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

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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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Mothering-standard denialism, like beauty-standard denialism, allows women to pretend that they are empowered by knuckling under to patriarchal ideals.[/pullquote]

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…


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.