What do beauty standards and mothering standards have in common? Denialism.

29673378 - eraser deleting the word patriarchy

New York Times movie critic Amanda Hess has written one of the best takedowns of contemporary patriarchal ideology I have ever read. She explains how women are pressured not merely to meet male needs and desires but duped into believing they are empowered by the very ideology that is designed to constrain them.

But part of the conditioning of the “patriarchal ideal” is to make women feel empowered by it on their “own terms.” That way, every time you critique an unspoken requirement of women, you’re also forced to frown upon something women have chosen for themselves. And who wants to criticize a woman’s choice?

Hess is writing about beauty standards, but should could just as easily have written about motheng standards. Both have never been stricter.

Mothering-standard denialism, like beauty-standard denialism, allows women to pretend that they are empowered by knuckling under to patriarchal ideals.

Hess is reviewing Amy Schumer’s new movie ‘I Feel Pretty.”

In the film, the down-on-herself Renee (played by Amy Schumer) conks her head in a SoulCycle accident and awakens believing that she has miraculously become supermodel-hot. She revels in it — charging into a bikini contest, snagging a promotion and basking in the affections of a beefy corporate scion — only to discover that her looks never changed a bit. The benefits she thought she accrued through beauty were won instead through her newfound self-confidence.

The movie suggests that the only thing holding back regular-looking women is their belief that looking regular holds them back at all. That attitude puts the onus on individual women to improve their self-esteem instead of criticizing societal beauty standards writ large…

But:

The reality is that expectations for female appearances have never been higher. It’s just become taboo to admit that.

This new beauty-standard denialism is all around us. It courses through cosmetics ads, fitness instructor monologues, Instagram captions and, increasingly, pop feminist principles. In the forthcoming book “Perfect Me,” Heather Widdows, a philosophy professor at the University of Birmingham, England, convincingly argues that the pressures on women to appear thinner, younger and firmer are stronger than ever. Keeping up appearances is no longer simply a superficial pursuit; it’s an ethical one, too. A woman who fails to conform to the ideal is regarded as a failure as a person.

Entire industries — the weight loss industry, the cosmetic industry, the fashion industry — exist to market the male ideal of the female body to women and to pressure them into denying that reality by calling it “empowerment.”

We see it, for example, in the health moralism around weight: Every woman is still expected to torture her body into the male ideal of thin, lithe and cellulite free, but now it is presented as “healthier” instead of the ugly truth that it is what appeals to men.

[T]he beauty ideal is so pervasive that it is internalized in many women, who are haunted by idealized visions of their own bodies — fantasies of how they might look after undergoing extreme diets or cosmetic procedures. But because nobody can ever achieve perfection, we instead begin to fetishize the striving for it — spinning on bikes and slathering on lotions. So even after Renee experiences her awakening to self-acceptance, she ends up right back at SoulCycle, this time having completely swallowed the “I’m doing this for me” line.

Sound familiar? It should because it’s also the tactic behind marketing natural mothering ideology. Expectations for mothering have never been higher but it’s taboo to admit it.

The natural mothering ideal is a traditional male ideal, tens of thousands of years old: women immured in the home restricted to fulfillment through their use of their vaginas, uteri and breasts and barred from fulfillment through their intellect, talents and character. All the while, the industries that profit from these sexist philosophies — natural childbirth, breastfeeding and attachment parenting — are promoting them as “empowering.”

This new mothering standard is all around us. It flows through natural childbirth and breastfeeding websites, parenting Facebook groups, Instagram photos and efforts to “normalize” unmedicated vaginal birth, exclusive breastfeeding, and baby wearing. The patriarchal ideal of women barefoot, pregnant and in servitude to her children has been refashioned. The denialism of the mothering standard involves insisting that women are empowered by it. That way, every time someone critiques an unspoken requirement of mothers — unmedicated vaginal birth, exclusive breastfeeding, attachment parenting — you’re forced to frown upon something women have ostensibly chosen for themselves.

Mothering-standard denialism is like beauty-standard denialism in yet another way.

