Merciless Momshells and Repentant Paparazzi (Or, Why I Love Jessica Simpson)

“Can a Mom Get a Break?” Janet Min asked in last Sunday’s NY Times. And […]

David Zahl / 8.23.12

“Can a Mom Get a Break?” Janet Min asked in last Sunday’s NY Times. And the answer, of course, is a big N-O! As if the ever-escalating parenting crossfire weren’t enough, Min explores how our cultural Law of Skinny-Sexy has essentially revoked its, um, grace period when it comes to post-pregnancy. It’s a startling expose of the absurd/tragic degree of condemnation that new mothers live under–condemnation which, according to Min, is exacted primarily by other women, with female celebrities serving as the mediators/proxies/scapegoats/atoning sacrifices/etc. The standards here may be absolutely impossible–ridiculously so!–yet that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on their enforcement. The camera isn’t interested in our excuses after all.

None of this is anything we don’t already know. What makes the article so remarkable is the startling admission that Min offers mid-way through: she used to be the editor of US Weekly!! Needless to say, the “nerve” of someone who has made their living perpetuating these oppressive norms saying things like this has some quadrants of the Web pretty upset. But I think it’s rather beautiful. That is, when we get our first Hollywood adaptation of St. Paul’s conversion (and believe me, it’s coming!) I hope they hire Min as a consultant. She might have a thing or two to say about becoming the very thing you used to persecute. Also, poor Bryce Dallas Howard:

in today’s celebrity narrative, just two kinds of desirable maternal female physiques exist: the adorable gestating one (with bellies called “bumps”) and its follow-up, the body that boomerangs back from birth possibly even better than before. Me? I’m currently stranded on an island like the one on “Lost,” only this one is inhabited exclusively by still-pudgy moms struggling to find their way back.

I am partly to blame for my own physical netherworld. As the editor of Us Weekly, covering the Suris and Shilohs of Hollywood for six years, I delivered what the young female audience wanted: cute moms and babies. So much so that Tom Wolfe once remarked, “The one thing that Us Weekly has done that’s a great boost to the nation is, they’ve probably increased the birthrate.”

In the same way that gray hair went from natural to unacceptable in part because of Clairol’s relentless marketing in the 1960s, ubiquitous imaging of “sexy” moms has rewired society’s expectations. Tropical cultures have no native words for “snow”; ours used to be devoid of words to describe a sexual or sexy mother. Now, we have terms like “yummy mummy” and “cougar.”

On TV, June Cleaver and Roseanne have been replaced by Sofia Vergara’s Gloria on “Modern Family,” Courteney Cox on “Cougar Town” and cocktail-swilling, Botox-frozen “Real Housewives.” At school drop-off, sweat pants have been banished, as Balenciaga bags and blowouts make every day seem like mommy dress-up.


Lately, though, signs are showing that this 1 percent of lucky mothers with the time, money and good genes to be skinny in their skinny jeans have informed our judgment of the other 99 in a sort of trickle-down mean-girls effect. Shortly after People magazine put Beyoncé on its cover this year, TMZ ran photos of the actress Bryce Dallas Howard with her 4-month-old daughter, Beatrice, for no reason — except, perhaps, to let commenters verbally stone her.

“Her next role is Mama Cass,” said one. Said another, “1 word=LAXATIVES!!! STAT!!!” In total, the post about a respected actress, who had earlier poignantly written about her postpartum depression and 80-pound gain from her first pregnancy, racked up 297 comments (and counting). Jessica Simpson, whose 70-pound gain during her recent pregnancy hasn’t quite reversed course, also is in the eye of a schadenfreude storm…

Our tendency toward these extremes makes us a self-loathing bunch. We play into the conflicts of Madonnas versus Whores, Working Moms versus Stay-at-Homes, Bettys versus Veronicas. And now we have Fab Moms versus Flab Moms. Did you look like Heidi Klum before having children? No? That’s O.K. But if you don’t look like a supermodel after having children, maybe you just aren’t trying hard enough.

The recent “Are You Mom Enough?” cover of Time magazine was either the apex or nadir of all our current mama drama. If it wasn’t enough to get creeped out hearing grown men express envy of the breast-feeding 4-year-old boy latched onto his attractive mother, the question posed on the cover seemed to encompass not only the article’s attachment parenting debate, but also the self-doubt that all mothers perpetually face.

Yes, we are a looks-obsessed culture. One of our greatest virtues as humans is our desire to constantly improve. [ed. note: !!!]. But in the same way that women can have it all, the notion that instantly stick-thin figures after birth are normal is untrue. Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived nights, I ponder our ideal of this near-emaciated, sexy and well-dressed Frankenmom we’ve created and wonder how to undo her. Even just a little bit.

Not only for the pressure to let up on me, and you, but also perhaps so my little baby girl can one day love her own children, too, without hating her body at the same time.

Those last two paragraphs suggest that maybe Min hasn’t quite been fully knocked off her horse yet. If she actually finds consolation in the fact that cultural mores ebb and flow, she likely hasn’t noticed how the force of the tide stays the same. That is, the contours may change but the severity does not. Could it be – gasp! – that the desire to improve ourselves may not in fact be our greatest virtue? Can I get a “Lord have mercy”?!