The Tyranny of the ‘Sexy’ Mom

Have Americans become too obsessed with how women's bodies do — or don't — spring back into shape after having a baby?

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Jennifer Garner made news recently for wearing a one-piece bathing suit. Yup, in America it’s a big deal when a 40-year-old actress and mother of three does not appear in a bikini with ridiculously toned abs four months after giving birth. “Jennifer Garner Unveils Sexy Post-Baby Body in a Retro Swimsuit!” gushed US magazine. How incredibly evolved of them. chimed in with “Thank you, Jennifer Garner! There are so many ways you make looking like a normal mom seem completely acceptable and even cool.”

Agreed. But before we start celebrating this as some kind of breakthrough, remember that US magazine didn’t call Garner cool or normal; it called her “sexy.” And therein lies the problem. Twenty years ago, it seemed like a huge step forward for women to be considered sexually attractive and a good mother at the same time. Prior to that, studies showed that being desirable and being maternal were considered mutually exclusive. But then in 1991, Demi Moore went and broke about a thousand taboos by posing nude and pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair, saying she hoped it would give pregnant women “permission” to be sexy.

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It was the dawn of the age of the sexy mom, and there was no going back. “Reversal of the traditional separation between maternity and sex has exploded onto the scene in recent years as the media is full of hot mammas … yummy mummies, knocked-up knock outs,” writes Kelly Oliver in the journal Hypatia. She points out that what started as a kind of feminist liberation for women is now slipping into old-fashioned objectification. (Take, for example, a certain popular yet vulgar acronym for desirable mothers that we cannot print here.) Suddenly that  permission to be sexy and motherly turned into a mandate. And we’re complicit. We cannot stop staring at the zillions of body-after-baby photos online. We can (and do) buy baby bibs that say “My Mom Is Hotter than Your Mom.” School-drop-off sweatpants have to be Juicy Couture–sexy.

How exhausting it all is — especially given the equal and almost opposite pressure to be hyper-attentive supermoms too.

(MORE: How Feminism Begat Intensive Mothering)

While indulging in the mental junk food of celebrity magazines isn’t the end of the world, it does feed into an addictive contrast-and-compare game we play with our bodies, which numerous studies have shown erode our self-image and predispose us to have depression. It’s not surprising that in a nation where three-quarters of us are overweight or obese, we can feel like losers when we’re not sexier than ever after having a baby like Jessica Alba.

This attitude has a trickle-down effect. A new report published this month in the journal Sex Roles revealed that many 6-to-9-year-old girls already think of themselves as sexual objects. Psychologists showed the girls two paper dolls, one dressed in tight, cleavage-revealing “sexy” clothes and the other wearing a trendy but covered-up outfit. Most girls identified the sexy doll as the one most likely to be popular and the one they wanted to look like. Interestingly, media consumption did not seem to play a role in the doll they picked. But a mother’s self-image did. Those girls with moms who reported self-objectifying tendencies, like worrying about their clothes and appearance many times a day, were more likely to pick the sexy doll.

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Of course, we don’t want to get on the blame-Mom bandwagon. And we really don’t want a return to mom jeans. But maybe we can give ourselves and others some time off in the relentless pursuit of post-pregnancy hotness. If not for ourselves, then for our daughters. Those after-baby shots of actresses in bikinis have an air of awkwardness and self-consciousness that is pure high school. Who wants that? Meanwhile, look at the Garner photo without the sexy label and what you see is a woman not trying to look hot. In fact, she doesn’t seem to be trying to look like anything.