[A]ll regular women need to succeed is a healthy dose of confidence. That new beauty mantra mirrors corporate messaging around “impostor syndrome” and “leaning in” — the idea that women’s lack of confidence is holding them back from professional success, not discrimination. In fact, our culture’s ideal woman is beautiful and modest.

According to midwives and lactation consultants, the only thing women need to “succeed” at childbirth and breastfeeding is more confidence, not the reality that childbirth is dangerous and excruciating or the reality that the natural failure rate of breastfeeding is high. And, inevitably, the best way to get that confidence is by purchasing the services of — you guessed it — midwives and lactation consultants.

Hess concludes:

The amount of brainpower I spend every day thinking about how I look is a monumental waste. The sheer accumulation of images of celebrity bodies in my browser history feels psychopathic…

The amount of brain power, energy, guilt, shame and suffering spent trying to attain the mothering standard is a monumental waste. The accumulation of images “celebrating” and “normalizing” natural childbirth and breastfeeding is nothing short of oppressive. It doesn’t make babies healthier, safer, smarter or better in any way.

Mothering-standard denialism serves the same purpose as beauty-standard denialism. It allows women to pretend that they are empowered by knuckling under to patriarchal ideals instead of recognizing that they are being manipulated.

  • Abi

    Huh…

  • Tigger_the_Wing

    It’s like the fake ‘choices’ we give our kids when they are small, so they’ll go along with our wishes. For example, fifteen minutes before we have to leave the park, we call them over and say “It’s almost time to leave. Would you like another five minutes, or another ten – provided you don’t complain?” They always choose the ten, and then we get away on time with no whinging. They think that they’ve got an extra five minutes out of the deal – when they actually had no real choice at all.

  • yentavegan

    Hmmmm…interesting essay. I am mulling it over. I am not caught in the spinning wheel of oppressive patriarchy , ( are you?). I do not have to look younger, thinner or fitter to gain access to status or income.

  • Megan

    Having children, daughters in particular, was the best cure for my body insecurities. Not only did I no longer have time or the brain space to worry about how I looked anymore, I realized that I didn’t want to pass on my insecurities to my daughters (that were passed on to me from my own mother, who never approved of my figure, even when I was thin). IInitially I just promised myself that I wouldn’t bad mouth my figure out loud, but eventually, not talking about it led to not really worrying about it anymore. Now that I’m about to have my third kid, I can well and truly say that it just doesn’t matter anymore. My body grew three kids and allows me to do fun things like hike. The rest doesn’t matter.
    As far as judgments about my mothering? I’m pretty over that too. I may have cared when I had my first kid but now I realize how little of the mommy wars nonsense matters besides loving your kids. Oh and I do feed them regularly and bathe them occasionally. 🙂

    • StephanieA

      That’s great that you’ve been able to get to where you’re at. I always worried about that very thing and having daughters, but I ended up having all boys. I wish I could say I don’t care, but I do. I care a lot. I’ve gained almost 30 lbs at 25 weeks and I hate it, even though I have lost it easily with my others. I grew up in a very body positive family and still developed an eating disorder, so unfortunately parents can do all the right things and crap still happens.

      • Megan

        It’s definitely not all on parents. I just happened to have a mother who cared very much about appearances and was very disapproving of mine as a tween/teen/young adult and that really affected me. I don’t mean to dismiss how hard it is to overcome these things and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I definitely had to make a concerted effort to change and caught myself saying negative things about my body mid-sentence multiple times in front of my children. I did not directly address this while in therapy but I do certainly think being in therapy and working on myself in general did help with addressing my body issues as well; I had help to work on my issues.
        As far as your weight gain, I can empathize with you there. I have gained more with this pregnancy than my last, though not quite as much as with my first (though we’ll see by the time this one comes out!) I think every pregnancy is different and I figure there’s just not much I can do about it right now. Once baby is born, my plan is to get him/her out in the stroller and walk the trails as soon as I can. Be kind to yourself during your pregnancy. Your body is doing an amazing thing!

        • StephanieA

          I didn’t find your comment dismissive at all, I truly admire people that are able to get to the point you’re at, especially growing up with a critical parent. That’s amazing. If I remember correctly you’re super close to delivery, good luck to you!

