Recently I observed a 3-year-old girl with her family in a restaurant. She
was having difficulty walking due to the heels on her sandals. I actually understand her desire to be “more grown up.” However, I did feel sad and curious about a cultural paradigm that promotes preschoolers to be hobbling in order to look thinner.
You might be saying “But she wasn’t trying to look thinner. She was just copying Mommy, or wanting to play dress up.” To which I would say “And why was Mommy wearing high heels?” I was at a [dress up] event for parents of young children recently and one of the dads curiously asked “why DO women wear high heels?” To which I heard a mom reply:
“To enhance their legs or look thinner.”
I myself have worn high heels (though much less after becoming a mom as walking/running/getting shoes dirty and protecting my back have become more important). There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look attractive. However, I do question certain underlying values including
- Looking-thin-or-smaller-is-more-important-than-being-able-to-walk; or
- A woman’s-value-is-in-their-appearance-rather-than-their-skills, abilities, or being.
The comedian Jim Gaffigan (Dad is Fat, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2013) riffs on the ridiculous-ness of this strange cultural phenomena when he talks about the obsessive interest in his newborn baby girl’s weight:
The masses of family and friends want to …get information on the baby. For some reason, it’s really important for people to know how much the baby weighs. This always baffled me. ‘How much does she weigh?’ That’s rude. She’s not even a day old, and people seem to be obsessed with my daughter’s weight? She was nine pounds, but I remember telling friends, ‘She was eight pounds, sixteen ounces’ because it sounded thinner. Either way, she carried the weight very well, but we put her on the Atkins diet anyway…
My latest celebrity hero is Adele: not because I like her music or even follow celebrities much. But because she is one voice of opposition within the airbrushed media culture challenging lies such as:
- Looking Good= You will Not Suffer or Die and
- You can never be too rich or too thin.
She is speaking out, modeling for women and mothers, that is it okay to be yourself, in the size that you are. There are more valuable compasses from which to steer your life than appearance. Though admitting to some body image problems, she states:
“I think I remind everyone of themselves…I’m not perfect. I don’t let [body image problems] rule my life…I’m motivated by … a legacy that I’m leaving for my child.”*
Amen to that.
*Us Weekly, “Adele Choosing Family Over Fame,” Issue 1086, December 7, 2015.
- 1) Air brushing and digital manipulation.
- 2) Rapid weight loss due to Postpartum Depression/Anxiety.
- 3) Naturally thin figure due to genes, athleticism, or breast-feeding.
- 4) Access to an exorbitant amount of money for “mommy tucks,” fitness coaching, nanny-ing, & style consultation postpartum.
- 5) We don’t know the full story here.
The truth? The truth is (though there has been much speculation), we don’t know the full story here. However, I am reflecting on how Princess Diana suffered with bulimia while “looking good” in the public eye. I am reflecting on how a colleague of mine, a Licensed Psychologist who has now been assisting other women recover from Perinatal mood disorders for the past 20 years, suffered from Postpartum Depression and lost 40 lbs as a symptom of her depression in the “fourth trimester” postpartum. Many people said to her during this time “Wow, you look great!”
We still live in a culture full of what Carolyn Costin calls the “thin commandments,” moral judgements about body size and shape and, by extension, about the person inhabiting a particular body size and shape.
Some examples of Thin Commandments include:
- If you aren’t thin you aren’t attractive;
- Being thin is more important than being healthy;
- What the scale says is the most important thing;
- Losing weight is good/gaining weight is bad; You can never be too thin;
- Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success.
For more on the Thin Commandments, click here: http://www.edreferral.com/thin_commandments.htm
We also still live in a world where education is needed. According to a recent survey, many women still need educating about the extent of digital manipulation in the media, because “15% of the 18-24 year old women surveyed believe the images of celebs and models they see in magazines accurately reflect what the models look like in reality.”
“Mommy surgery came to public attention… after the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported a rise in cosmetic surgery cosmetic among women of child-bearing age. In 2004 doctors nationwide performed more than 325,000 “mommy makeover procedures”, up 11 percent from 2005.” (New York Times, October 4, 2007)
The most serious risk of a “mommy tuck,” is blood clots.”You’re more at risk to get a blood clot with a tummy tuck than with other types of cosmetic surgery because you spend much more time lying down recuperating, so blood can pool in your veins and pelvis,” Seattle surgeon Phil Haeck explains. Blood clots are deadly about 30 percent of the time.
I remember reading an article about Mommy tucks in a Doctor’s waiting room magazine right before I had tests done for anemia and adrenal fatigue resulting from depleted iron stores and chronic sleep deprivation postpartum. It was not helpful to my self-esteem. Becoming a mother is an intense, identity shifting transformation, part of which includes inhabiting a vastly different body. Airbrushing, having plastic surgery, and focusing on body image as a meaningful integration of success not only bypasses this identity transformation, but inhibits it from coming into fruition. In research study a 2011 exploring the questions of “the woman I used to be; the woman I fear I could become; and the woman I hope to become,” Ogle, Tyner, Schofield-Tomschin write:
For many women, a central and profound concern of pregnancy revolves around whether, after the pregnancy is over, the body will return to ‘normal.’ In such cases being pregnant may represent a transitional or liminal body that becomes the site of a ‘struggle to redefine and refigure the self after childbirth.
How women navigate and cope with stresses incited by the bodily experiences of postpartum can impact their integration of the maternal identity as well as their successful adaptation to parenthood, which, in and of itself, can be a demanding and stressful life transition for both women and men.
