EastEnders’ Melissa Suffield says 'I’m constantly body-shamed for my stretch marks – I’m bigger now but I love my body'

THE first year of mother­hood is a vulnerable time for any new mum, but actress Melissa Suffield has had the added pressure of fending off cruel trolling.

The former EastEnders star — who played Lucy Beale from 2004 to 2010 — says she has faced criticism online about how she feeds her baby and her decision to show off her post-baby body, including her stretch marks.

She says: “Trolls tell me I should be ashamed of myself, but I honestly don’t care — they say the best way to beat a bully is to ignore them and that’s what I do.

“As long as I let it go in one ear and out the other, they can’t touch me, so that’s what I do. It’s easier said than done, and it takes a lot of practice, but their hateful rhetoric can’t be allowed to win.”

Taking aim firmly at mum-shaming she added: “We have to stop putting pressure on women to be this one idea of what it is to be a mother, and just let people do it themselves.”

The 28-year-old gave birth to son River in March last year with fiancé Robert Brendan, 39, a cruise ship director, by her side. After suffering “horrific” mastitis, Melissa had turned to exclusively expressing her milk with a breast pump and feeding it to River with a bottle.

She adds: “Trolls have attacked me for being fat, being open about exclusively pumping, and for ‘thinking you’re the only woman on Earth to have had a baby’. The trolls, I think, have got to the point where they realise I don’t give a s**t. The problem with them is they’re self-important enough to think their opinion needs to be heard, and it really doesn’t.

“Think what you like, but just keep it to yourself, and certainly don’t feel the need to follow me if you don’t like what I’m posting.” While Melissa felt proud of what her body had achieved, the new mum’s insecurities about her changing shape quickly grew.

‘I am valid whatever has happened to me’

She says: “With each lockdown, I have got a little bit less impressed by myself and less confident. My jeans size has increased from when I was three months postpartum, and I thought, ‘I am ten months after having a baby, how have I got bigger?

"If anything, naturally I should have got smaller’. I still have days where I wish I could cover every single mirror in my house.”

The star confesses she has struggled to accept her new figure since becoming a mum, but chose to share honest posts about her struggle on social media.

She says: “People paint a picture online that isn’t true. I like to tinge my profile with honesty because I am definitely far from perfect, and I would never want to put myself across as perfect because honestly I am far too lazy to keep that up.

“I am trying to marry up that I am valid whatever has happened to me. I was valid when I was a size eight and I am valid now. That is what mums tend to struggle with — sometimes it’s more that their shape has changed, rather than they’ve put more weight on. It’s about where the weight now goes, and how your body has changed shape and I don’t think enough light gets shone on that.

"After birth, the skin is looser and, even if you can still fit in your size-six jeans, when you take those jeans off you may hate what you see underneath because it is just not what you are used to. And your boobs go through a whole other journey. I am not seeing that realistic postpartum mother figure anywhere — that is what I try to promote.”

Less than a month into motherhood, the star began to have issues with breastfeeding and was diagnosed with mastitis — where the breast becomes hot and swollen.

She has shared candid posts about her nipple skin peeling off, stuffing her bra with cabbage — a well-known remedy — and breast pumping. She says: “At the beginning of the lockdown I thought everything was perfect because I wouldn’t have those surprise guest visits — nobody could touch my baby, or come into my home.

“But in the same breath, having a baby anyway is tough and when all the practical help just gets whipped from under you, you kind of go, ‘Oh s**t, time to learn how to be a mum based purely on instinct’.

“About three weeks into nursing at home, breastfeeding started to get more uncomfortable and I got a clogged duct, which turned into mastitis, which was horrific. I thought I was dying. This was at the beginning of Covid, so I kept thinking I was having symptoms because I felt awful.

“But then things got worse as I had a nipple pad to protect my bra, and when I took it off it had ripped off my skin as well. The pain was as excruciating as a contraction so I thought I couldn’t do it any more.”

Seeking an alternative, Melissa decided the best option for River was to use a breast pump to express her milk then feed it to him in a bottle. She continues: “I turned to pumping which was still painful, but a lot less. It took around eight to nine weeks for the nipple to heal properly.”

However Melissa believes there is a stigma attached to using a breast pump exclusively. She says: “I know how lonely it can be when you have made the choice to do it, or you feel that choice has been made for you. I ended up trying it out, and we did it successfully for a year, but it is such a hard thing to do.

“I think there is a real misconception of me — that I took the easier way out, but I would’ve loved to stay nursing. It just pains me to think about the women who don’t know they can do this, and think that they are going to have to give up breastfeeding.

“I often use the hashtag #pumping­isbreastfeeding, because it is. It’s milk, at the end of the day, and people should not let anyone say that it’s not breastfeeding or look down on it.”

Melissa was delighted to have chanced upon the idea. “I was so pleased to have discovered it. It meant I could carry on giving River breast milk, which I know many would think they wouldn’t be able to carry on with.”

Melissa stopped expressing on River’s first birthday in March, but still gives him a night-time bottle of her breast milk as she has plenty stored in her freezer. She says: “I managed to build up a freezer stash.

“So we are making our way through this now and have a bottle before bed every day. That should keep us going until about August. It’s nice to know he still gets it, and it’s also nice to know the boob bar is closed.”

'I am just looking forward'

Melissa played Lucy on BBC soap EastEnders during the character’s rebellious teenage years, making on-screen dad Ian Beale’s life hell by drinking, smoking, becoming pregnant and even going missing.

But she was axed in 2010 amid rumours bosses weren’t impressed with her off-screen behaviour and attitude outside work after she was spotted in a London nightclub while underage.

Parenting on her own while Robert is away working on cruise ships, Melissa is now focusing on juggling her new gender-neutral family clothing line, River & Six, while being a mum.

She says: “I’ve gone from having the two-parent household to one, because Robert is going to be away. Now I am parenting a toddler on my own, and on top of that I am going to have to marry up running my business with being a mum.

“It’s a little different to being a full-on single parent, as I still have a partner, he’s just thousands of miles away. And long-distance relationships have their own needs that need nurturing, so juggling that with parenting and making sure I have enough time for everything is a delicate balancing act.

“I try not to look too much into the future for anything just because I don’t even know where I am going to be in a month from now. I am just looking forward.

“And Robert will be home again in a few months — and we can’t wait.”

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