    • Tigger_the_Wing

      Good for you! I also had a mother who was picky about my weight and appearance, even though I had a BMI of 17 until I was diagnosed cœliac when I was in my mid-thirties. I have enough health issues to focus on, without caring about appearance or weight. One advantage of cronehood is that no-one else cares about my weight or appearance either. As long as I stay below a BMI of 25, even my doctor doesn’t care (it shoots up when my liver is struggling, so he takes regular blood tests).

      I was fortunate to have my kids in the eighties and nineties, when kids could just be kids. It’s much harder for them to be raising their own children in the current climate, particularly my granddaughters. 🙁

  • Zornorph

    Back in my 30s, I used to use Rogaine for my thinning hair – it did actually more or less stop it from dropping out. But it also left stains on my pillow and it was an overall pain in the rear. When I split from my ex, it suddenly occurred to me that it wasn’t worth the bother and I stopped using it and let nature take it’s course. Not am I going to spend hours of my day in a gym to get rippling muscles – as long as I am in okay shape, I don’t care if I have a ‘dad bod’.

    As for women, I think it’s nuts the expectations placed on them. I don’t prefer thin women anyway – who on earth actually thinks women should have a ‘thigh gap’? And I have a real problem with fashion designers who insist that their clothes only look good on matchsticks – that’s your failure as a designer, then, if you can’t make clothes that look good on a woman who is size 12.

    As for mothers, yes, I see the pressure. I’m glad I didn’t have to put up with it, though I would have just ignored it, anyway. But the standards for fathers are so much lower that it just doesn’t arise.

    • Steph858

      A stand-up comedian (Mark Thomas, IIRC) once suggested that modelling should be like jury service – people would be picked via lottery, and the clothes designers would have to make their clothes fit the ‘model’ whose ‘turn’ it was. I think this is actually quite a good idea, though I wouldn’t want to force anyone to do modelling work if they don’t want to for the obvious reason that nobody should be forced to prance around in their undies in front of a camera against their will. But perhaps some sort of register of people who would be willing to do some modelling work with opt-outs for swim/underwear and the like – then anyone who wants to hire a fashion model has to pick from that register *at random*.

  • guest

    I’m just starting to realize all this beauty and health obsession is bull crap. The amount of time I spend on working towards looking better is ridiculous. I’m starting to step back from all of it and it’s similar to when I quit smoking – a significant chunk of my day is freed up for other things. So now I focus on only activities I truly enjoy, all that I enjoy about food (cooking, trying new things, the sense of satisfaction in nourishing my family), and I am reducing the work I put into makeup, hair, clothing. It has been very freeing and I am much happier in my body and more content with my life.

    • MaineJen

      Same.

      As a teenager I was very body conscious and dieted/exercised to an unhealthy degree. All in the name of reaching a (probably for me) unattainable standard.

      As I grew up, I found that I just…didn’t care. At all. I’m at the point now where I don’t wear makeup any more (except on special occasions), I dress the way I want (read: mostly jeans and comfortable shirts on my days off), and I work out to feel stronger and healthier, not necessarily to lose weight. I’ve even embraced my curly/messy hair and stopped trying to “tame” it.

      Would I LOVE to wake up tomorrow as a size 0? Of course. But it’s unrealistic for me to want that, because I’m not built that way. I’m mostly friends with my body, it grew and fed 2 babies for me.

      In conclusion…*shrug* The fashion and beauty industries suck, and we should all feel free to ignore them.

  • RudyTooty

    “The denialism of the mothering standard involves insisting that women are empowered by it.”

    “According to midwives and lactation consultants, the only thing women
    need to “succeed” at childbirth and breastfeeding is more confidence …”

    Ah, confidence. I read that word in relationship to natural birth and think “delusion.”

    The hardest patient to work with is the one with a boatload of risk factors, and profound confidence in natural labor and birth. Any mention of a ‘risk’ or a poorly progressing labor means that I want to deprive this patient of empowerment. My lack of “confidence” becomes the sinister factor in this unfolding process.

    Both in adhering to INSANE beauty standards, and mythical natural birthing standards, women are conforming to external values, which in my mind, is not personal empowerment at all. I see the parallel.