(Ogle, Tyner, Schofield-Tomschin, “Jointly Navigating the Reclamation of the ‘Woman I Used to Be’: Negotiating Concerns About the Postpartum Body Within the Marital Dyad” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, January 2011 vol. 29 no. 1 35-51).
This is what most women’s’ bodies look like postpartum:
Thank you to people like Jade Beale and the beautiful body project helping women reclaim, revel, and be proud of their bodies in all of their shapes and sizes! Navigating the transition to motherhood can one of the most profound, difficult, transformative and rewarding journeys of a woman’s life. And successfully navigating this journey includes wrestling with questions about how one’s body- and self- are changed in the process. I would like to invite celebrating the change, in all of its forms, including sagging skin, new wrinkles, different stomachs and breasts. These are hard earned changes in our bodies that have given birth. I would like to celebrate that.
THIS, thank you body image movement
is what I would like to see magazine covers start to look like:
A woman can dream…
(And it doesn’t have anything to do with looking like this.)
Now that the sensational controversy has died down, I want to comment on the 2012 Time magazine cover image that was so powerfully disturbing to fueling the fire of the Mommy wars.
Compare And Despair
This cover is just ridiculous and does everybody a discredit with its devaluing of relationships, bodies, and the lived experience of being a woman, parent, young child, and person. And yet, images go right to that affective part of the brain. I’ll admit, my first, just below the surface stream of consciousness, critical thoughts upon seeing this image were:
“This woman is young and thin and has no idea how difficult motherhood is (jealousy, fatigue),”
“She must be able to breastfeed a 3-year-old because she doesn’t have a job (anger, sadness),”
“Wow, now we are sexualizing toddlers?! (anger, fierceness)” and
“I’m a bad/not enough Mom (shame, hurt).”
I felt separate from this woman, this Mom I knew nothing about.
I remember, when doing doctoral research on body image, reading about the concept of objectification theory:
Objectification theory posits that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves. This…can increase women’s opportunities for shame and anxiety, reduce opportunities for peak motivational states,…[and] also illuminates why changes in these mental health risks appear to occur in step with life-course changes in the female body. (Frederickson and Roberts, 1997)
I find this last sentence particularly relevant to why images like this can be so damaging. It is basically saying that vulnerability to objectification, shame, and anxiety risks coincide for many women during the times when their bodies change. For example: adolescence, menopause, pregnancy, and postpartum. Becoming a Mom is ripe with changes including not only body shape and size, but also questioning and identity shifting. How do I do this Mom-thing? Am I doing it right? This is why so many new Moms are desperate for the right parenting book, sleep training book, breastfeeding guidance, and parenting philosophy (for example Attachment parenting, which this Time magazine article was about). This is why the first years of motherhood are often described as “Mommy boot camp.”
SHAME: Should Have Already Mastered Everything
Within this Mommy boot camp are many uncomfortable feelings. One of them can be shame. In writing about the connections between shame and body image, Judith Rodin talks about “the shame trap.” She describes this as “a felt gap between the actual self and the ideal self.” She observes that there are gaps in the psychological research on people’s feelings about their bodies, and she believes shame to be a determining factor in this gap because who wants to research shame? Shame is uncomfortable, icky, disturbing, unsettling and “may therefore tend to be repressed from awareness.” (Rodin, Judith, Body Traps, 1993).
Shame is about questioning one’s self: Am I (breast)feeding my child; supporting their sleep; brain, body, and feelings in the right way? Should I be practicing attachment parenting or Ferber; co-sleeping or sleep training? Can I juggle working outside the home with building a strong attachment with my child? New motherhood and parenting are ripe with these questions. And bookshelves are filled with psychologists and doctors’ philosophies attempting to answer these questions.
Time magazine, and the editors that choose what images to put on their covers, are not stupid. They are very aware of subliminal, subversive, and highly controversial images. They are aware that this just-below-the-surface-repressed shame is the source of feelings of “not enough.” They are also probably aware that there are many images of virgin mothers cradling babies and there are many images of pornographic women with exposed breasts. But there aren’t many images that try to combine this virgin whore dichotomy all-in-one! So we have controversy mixed with shame, taboo, and perhaps some eroticism. Add the title with the words “Are you enough?” and we have a big seller. Who wants to buy a magazine that says “I am enough”? Let’s face it, if you were feeling enough, you probably wouldn’t be buying a magazine!
The Reality of Being Good Enough
So anyway, back to the image. I decided to look up this Mom who was imaged on the cover of Time and see who she actually was vs. my projections. I went to this woman’s blog. I read about her experience as a Mom: the difficult first pregnancy she had, how she then chose to adopt a baby from Ethiopia, how she started a nonprofit foundation to assist women with pre and postnatal care as well as financial independence due to the AIDs and orphan crisis in Africa. And I thought,
“Wow. I would like to meet this woman. This woman is deep, amazing, caring and doing wonderful work in the world.”
Who cares what the size of her body is and how long she is breastfeeding? I no longer felt jealousy, anger, shame, and hurt. I felt connected with this woman! I thought I would like to sit down with this woman and have a cup of tea and have our children meet! I would like to share our different experiences of pregnancy, marriage, faith, and motherhood.
And so I will end with a challenge to the proverb “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Yes, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but if it comes from the media, it needs a whole lot more to flesh out the experience. Because motherhood is about being and becoming enough, regardless of age, size, breastfeeding status, sleeping, or parenting style. Motherhood is about being good enough!
In the words of the English Pediatrician and psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott
“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds…her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.”
In other words, in motherhood, the whole point is to fail, or to be “Mom enough” by being “good enough.”