Shaming the Mother

The attacks on women are now so vicious and varied that it’s hard to know where to start. From Hobby Lobby winning the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance, to the near ban on abortion in my state, to the decriminalization of rape by universities and the military, it’s bloody hard to be a mother raising a girl in this society. How do I teach her the primacy of sexual consent in a culture whose legal system blames the victims of sexual assault? How do I teach her sexual responsibility in a culture that simultaneously holds women solely responsible for birth control and limits its availability?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, other than VOTE.

However, I am interested in a phenomenon that I’ve experienced and observed called mother shaming. Our culture seems to relegate mothers and the practices of motherhood to the home or out of sight, and reacts negatively when we don’t comply. It seems a combination of the pre-cultural revolution separation of the spheres of women and men, combined with the second wave feminist ideals of not allowing motherhood to consume women’s lives. Put these together (along with a still highly paternalistic corporate culture) and you get a world where any representations of motherhood are supposed to be sweet, gentle, clean, and most of all, out of sight. We must be Athena in the workplace and the Virgin Mary as mothers. To this I say bullshit.

There are myriad problems associated with this phenomenon. Breast feeding shaming and harassment. Ignorance of postpartum mood disorders. Lack of paid maternity leave. Unavailability of high quality affordable childcare. Career penalties for women who take time off to care for children. Social stigmatization for returning to work instead of caring for children full-time.

These problems play out on systemic, interpersonal, and psychological levels. The lack of subsidized (systemic) childcare financially strains families, particularly those that need two working parents (or a single working parent) to survive. The social stigma surrounding both staying home and returning to work are inescapable. Psychologically, it is difficult to escape  the feeling that we must do (not have) it all, and never complain, cry, scream, or sleep. Women sometimes enforce these social norms on each other as a way to direct their own internalized pain around these issues. The condescendingly named Mommy Wars are well-known to any of us who have been judged for our parenting decisions. Consequently, while I think the extreme right-wing is responsible for feeding the flames of mother shaming in our culture while advancing legal barriers to female health and safety, we must also take control of how we internalize and enforce these unhealthy norms on ourselves and one another.

I wrote in my Manifesto about my experience as a new mother starting my teaching career, and the negative feedback I received from a female student for not hiding my nascent motherhood skillfully enough. That was in 2011, and since then the legal penalization of women regarding family planning and care has increased more than I could have possibly imagined.

I’m particularly concerned with the archetype of the mother in our society. As a mother, I’m supposed to be sweet, self-deprecating, patient, kind, self-sacrificing, graceful, gracious, and accommodating. I should happily subsume myself into the care of my family. If I work outside the home, I must completely compartmentalize my mother identity while working and then put it back on when I get home.  Mothers are not sexy, but they shouldn’t let themselves go (get old, fat, or tired). Mothers consider others before themselves. Mothers are vessels for their children long after they have stopped being the physical vessel and nourishment; we don’t need personal space, solitude, or interests.

I am supposed to be an flawed version of the Virgin Mary; stained by my sexuality, but redeemed by my ability to subsume myself in a wholly receptive identity.

I’m not even talking about what I’ve been told, or what other women may feel; these are the messages that I’ve internalized about motherhood from living in our culture. I certainly wasn’t taught these values by my family; I somehow just absorbed them over time. When I became a mother, it was like somebody threw a switch in my head and suddenly this was who I thought I should be. Weird.

It’s bullshit. I need space and solitude. I do not have limitless patience or energy. I have intelligence, ambition, personality, sexuality, and a big independent streak. No one would  describe me as passive. I get angry, sad, tired,  and scared. Daily. I don’t stop being a mother when I’m working, and I don’t stop being a teacher/student when I’m mothering. This doesn’t make me a shitty mother; it makes me a good role model for my daughter, and a wiser teacher and student. I love my daughter to pieces, but she does not define me; I do.