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      Confidence? I can barely trust my feet to run after an escaping toddler without falling down and that’s because I’m just that graceful. And I’ve read far too many history and archaelogical books and articles to take pregnancy and childbirth with a “alls you need is confidence in yourself” attitude.

  • sdsures

    This is what I was thinking about seeing the first pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their third child born today. The Duchess, of course, looks IMMACULATE, perfect hair and makeup – which is so far-removed from the reality of how other women look and feel 5 hours after giving birth from an 8-hour-long labour and delivery.

    It’s an impossible standard.

    • Mel

      That’s totally insane.

      I’m sure she’s got medical professionals watching her like a hawk – but my mom’s severe post-partum pre-e started about 6 hours after my twin and I were born. I get nervy whenever postpartum women take off from hospitals too quickly.

      • MaineJen

        That’s what I was thinking too. Going home the *same day* just seems a bit much. At least stay overnight!

      • Usually an Anglophile

        Leaving same-day is happening more frequently for English women. Non-royal women suffer through some combination of:four-patient room (with all four infants roomed-in as well), not allowed to have a spouse/family member stay overnight, expected to do all newborn care themselves, and harassed by lactivists. It’s all the downsides of a Baby-Friendly hospital, along with the downsides of an 1950s maternity ward.

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

          Given all that, I would opt for going home as soon as possible too. At least at home you could have a bedroom of your own(hopefully) and maybe someone else to take the baby some of the time. And no one lecturing one for not breastfeeding.

          • Sarah

            In her case I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve got clinically qualified assistance at home, or at least on standby.

          • Who?

            And the washing won’t piling up, the power bill won’t need paying, and almost none of the million trivial things that take ALL DAY and are never finished will be left if she can’t get to them.

          • Anna

            Yeah. William won’t be sitting on the couch playing Playstation while Kate is trying to cook chicken nuggets and chips for the two littlies while pushing the bassinette with her foot and hoping her pad stays still.

          • AnnaPDE

            That’s how my sister’s friend discharged herself from hospital less than 24 hours after a CS. “At least I’ll have someone to care for me.” She basically called her husband in the middle of the night to pick her up after she’d been actively refused help to put her baby back in his crib repeatedly, in a “bad luck your legs are wobbly after the surgery, not so great to wimp out by CS now, right?” way.

          • lsn

            That is seriously screwed up. How many preventable injuries and deaths have to happen to change that?

          • Anna

            Thats disgusting! I have a friend that went home the same day after her second. She didn’t feel comfy in the shared room and once she saw the person next to her was going to have a 1000 visitors there all day talking loudly and pulling the curtain. I was lucky I got a private room. My husband was able to stay 2 nights.

          • Mimc

            How awful. I wasn’t even allowed out of bed for 24 hours after mine I don’t see how anyone could be expected to do all the baby care solo after one.

          • StephanieA

            That’s what we did. I would’ve loved to stay and have meals delivered to me, but without the nursery you have zero help after baby is born. So I figured I might as well go home and have no help rather than stay in the hospital.

      • lsn

        Apparently the maternity hospital closest to me is now offering a choice between ‘routine’ care and ‘midwifery-led care’ – but if you choose the latter you leave the hospital within 6 hours of giving birth whereas routine care is a minimum of two nights in hospital. Presumably it’s being aimed at low risk women – but the woman asking which we would choose was the SIL of a friend and it’s her first pregnancy. I think she was surprised at how vehemently the three women in the room said “ROUTINE CARE”!! Seriously I’m scared someone is going to die with this policy, I don’t know what the follow up is like (possibly home visits by the midwives?) but I really don’t think it should be being offered in first pregnancies at the very least.

      • J.B.

        I went home 28-30 hours after youngest child child was born (in US); they did want me to stay at least one night. Sleeping in a hospital is impossible. I get why but people coming in to check on you is not restful.

        • Mel

          I can see going home after one night. That gets a good amount of time where plenty of medical professionals have eyes on both you and your baby.

          Same-day release seems really fast to me.

    • EllenL

      I’m just relieved that she gave birth in a hospital. Rumors were circulated (by midwives, no doubt) that she favored a home birth this time. Hopefully, the takeaway is that a “natural birth” can be had – safely – in the hospital.

