Introducing Body Acceptance Mom Coach, Gillian Yuan:
After 14 years as an RN, postpartum community health nurse and lactation consultant Gillian Yuan began empowering women as a body acceptance coach for moms. Gillian helps moms feel empowered in how they choose to feed their child. She also helps them overcome diet culture, and to trust their own food choices.
We are thankful for the opportunity to interview Gillian and hear her share her expertise:
Q. Can you share what inspired you to empower moms to embrace their own bodies and eat well without the guilt? In your opinion, how does body acceptance and diet affect mental health?
Gillian: ‘I saw many moms have difficulty trusting their bodies after having their baby. For some it was because of a difficult or traumatic birth, others had breastfeeding challenges, and for some more a whole bunch of other things.
Many moms just weren’t trusting their bodies and I echoed that same feeling after I had my son. I believe that I had an undiagnosed eating disorder as a teenager, growing up doing ballet. I wasn’t eating properly and was told my body wasn’t a ‘ballet body’. I got through that fairly easily, but I struggled with my body after having my son and nursing.
I was constantly on a diet of some sort, like the Candida cleanse. In pregnancy, I gained a lot of weight because I needed something in my stomach to help with nausea. Although I was a lactation consultant, breastfeeding didn’t come easily. I felt if I could just get my body back to pre-pregnancy, my life would be wonderful.
I hired a private coach and did her meal plan, which was really just a diet that was very restrictive. It was a hard time as I was breastfeeding and not sleeping well. Although I lost the baby weight, nothing changed in my life. I still didn’t feel like I was good enough. My life wasn’t what I thought it would be after I lost all of the weight.
A year later I was still doing this program with the coach and training for a triathlon when I developed pericarditis, which is the inflammation around the heart. While recovering on bedrest, I started learning about different ways of eating and that maybe dieting wasn’t the answer. This is how my coaching program was born.
I saw in my clients what I saw in myself. Some really wanted to breastfeed but it wasn’t working for them the way they wanted. Many stopped trusting their bodies which led to them not trusting their own abilities as moms.
How amazing would it be if moms could trust their bodies and then pass that trust down to their children? So that’s what I started pursuing.’
Interviewer’s Thoughts: My respect for Gillian and her story grew as she shared the difficulties she had being dismissed by a nurse practitioner, another lactation consultant, and a specialist in Calgary when she brought up her son’s difficulties with nursing. She says:
Gillian: ‘The hardest part was not being believed. It took away my voice. It was especially hard as I was a lactation consultant. It was my passion and yet nobody believed that there was actually something wrong. I was brushed off as an overly anxious mum. I felt put down, confused, and like my education, experience and motherly instincts were being discounted. So, I am very careful not to do that with my clients.’
Q. Can you share what you observed in how women relate to their bodies in pregnancy and postpartum, and how it affects mental health?
Gillian: ‘A lot of people are excited about a pregnant mom’s ‘cute belly,’ right? Well, I didn’t have a cute belly. Then as soon as the baby’s born, all the attention goes to the baby. There’s also this huge pressure on moms to lose the baby weight or to ‘snap back’ to their pre-pregnancy bodies. If you don’t, there’s an implication that something’s wrong with you or you’re not a good mom.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding/bottle-feeding are big experiences. If there’s any little thing that maybe doesn’t go the way the mom expects it to go, or is told that it should go, then that can take away a mom’s confidence in her body. Maybe not for every mom, but for many moms.
Some moms find childbirth to be empowering and that is wonderful. I wish that was the experience of the majority of moms. That isn’t the case for most of the moms I help, especially moms who have breastfeeding problems. I saw many moms unable to trust their bodies and themselves. I wonder if it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: a cycle of “I’m not producing enough milk; therefore, I don’t like my body as it’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing. So now I don’t trust my body,” and so on.’
Gillian then goes on to point out some of the pressures moms face:
- Pregnancy weight isn’t ‘good/bad, right or wrong.’ The pitfalls come through diet culture setting those standards of what is ‘good or bad’.
- Gillian also sees patriarchy adding pressure on moms to exclusively breastfeed, or if not exclusively, continue to push the message that ‘breast is best,’ disregarding a mom’s mental and physical health. This laces a ‘moral value on how you feed your baby, which can place a lot of pressure on moms’.
Gillian goes on to describe how a mom doesn’t have to have an eating disorder to experience anxiety around food:
Gillian: “It doesn’t have to be to that extreme. It can just be thinking of food as good or bad, like yo-yo dieting or going on a cleanse every few months. We call that disordered eating. I’m not a therapist certified to work with specific eating disorders, so I work with people struggling with disordered eating. It’s just as valid because it affects people’s quality of life. Disordered eating can become eating disorders down the road to if it’s not addressed.”
Q. It sounds like you help people become aware of the beliefs holding them back around food. Do you have any tips on how moms can catch those thoughts?