When I see my friends trying to compartmentalize their motherhood to appear “professional” at work, or repressing their personalities to be good mothers, it makes me sad. When women judge other women for choosing the “wrong” identity or not playing their roles well enough, it makes me angry. And when our society shames or penalizes women for delaying motherhood, remaining childless, or choosing to becoming mothers, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Livid, perhaps.

I have an image of a dark space around the idea of the Mother in our society. That there is some subconscious aversion to the very idea of motherhood that causes us to react by trying to conform to these harmful ideals. There is an invisible blind spot, or an unhealing wound that we avoid through negative judgement and the creation of unquestioned social norms. I sometimes imagine the archetypal Mother trapped within a spherical prison that emits some kind of repelling energy that keeps us from examining why exactly we expect women to hide or modify who they are in order to survive.

Motherhood is messy. The process of making another human being and expelling him into the world with our bodies is strange, frightening, painful, and gory. Nourishing a child with milk that our bodies make for her is not clean. It is a messy, strange, mysterious, and earthy process that makes the fact that we are animals–not angels or gods–utterly inescapable. It is also the most powerful force in the world. Our species would cease to exist if women’s bodies could not menstruate, gestate, and lactate. But instead of revering these abilities, our society degrades them and insists we keep them out of sight.

The true nature of motherhood not fit with the objectified, sterile version of women peddled to us by traditional media and advertising. Our stretch marks and loose belly skin are not shameful or ugly. Breastfeeding is good for our bodies, and good for our babies’ bodies. Shaming mothers who breastfeed, and idealizing artificial breasts is unnatural and insane. The assumption that our work as parents has no relevance or positive impact on our work for pay makes no sense at all. I think the entry of many men into the childcare workforce may be helping to change these norms, but slowly.

We need to release the Mother from her prison. Millennia ago, socio-religious systems encoded power into spirituality by claiming that women were lesser and innately sinful instead of the source of our being as a species. I believe we can choose to stop playing by these destructive rules and live as the full, ripe, powerful beings that we are. We create and nourish life. We need to share the wisdom that comes with this miraculous ability, instead of allowing it to be reduced and degraded until we have no sense of our own, limitless value.

Kellogg’s Anti-Fat-Shaming Ad: Progressive or Creepy?


Okay, so many thoughts and feelings about this. I was just talking to a psychology professor at a faculty event today about how the diet industry teaches women that they don’t have the ability to listen to their own bodies when it comes to food; we are bombarded with the message that we need to be regulated and monitored by a (highly profitable) diet industry to be “healthy”. We also talked about how fat shaming is still rampant in the media, so for my own physical and mental health I just avoid media that is going to make me feel shitty about myself, or that misrepresents body diversity as abnormality.

Then rewind a couple more days, when I was buying bras at Lane Bryant. I ended up talking to two sales women for about twenty minutes about how most of the fashion industry makes ladies like us (size 16 – the supposed average size of the American woman) feel like bloated freaks, which means that THEY DON’T GET OUR MONEY. This seems kind of short-sighted, no?

Advertisers might be able to sell stuff based on fear, sex, desire, etc, but shame doesn’t really make me want to spend time around that brand.  So these lovely ladies and I were talking about how nice it is to have a couple of stores like Lane Bryant and Torrid that sell stuff that shows off our curves, rather than camouflages them, in an environment that is non-judgy and fun. It was a very Girl Power Solidarity kind of conversation, and it kind of made my day.

Then I watched this ad. So many thoughts.

The good:

  • Advertisers seem to be waking up to their epic stupidity when it comes to body shaming, whether fat or thin. Fat (or short, tall, or pregnant, or petite) women have just as much money as medium height skinny women. Want to make money? Celebrate body diversity.
  • The demographics of women in the ad are pretty broad racially and physically, though the age range seems pretty limited.
  • Talking about fat-shaming openly is a GOOD THING. The more we are aware of how self-destructive it is, the less of it we’ll pass on to our children as either an acceptable way to abuse themselves or others. Shaming ourselves or others’ bodies is crap. It’s an epidemic of crap, but it can change. So thanks, Kellogg, for outing it.