      • BeatriceC

        To be fair, a home birth in a royal residence isn’t quite the same as a home birth in a normal residence. They could convert a room in a palace to a full operating theater if they wanted to and hire an enormous amount of staff if they wanted to do so.

        • Abi

          …which they don’t. Funny that.

          • BeatriceC

            I think somebody did actually convert some rooms in a palace to an operating theater? Queen Elizabeth? The Queen Mum? King George VI? I can’t recall, but I recall that somebody did.

          • crazy mama, PhD

            George VI, I think—he had a lung removed a few months before he died.

          • Amazed

            Elizabeth II. A generation earlier, she herself was a homebirth baby. A home c-section. Of course, the then Duchess of York’s home wasn’t exactly your average country house.

            Princess Margaret arrived by c-section as well and the baby factory was closed. Too dangerous for the Queen Mum.

          • MaineJen

            Home c section? I had no idea. That’s some royal treatment.

      • Abi

        It’s worse than that. They were so desperate to believe this fantasy that someone created this preposterous image of the queen giving birth – because they had to go back 50+ years to find a real life example of a royal choosing a homebirth. I found it so disingenuous on many levels… https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-natalie-lennard-turned-the-queen-giving-birth-into-a-piece-of-art

        • Zornorph

          This paragraph was notable:
          Lennard said: “I went against some of the historical expert advice—in reality the scene would have had more of a surgical, medical props and atmosphere—but I didn’t think it was so appropriate for a modern audience’s associations with home birth, and what home birth would look like for Kate Middleton today, should she or future royal mothers choose to revert to the tradition.”
          In other words, the Queen had a bunch of medical equipment there that a modern homebirth midwife would not have access to, so the ‘artist’ wanted to create a fantasy for propaganda purposes and even admits that’s it doesn’t reflect reality.

          • Abi

            Yes – exactly! When even the architects of propaganda admit that the images they’re creating have no grounds in reality, you’d have to be really quite stupid to be taken in by it. And yet…

          • Anna

            Every Christmas now they’re going to roll out that image of the hot white model Mary “roaring her baby earthside” with the hunky Joseph by her side. So totes realistic!

          • Abi

            I wish I had never learned that expression…but now you’ve written it, I cannot unsee it! HELP!

      • Anna

        Is it bad that I said smiled big and thought “suck shit bitches” when I heard she’d checked in to hospital? They were SURE she was going to choose a homebirth this time. LOL

        • Abi

          Imagine the PR disaster if she’d had one and had then had to be rushed into surgery – I bet some were secretly relieved it didn’t happen!

          • Anna

            Possibly. Theres always some way to spin it though. When women are transferred they say “see, its safe and we’ll know when to transfer”. If the baby dies they say “babies die in hospitals too, it can’t be helped” – then they delete and ban!

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      I have a friend who can do that but pretty much it’s just her. snort. I wasn’t even allowed to leave L&D for 24 hours after my son’s birth because of my pre-eclampsia was so scary.

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      There seems be some confusion. The post is not about beauty standards for new mothers. It’s about how the pressure to conform is being marketed as “empowerment. “

      • AnnaPDE

        It wasn’t, but how Kate has been presented after all 3 of her births is basically a poster child for the natural-is-best crowd: “See, even if you have a medical issue during pregnancy, if you just try and trust hard, that kid’s going to pop out of your vagina without any difficulties, and you’ll be walking around looking fabulous straight away. You won’t use expensive hospital services and all that luxury, even if you’re royalty, because you simply won’t need it if you do it right! Here’s living proof. Now stop asking for epidurals and C-sections, you lazy women, and start getting better at this labour thing instead of incompetently getting your baby stuck.”

        • MaineJen

          Which is hilarious. Kate could have had an epidural all 3 times. Just give it a few hours to wear off while she’s in hair and makeup and presto!! Instant photo op.

          • Abi

            How do we know she didn’t? I mean, presumably that’s patient confidentiality, so her double-barrelled obstetricians are hardly going to tell the world if she did decide to use appropriate pain relief, are they? I’d be very surprised if she didn’t tbh.