In the August 6, 2012 issue of US Weekly magazine, writer Sarah Grossbart asked Sports Illustrated model Molly Sims—who only just delivered her first child, a boy named Brooks, on June 19—“Are you feeling pressure to get your body back?” Sims answered “Yeah, totally. I lost 30 pounds in the first 10 days from all the fluid. I just want to get back in my jeans and feel sexy. Right now I’m in lounge pants!”
On its website, the Daily Mail followed this up with a headline announcing that Sims gained 50 pounds (how exactly is this news?) during her pregnancy and had a “post-baby body plan” to lose the weight. In the article, Sims says she worked out throughout her pregnancy (which I most certainly did not, and I had four chances to try to be a fit pregnant lady—never happened). According to the Daily Mail reporter, the other day Sims went shopping with her husband and baby in Malibu where “She showed off her post-baby body in a maxi skirt, blazer and flowing white top, accessorised with a proud smile.”
This idea that by simply appearing in public, post-partum celebrities are “showing off” their “post-baby bodies” really disturbs me. It seems clear to me that Sims and her new family were just living their lives, but the media has to constantly spectacularize new mothers. The enormous pressure—as the US Weekly reporter unabashedly puts it—on celebrity moms, and by association all mothers, to quickly lose their pregnancy weight and get “sexy” again is completely out of control. It’s creating a drive for perfection that is heaped on top of the already inordinate amount of pressure placed on today’s mothers, whether they work for pay or stay home. Author Judith Warner wrote a controversial book related to these pressures called Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and she reviewed a more recent book on high-pressure parenting in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
While Warner certainly addresses the drive to perfection in mothering, neither she nor most of these book authors deal with the spectacularization of maternal bodies, which in my opinion has become a grotesque cultural obsession and an overwhelming expectation on all of us. In the UK, at least this obsession has a name: yummy mummies, and since 2010 there has even been a “Yummy Mummy” beauty contest celebrating mothers who have not “let themselves go” (British celebrity embodiments of this ideal include another Sports Illustrated model, Elle Macpherson, and several former Spice Girls). While this celebration of “yummy mummies” is obviously highly problematic, at least giving the phenomenon a name and admitting that they are spectacularizing these women—versus claiming to just celebrate celebrity moms and their “baby joy” as US Weekly does ad nauseum every issue—gives the Brits a vocabulary to criticize this extremely sexist pressure put on mothers.
And in the UK, by giving this crazy ideal a name, they have been able to fully acknowledge that it’s only realistic for mothers with enough time and money to take extremely good care of their physical appearances—which doesn’t describe most ordinary mothers. On the other hand, in the United States, this less specific but more pervasive expectation is currently peddled as something accessible to all women—not just celebrities—regardless of income or workload, so that a full-time working mother with four kids is realistically expected to look even better than she did before she had children!
Even my husband, “Daddy-O,” subscribes to this belief, despite having watched my body expand and explode four times over the past nine years. When swimsuit season rolled around this year and I dismissed the idea of wearing a bikini after having four kids, without missing a beat Daddy-O responded “Why not? Brooke Burke has four kids and look at her in a bikini!”
Of course, I calmly reminded him (read: snapped his head off) that Brooke Burke Charvet is a model and TV personality, which means that it is her job to look good and that she can reasonably spend 4+ hours a day toning her body with a personal trainer and call that a “work expense.” Not so much when you’re a professor (or lawyer, or nurse, or stay-at-home mom). The fact that my very supportive hubby has absorbed the yummy mummy expectation as a realistic goal for the mother of his children is pretty frightening to me.
Still, knowing all this and being a proud feminist hasn’t kept me from internalizing these expectations myself. I resisted them pretty well until recently, but now that I’m definitely done making babies, and probably also because I have immersed myself into the media coverage around celebrity mothers for my book project, I have become a wee bit obsessed with getting in shape. Since April, I have been punishing myself 3-4 times a week doing a workout called the Bar Method, which promises to give me a “dancer’s body” (ha!). The “Bar” in the title is actually the “barre” in a ballet studio.
Throughout this workout journey, I am trying to focus on the goal of getting strong and feeling energized, but a little voice in my head reminds me that what I really want is to look toned and bikini-ready…and like I haven’t carried and birthed four babies. How crazy is that? My oldest daughter “Elle” is really weirded out because I keep checking myself out in the full-length mirror to see if my body is “changing,” as the Bar Method instructors constantly put it. Of course, everything I do embarrasses Elle these days. Nonetheless, now I’m wondering if this is a destructive body image to be modeling for my girls? And is there any end to the anxiety produced by being a mother in this day and age?