Not so good:

  • Fat shaming is not going to go away by saying “shhhh!” It’s going to go away when we start talking about it and acknowledging that it’s destructive and looking at the underlying assumptions about femininity that cause it.
  • I’m not sure how happy I am that this serious issue is being used as a selling point for a cereal. It remains to be seen how committed the company is to this as an issue, rather than a marketing point.
  • From Kellogg’s fightfattalk.com site “We believe that fat talk is a barrier to managing our weight and, when so many women are doing it, we’re all further from reaching our goals.” Um, how about we just talk about how we abuse ourselves and how that is holistically a bad thing, rather than how it keeps us from getting skinnier, kay?
  • I have a hard time believing this was a “real” ad – the women have particularly flawless makeup and look amazing on film, and there are a lot of pops of Kellogg red lipstick. In the end, it just feels very slick and manipulative.

What do you think? Is it a good sign that companies are starting to cater to more diverse women, or is it just creepy that they’re using dismorphia as a selling point?

The 5 Stages of Feminism

For my Feminist Theory class, I’ve been reflecting on my journey from being somewhat uncomfortable and rejecting of the label and or movement of feminism to where I am now.This is my (pretend) stage theory, which is the stages of mourning in reverse:

  1. Acceptance
    I don’t question my discomfort with feminism; I just have some vague notion that feminists are bossy, loud, judgmental, don’t shave, and their ideas are irrelevant in the modern world. Abortion is legal and I can go to college. Stop dwelling on the past!
  2. Depression
    Whoops! Sexism is alive and well. I am publicly sexually harassed at work and no one notices. I am discriminated against based on my appearance. But women in other countries have to deal with sex-based human rights atrocities (yes, I realize this is an uninformed assumption; that’s the point). However, our military has a huge rape problem. My view of the world has started to shift.
  3. Bargaining
    Okay, I might be kind of a feminist. But I don’t want to be identified with my parents’ generation, so I’m a 3rd wave feminist. Or a post-modern feminist. Or something. I still have a vague sense of alienation from the 2nd wave movement.  I’m beyond the patriarchy (even though I’m not sure exactly what that is). Still, there are news stories about women being denied access to birth control. I might need to read some books about feminism to see what I actually agree and disagree with.
  4. Anger (this is me right now, btw)
    The Republican legislature in Texas removes access to affordable health care, birth control, and safe abortion to women in my state (amid massive protests and demonstrations), thus violating the constitution. After reading mainstream feminist literature from different eras (The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth, Lean In, The Chalice and the Blade) and the selections for this and previous classes, I realize I’ve been had. Much of what I’ve constructed my identity on as a woman, particularly the negative messages I’ve internalized about myself, are bullshit. The portrayal of first and second wave feminists as anti-mother, anti-wife, and anti-child is right-wing, patriarchal propaganda.

    Current society, media, and legislation is wired to marginalize women, minorities, and people whose gender identity doesn’t easily fit into one of two categories. The admonition that “we have it so good” compared to other women, present and past, is an effective way to keep us quiet and inactive. I am incredibly pissed off.

  5. Denial and Isolation
    This is where my metaphor breaks down; or maybe not. I believe  our embedded power systems have effectively curbed public awareness of the feminist movement over the last two centuries. In fact (as we discussed yesterday) when Feminism is painted as a movement of exclusion rather than inclusion, women themselves often lead the charge to dismantle it. I would argue that I have spent most of my adult life in a place of denial and isolation from other women through both internalized and external misogyny. In fact, I believe we enforce the rules of the patriarchy as much as men in many situations.

What should this next phase be? How can we find a way to agree on some common goals across race, sexual identity, religion, geography, and any other divisions I haven’t thought of? Do we organize? Protest? Turn off the television and stop reading women’s magazines? Boycott princess dolls for our daughters? What do you think?