Gillian: ‘Although I work with eating, I have found it spills over into all aspects of life. I use different mindset strategies to help moms. If we’re looking specifically at food, and you notice yourself thinking of eating one food instead of another because food is good or bad, that might lead to feeling like you are good or bad because of it.
I invite individuals to have a little self-compassion (when they notice this reaction). We discuss how food isn’t good or bad. There’s no judgment. There’s no good or bad food, and you’re not good or bad for eating it.
There are two takeaways here:
- invite some self-compassion and
- become aware that food is food.
Then you might find that it doesn’t really matter that you have a box of cookies lying around your house. You can eat the cookie and you move on instead of eating the whole box.
This can translate into the whole experience of motherhood. Again, inviting self-compassion, knowing that you’re doing your very best, catching negative thoughts and trying to change them a little bit. Slightly more positive or even neutral. Instead of, ‘I’m such a bad mom,’ think ‘I am a mom who’s having a hard day’. It’s a small difference that can shift your entire perspective.’
Q. Are there gaps in the mental health system or health care in generally that could potentially be addressed to help better support moms?
Gillian: Yes, for example I’m pretty sure I had undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. I think health practitioners need to listen and take moms seriously when they raise a concern. Being brushed off doesn’t feel good. I don’t care if I’m wrong, but at least acknowledge my concern. Acknowledging the mom’s experience is the foundation to moving forward. Hearing and acknowledging things like: ‘Yes, you had a hard birth,’ or ‘Yes, your experience with breastfeeding is difficult’ can help a mom feel heard. Then the healthcare provider can work together to give the mom and baby whatever they need to thrive.
Q. Ideally, if moms are struggling, they would get help from you and be very well cared for. I saw on your website that you offer two services and an option to book a discovery call with you. Can you give a few pointers for what to expect in a discovery call and share how to choose the right program?
Gillian: Yes, so my work is mostly around body acceptance and how food plays a role. I use a model called intuitive eating in its original sense. I’ve found that diet culture has co-opted intuitive eating to only eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full, but still within a diet framework. Instead, I teach the original meaning of intuitive eating, which is about tuning into yourself and your body, learning to trust yourself and your body to make the choices that are best for you.
Then we also cover:
- how you can be healthy at any body size
- working towards health promoting activities together (if that’s what Mom wants), and
- a mindset shift.
Depending on where the mom’s at and what’s most helpful for her, it can also be:
- some exercises to do throughout the week, or
- working on shifting her mindset to become more caring and compassionate for herself.
The Mom Body Trust program is a shorter 6-8 week program for new moms but also for moms who’ve never done this work before who are interested in what life without dieting in motherhood could look like, and how to tune into your body.
The 12-week program is more in depth. We learn about intuitive eating and shifting to a more compassionate mindset for Health at Every Size. I also bring in how to help your children with eating and body image as well.
I really believe that as moms, it’s important to do the work for ourselves first. Then we can help our children.
Q. One of the unique aspects of your program is how it looks at how a mom’s relationship with food can affect a child. How does that happen?
Gillian: Here’s the thing. If we don’t trust ourselves with food, it’s very hard to trust our children
I’ve had to learn how to implement this in my life. What I found was when I was when my mind was heavily into in diet culture and viewing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I put so many rules on my son’s eating and so and my family’s eating.
My son is a picky eater and the rules made him freeze up. He didn’t know what to eat. Sometimes I’d want him to eat something that didn’t taste good to him, so he just wouldn’t eat. Or if he didn’t eat, I’d be like, ‘Oh, you can’t have don’t have too much of that’. I never did like the ‘eat your vegetables before dessert,’ concept. But I know many parents who do because that’s what we grew up with, from our own parents. But that’s an example of rules, of just assigning morality to ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’.
There’s a lot of pressure on kids to do the right thing. I mean, they already have so much pressure at school and how to behave and all that. This just adds extra pressure. As a lactation consultant, I knew babies innately sensed their own hunger and fullness cues. As adults, we must have them too, though they may be buried under the noise of diet culture and rules. It’s the same for children. Even toddlers and elementary school kids know what foods they want to eat and what foods they don’t want to eat, when they’re hungry and when they’re full if they’re given the chance.
The takeaway here is learning to trust our bodies and ourselves, we can also pass that onto our kids.
Q. Thank you so much for sharing so generously with us today, Gillian. Where can people find you to learn more about what you do and how to work with you?
Gillian: Thank you, you can find me at:
Podcast: My podcast is called ‘The Motherhood UnDieted Podcast with Gillian Yuan’.
App: I’m an expert contributer to ‘The Body Love Society’s ‘Undiet Your Mind’ App. Here is also a 50% savings code that users can apply to their first month if they want to check out the app: GILLIANYUANMOMS.
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