What Katharine McPhee Foster would tell her younger self: 'Don't go on that diet'

·7-min read

It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.

Katharine McPhee Foster may still be settling into motherhood after giving birth to her first child back in February 2021. But as a first-time mom raising her son, Rennie, with husband David Foster, there's one thing that Katharine is clear on and that's instilling positive body image in her child.

The 38-year-old explains to Yahoo Life that she's struggled in the past with eating disorders and body image as a result of the images perpetuated by the media when she was a young girl. Even before stepping into the spotlight herself, she recalls idolizing women who fit into the extremely narrow beauty standards of the time.

"When I was a teenager I had pictures of models on my wall and they were all very thin," she says. "There [were] no other examples of fuller figured women."

Katharine notes that there seems to be a "much better balance" today with more representation and size inclusivity throughout the industry. However, as she gained fame in the early 2000s, the conversation around women's bodies was a toxic one that she inevitably got brought into.

At the time that she auditioned for American Idol in 2005, Katharine was 21 years old and had struggled with disordered eating since she was 13. Her bulimia was "really getting out of control" according to an interview she did with ABC News in 2006, which led her to an intensive inpatient program that she finished prior to the show's semifinals.

Through recovery, Katharine focused on intuitive eating, which is a practice of "listening to your body and not outside influences in determining what to put in your body," according to the National Eating Disorders Association VP of Mission, Lauren Smolar. "It is something that the eating disorder recovery community does tend to support," Smolar tells Yahoo Life.

When Katharine ended up losing weight as a result, her body quickly became tabloid fodder.

"There is a lot of focus on the way you look and the way that my body was transforming. I believe there was a whole story about like, 'Wow, she's lost weight. She used to be a size, whatever. Now she's a size six,'" Katharine recalls.

While her participation in the show gave her a purpose separate from her appearance, the singer maintains that she feels most comfortable at a specific size. "I would be lying if I said that my standard probably was not influenced by how we grew up, which was only seeing super, super skinny [models]," she notes.

Even after having a baby, Katharine says, "I feel so fortunate. Like I had a baby and my body just kind of fell to this weight and I've been so grateful because I like really like being in this weight for my personal preference."

The pressure to return to one's previous size or weight after carrying a child is highly controversial, as postpartum mothers in the spotlight specifically have spoken to the unrealistic expectations placed on their bodies after having a baby. Smolar notes that while many mothers experience similar pressures, not everybody can meet those standards "in a healthy way or at all."

"There are many people that struggle with the fact that sometimes your body will never look the same as it did before you had children. And that is normal and healthy as well," Smolar explains. "We do need to do a better job of accepting the fact that pregnancy really can change somebody's body forever, and that's not a bad thing."

For Katharine, her own feelings attached to "snapback" culture are likely connected to the body image struggles that she experienced during pregnancy. While she felt out of control over the changes that her body was going through, she admitted to old thoughts resurfacing.

"It caught me by surprise that it suddenly was something that was making me feel uncomfortable and that it was something that was out of my control, so it definitely re-triggered some old kind of thoughts," she says. "There was a conversation in my head as it was happening, as my body was changing."

In a conversation with Katherine Schwarzenegger-Pratt on Instagram Live in February, Katharine said, "I was going back to this old disordered version of myself, which was upsetting because I just wanted to enjoy my baby." She also revealed how she sought help. “I actually called my old psychiatrist, from when I was in a program in my early 20s, and he came and sat with me, and said, 'What’s going on?'"

Smolar explains that this isn't uncommon.

"Anytime you're going to go through something that can have that kind of dramatic change on your body, you can certainly be at a higher risk for eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. And in particular, if you've already experienced an eating disorder in the past, it can be really challenging to experience something like a pregnancy for the first time, or even repeated times, and feel so out of control over your own body in new and different ways, and in ways that you may not have coping skills for."

She encourages anyone to reach out to a professional who specializes in eating disorders at any time before, during or after a pregnancy to address challenging thoughts. Most importantly, Smolar advises communicating with your doctor.

"Make sure that your doctor is aware of your history with eating disorders or disordered eating if that is something that you have previously experienced. So they can be on the lookout as well with signs and symptoms, and also in terms of how they're treating you and making sure that they are really sensitive about weight change, or just generally your body changing and the experience alongside that," Smolar says.

On the other side of pregnancy when Rennie entered her life, Katharine says that there was a positive shift in her mindset that allowed her to combat otherwise negative thoughts about her body with the incredible pride she felt as a mother.

"I came out of the pregnancy accepting, loving my body even more. So it was kind of an amazing journey for me to really struggle mentally, emotionally with my body changing and feeling uncomfortable with those changes and then coming out of it and doing photo shoots like a month after giving birth," she says of newfound confidence. "I look back at the pictures in my camera roll and I was proud of my body, and I was fuller than I am now ... I would've never been able to do that kind of a shoot being in that weight 10 years ago."

While the evolution is one that Katharine celebrates, the state of her postpartum body hasn't avoided public conversation and controversy. In fact, she felt compelled to respond to critics of her husband after Foster posted a photo of the new mom in a bikini with the caption, "what baby!"

"We do live in a world now where everything is under a microscope. You can't even post a sweet caption like, 'Wow! She looks amazing!' And if it's coming from your husband it's like, 'Well, why didn't you say she looked amazing when she was 20, 25 pounds up?" Katharine explains. "Not everything has to have so much meaning to it. It's like, he felt like posting something. So, for me, I just felt like I had to go after the hysteria."

In her response on social media, she noted her struggle with weight throughout her twenties and thirties, clarifying that she had "zero pressure" to lose the baby weight and didn't diet. "I've let [my] body do its thing and found a great workout," she wrote. "That's it."

Through her partnership with MINDD — a lingerie company focused on creating innovative and inclusive options for women's bras — Katharine has felt even more at home in her body. "MINDD is an amazing brand because it expands with your ever-changing body, whether it's your period, your pregnancy," she says.

And while age has granted Katharine more acceptance over those changes, she wishes her younger self would have.

"What I would have said to myself is 'Don't go on that diet.' Because that's really what set me up for years and years of some bad behaviors," she says. "The goal is to have peace and happiness throughout."

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, NEDA’s toll-free, confidential helpline is available to help by phone (800-931-2237) and click-to-chat message. Crisis support is also available via text message by texting ‘NEDA’ to 741741.

Video produced by Kat Vasquez

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