way will boost your confidence.
- Focus on movements to suit your mood. If you feel your body needs a slower tempo, try yoga or a gentle walk, especially later in your pregnancy. If you have a boost of energy, put those pregnancy hormones to good use with some higher energy strength sessions.
- Most importantly, if something doesn’t feel right, stop. At the end of the day, you know your body better than anyone else.
Stephanie Miller is the co-founder of KICBUMP, part of the Keep It Cleaner platform.