The postnatal body project

A guest post from Chrissy D on the body improvement project relentlessly marketed to new Mums.

When I am told it seems impossible that I am the mother of a one year old, it is delivered as a compliment. It has even been received as a compliment on many occasions. But after the initial nods and thanks I started to think: I really look like I couldn’t possibly be a mother? I was there, I saw (and felt) my son come into the world, so I promise it happened. So, I wonder, why is my body producing this conflicting image?

This week, Ditching Dieting protesters marched in front of Westminster to highlight and condemn the diet industry’s relentless psychological, social and physical assault on women’s bodies with its inexhaustible tagline: you’re female, ergo you deserve be on a diet. Anthony Giddens called the anxiety of what to make of one’s body in contemporary culture the ‘manufactured uncertainty of everyday life’, and it’s an uncertainty perpetuated – most of us would agree – by a multi-billion dollar industry. At no time is this uncertainty more utilised for profit by the infamous industry than right after a woman has had her first child.

The semiotics of motherhood are pretty; a bouquet of purple logos, cuddly mascots, chirpy commercials. But the overriding message to new mothers today is an amplification of that to the female consumer in general: now you’ve got some work to do, and we’re not talking about lactation.

As I’ve hinted before when writing about our covertly two-tier healthcare system, new mothers are told not only that our bodies are not our own, but that we’re actively working against them. We’re told by our midwives to breastfeed, while being bombarded with formula brands at every consumer juncture. We’re told that lactation will help our uteruses contract and get back into ‘shape’, while the cuddly little Aptamil bear tells us he has the real essential iron-enriched solution. We’re told our bodies will never be the same again, but that we must try to get them as close as possible to the original; a sloppy imitation. In short, the culturally manufactured experience of motherhood is one of being on a pretty, purple, ‘do the best you can to love yourself despite your new vocation’ diet.

The first time I was addressed with the, ‘you totally can’t tell you had a baby’ exclamation coincided with my son’s first day at nursery. My (inner) reaction surprised me. I wanted to cycle as fast as I could to his little nursery, tear him away from his triangular cheese sandwiches and hold him above my head like glorious evidence: “but I AM a mummy! Ask him, he’ll tell you!” But the socially acceptable me just smiled, blushed slightly, whilst trying to be grateful. Mothers are culturally compartmentalised as real or impossible, standard or impressive, according to their body type.

You are what your body says you are, but you probably want to override it with the right willpower, faith in consumerism and media-driven motivation. We are encouraged to distrust our bodies and buy into an outside solution. A real mother is ‘full of curves‘ but must be trying to lose them. I must be a figment of everyone’s imagination.

Netmums’ recent launch of “the woman behind the mum” sums up this cultural narrative (the female you really want to be behind the distrustful, slovenly, train-wreck mother you are) in seven easy sections: hair, beauty, fashion, fitness, health, diet, sex. So that is, in summary, what I am when I’m not busy mothering! The suggestions are for when you finally get a few hours sleep and can start to refocus your attention on the truly pressing issues and there are guides on hair-straightening, fake tanning and foot care. I don’t know about anyone else, but ‘footcare’ hasn’t yet returned to my to-do list.

I don’t argue that an interest in one’s appearance is not a worthwhile one, but that reinvention and the body project are marketed as the only one valid for a new mum.

The media’s pornographication of health and youth intensifies the new mother’s body project yet further. Getting “back into shape” has become an absolutely ingrained phrase in postnatal lingo and is also utterly meaningless. It suggests trying to retrieve something lost, something that you left somewhere but you can’t remember where. Something (a ‘you’) that perhaps only exists on Netmums. For the beauty and diet industry, a new mother is taught to be the perfect consumer: looking to get back something precious that they hadn’t anticipated losing in the first place, the value of which they hadn’t previously realised. We are now told that we had it, lost it and now have to buy it back.

Germaine Greer highlighted the way in which the archetypal maternal physique is seen as ‘monstrous’ and must be narrowed as soon as possible after delivery to something ‘boyish’ and flat, as the myth that freedom through eternal youth is perpetuated. Mothers are told in no uncertain terms, “this is what maternity looks like” and then are shamed by the diet and parenting industries into trying to look the opposite, to be attractive and free again.

And what of those mums for whom the ‘full bosom of maternity’ isn’t a reality? The manufactured uncertainty of ‘real woman’ awaits.

Adapted picture by joellehatem, shared under a creative commons licence. This shows a scrabble board featuring the words “media”, “fashion”, “entertainment”, “diet”, “cosmetics” and “advertising” as “industries Shaping Women’s Self Esteem.