From an early age little girls are taught to hate their bodies. For many it’s a hatred that becomes so embedded we no longer feel it as hate. It is just who we are and what we do. Our bodies are objects to be despised and, alienated from them, we take from this what we can. The revulsion becomes a means of bonding with other women. We talk about muffin tops and thunder thighs, and of what we ate yesterday, laughing at our lack of self-control while craving forgiveness. If we have children, this practice remains, only the wording changes. We mention jelly bellies and mummy tummies, cutesy rhymes which suggest we don’t really care (after all, we now have others to think of).
It’s all a game, this public dance of rueful self-acceptance. None of us wants to go too far into how we really feel in our own flesh. After all, that's self-indulgent and women — mothers in particular — are not meant to be self-indulgent. When we are alone in front of the mirror we might pinch ourselves until we bruise, muttering “fat bitch” under our breath, but in company we trivialise our self-hate. It makes it easier to kid ourselves it doesn't hurt all that much.
This trend has not gone unnoticed by advertisers. Our need to trivialise has created the opening into which brands such as Dove, L’Oréal and Boots No 7 can step, reassuring us that the way we feel is “normal”, just part and parcel of being a “real” woman (hurray!). Their mawkish “feel good about yourself” adverts grant us permission (within reason) to have bodies that age and sag and, filled with gratitude, we purchase overpriced white creams which don't promise miracles — not for the likes of you! — but stand as proof that we love ourselves. Such products don't change how the world sees us but true beauty comes from within, right? Hence should you feel the same as you did before you just haven't bought enough feel -good lotion yet.
Dove’s latest campaign — A Mother’s Body — is particularly clinical in the way it hones in on two key insecurities: the fear of women that they are unattractive and the fear of mothers that their work is of no value. One might argue that neither of these fears come from within – women are judged disproportionately on their looks and the work mothers do is undervalued – but once the insecurity has wormed its way into your soul, what difference does it make? It’s there and you feel it and when a kindly advertiser comes along, offering to soothe your pain, what can you do? Women know what’s going on with slogans such as “you’re worth it” and body acceptance campaigns such as Dove’s. We could be in the room when the ad execs came up with it. And yet, as long as wages for housework and an end to objectification remain off the table, a cream with one quarter moisturiser (whatever that means) sometimes feels better than nothing.
So I watch the advert in the only context available to me, in that mother’s body of my own, and the following things go through my mind: cute baby … yay, that woman has a slightly fat tummy … and an arse … does that mean my tummy’s allowed to be that fat? Is this good? What if it’s fatter? … God, I’m not half as energetic with my kids … I’m a really crap, hands-off mum compared to her … Why does it keep cutting to her having a bath? Oh, she’s dolling herself up … probably for her husband who’s been at work … hey, is this empowerment? Oh. It’s an engaging montage, with a charming poem, but I keep coming back to this: is Dove basically saying that it’s okay to be a tiny bit podgy if you’re an ace, devoted mummy? And that you shouldn’t feel you’re not an ace, devoted mummy because you’re definitely the type who carries on “when all [her] body longs for is one hot coffee” and who, at the end of the day, has “smiles hiding weeps because they have not stopped for week on week”? Brilliant. No pressure, then.
When I watch advertisements like this I can’t help feeling am being “liberated” from one narrow, unrealistic version of motherhood only to come slap-bang up against another. In many ways, this new one is worse. When Claudia Schiffer cuddles a cherubic tot and says “my wrinkles are full and so is my life” at least I can piss myself laughing (with the help of that weak pelvic floor than is not, it seems, an integral part of having “a mother’s body”). When, on the other hand, something is sold to me as “real” I have no such excuse. I am being told this is the limit of what I am allowed to be. This far, but no further.
I’m conscious that some will see the Dove advert in a positive light, as an appreciation of the work that mothers do behind closed doors. I am all for appreciating that. However, I am tired of the soft focus pseudo-realism that pervades all “honest” representations of motherhood. It pats us on the head, says “you’re great” and then leaves us up to our elbows in dirty nappies (albeit with an overpriced beauty balm to slap on said elbows later). An idealisation of the sacrifices mothers make goes hand in hand with the exploitation of their work; indeed, it justifies it. Your work is not real work, but a labour of love. Of course you feel underappreciated. That goes with the territory. Here, have a bath. Put on some make-up. Yeah, you look fine (for a mother, that is).
I want more than this. I do not want permission not to hate my own body just because said body is useful when it comes to undertaking unpaid work. I want support for mothers, a fairer division of labour, and recognition of the true economic value of what mothers do. I want to be able to eat a doughnut without feeling I’ve earned it by being Mary bloody Poppins. Above all, I want mother’s bodies to be seen as the bodies of human beings: not objects, not tools, but flesh, blood and endless possibility.