British mother of 13 (soon to be 14) Joanne Watson was featured in a Daily Mail story the other day. One photo in the story shows the 37-year-old blonde Mrs. Watson with her blond husband and baker’s dozen of mostly blond and beautiful children. The other photo is a full-length shot of an amazingly slim Mrs. W a mere five days after giving birth to her thirteenth child. The article informs us that this paragon of fertility wears a size zero — without dieting, no less. She explains:
I don’t put on much weight during each pregnancy as I don’t have a huge appetite and afterwards the excess goes very quickly.
I suppose I’m running around a lot after the children, taking them to school, making their meals and taking them shopping or for walks in the park so they keep me pretty fit.
I can imagine the eye-rolling and under-the-breath cursing this may elicit from some mothers who labor nearly as hard taking off the baby weight as they do pushing out the baby.
While I don’t have quite as easy a time of it as Mrs. Watson, I can say that having four children hasn’t left me any heavier than before my first was born. Or having three didn’t, anyway. I’m only 12 days postpartum at the moment, and weigh 15 lb. more than I did when I got pregnant this last time, but that’s a manageable amount to lose, and some of it is probably still retained fluids and will come off on its own. Like Joanne Watson, I have found that running around after my children does keep me busy and active enough that I don’t have a lot of trouble with my weight. I actually had to work harder at staying slim before I had children than after. The only physical downside has been the result of having them by c-section, which means your lower abdomen is never really the same again without a tummy tuck, something I used to think wistfully about but at the moment, still having pain from the c-section, the idea of voluntarily undergoing another abdominal surgery does not appeal in the least. Besides, as I’ve mentioned in the past, taking the plastic surgery route to middle-aged Barbiedom isn’t a road I want to travel.
In general, my philosophy of life is an Aristotelian “moderation in all things.” I deplore our society’s sexualization of everything, including mothers. The images of madonna and whore, once polarized in the Victorian male imagination, have become fused. Where once there was the madonna on her pedestal and the whore in her boudoir, we now have the madonna as whore. The most vivid icon of this new ideal was the August 1991 Vanity Fair cover on which Demi Moore posed nude and seven months pregnant. Not long after, the most daring mothers-to-be were posing for artsy (and not-so-artsy) photos as nude and pregnant as Demi, though without the benefit of professional airbrushing. I learned of this when I was pregnant with my second child and on an e-mail list with other expectant mothers who were all due the same month I was. One of the women on the list posted very casually that she’d had some photos taken, and sent the link for the rest of us to see a number of nude photographs of herself in the late stage of pregnancy, accompanied in some by her two-year-old daughter. From what I have been able to gather since, this practice has not become mainstream, but neither is it as rare as some might think. Some expectant mothers who are not ready for the full monty settle for “belly pics” with shirts lifted to expose their future progeny but nothing more. I personally have known a number of mothers to exchange these with their girlfriends by e-mail or on internet discussion lists, and I’ve seen them hanging on the walls of people’s homes. The latest maternity fashions include pants and skirts that rest below the belly worn with cropped tops that leave the protruding middle exposed. Even full-coverage maternity clothes tend to be increasingly form-fitting (I noticed the change over the course of my successive pregnancies) and the maternity shops in the malls sell thong underwear.
In The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, Vicki Iovine says the bounce-back time for her and her girlfriends to get their figures back was generally around ten months (“ten months on, ten months off”). As if to prove the rule, Demi Moore was back on the cover of Vanity Fair a year after her nude and pregnant cover, buck naked again but this time adorned with a “suit” painted on her slim, ten months postpartum body. Not only are women supposed to be sexy while they’re pregnant, but they were supposed to be sexy again almost immediately after having the baby. In addition to a slew of vapid magazine articles, a number of books have hit the shelves giving new moms their marching orders: Hot Mamma: How to Have a Babe and Be a Babe (2003), Sexy Mamas: Keeping Your Sex Life Alive While Raising Kids (2004), The Hot Mom’s Handbook (2006), I’m Too Sexy for My Volvo: A Mom’s Guide to Staying Fabulous! (2006) and across the Atlantic British mums are instructed how to be The Yummy Mummy (2007).
Not every woman swallows whole the pop culture mantra that we all ought to look and act like the Sex and the City gals even with two toddlers and a newborn at home. Some women make a conscious decision to reject the ideal of the pregnant pin-up girl and the post-partum sexpot in favor of what I call an “Earth Mother” ideology. This ideology rejects the mainstream cultural ideal of thin, youthful feminine beauty, celebrating instead the female body as the site of childbirth, lactation and maternal nurture. It views breasts as beautiful not because they are firm and shapely, but because they provide the only natural source of sustenance for babies. The ideology accepts and indeed embraces those physical consequences of childbirth and lactation that the mainstream culture stigmatizes: weight gain, sagging breasts, stretch marks and all the rest. A woman I knew from an e-mail list (not the woman with the nude photos), used to end all her e-mails with the same signature line, one that included a mini-manifesto on maternal beauty that began with something to the effect of, “The beauty of my body lies not in the slimness of my thighs or the firmness of my breasts, but in . . . ” I cannot recall the exact wording, but it continued in the same vein, waxing poetic about the deeper meaning of her stretch marks, broad hips and breasts that sagged because they had fed four children over the course of many years. The image those lines always evoked in my mind was of the so-called Venus of Willendorf, a prehistoric stone figurine with enormous breasts, thick thighs and a more than ample midsection. This figure is interpreted by some as a sacred image of the Mother Goddess, the nurturing deity some people (mainly women, and not academic historians) believe was worshipped in an idyllic past before the harsh rule of God the Father subordinated women to his patriarchal rule.
No doubt there are any number of husbands who cherish their wives’ “beautiful because they give and sustain life” bodies, men who don’t mind having the baby and/or toddler sleeping in bed with them (or with their wives if they themselves have retreated to the guest room), who accept leaking milk as a natural part of foreplay for years on end, but I suspect a lot of them aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the Earth Mother mystique as their wives. Some of these are good sports about it, especially if they’re only planning on a few children and they can see a light at the end of the tunnel, but for others the challenge of living in a society as sexualized as ours must be difficult for a man whose wife is unwilling to make any effort to conform to society’s standards of feminine beauty.
Somewhere there is a happy medium between the expectation that mothers should all look like Joanne Watson five days after bearing a 13th child, and the defiant refusal of the Earth Mothers to make even the slightest effort to keep up their figures.