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Can a mom get a break?
Somehow, my local manicure ladies always feel inclined to turn my $35 finger-and-toe sessions into a barrage of myriad personal questions. In halting English, they will pepper me with, "How old are you?" "Where you born?" "How much you make?" "What your husband do?" And then more recently, "When your baby due?"
First, I'm irked. Then embarrassed. And then when I answer, "I just had a baby, " I am met with blank stares. As if there is no other possible explanation for why all the other moms sitting at the salon in their Lululemon are sporting pilateshewn six packs, and I look like I've hidden one of those Heineken mini-kegs under my T-shirt.
The reason being that I pushed out a 6-pound-10-ounce baby girl nearly four months ago. And I'm 42 to boot. Can't I get a free pass?
But this is Los Angeles, where kale is the official food, zero (as in size) is every woman's lucky number, and fat is something actors only wear in fake suits for 'funny' roles.
So from this land of all-things-ersatz, from breasts to reality TV, has arisen another irresistible illusion: the Momshell (mother-as-bombshell ). And she makes no allowances for my maternal paunch.
There, in the stacks of periodicals at the nail salon, these genetic aberrations smile at us from celebrity magazines, or from our computer screens, wearing bikinis on the beach in Cabo weeks after Caesarean sections, or going straight from recovery room to Victoria's Secret runway. Shortly before Mother's Day this year, People magazine anointed Beyoncê as the 'World's Most Beautiful Woman' with a cover line 'Back After Baby!'
You see, in today's celebrity narrative, just two kinds of desirable maternal female physiques exist: the adorable gestating one (with bellies called 'bumps' ) and its follow-up, the body that boomerangs back from birth possibly even better than before. Me? I'm currently stranded on an island like the one on Lost, only this one is inhabited exclusively by still-pudgy moms struggling to find their way back.
I am partly to blame for my own physical netherworld. As the editor of Us Weekly, covering the Suris and Shilohs of Hollywood for six years, I delivered what the young female audience wanted: cute moms and babies. So much so that Tom Wolfe once remarked, "The one thing that Us Weekly has done that's a great boost to the nation is, they've probably increased the birthrate. "
When the infant-industrial complex took hold during the economic boom of the aughts (around the time every mom in SoHo suddenly had a status symbol Bugaboo), the Olympian efforts that star moms from Gwyneth Paltrow to Gisele B�ndchen employed to get thin again seemed just Hollywood spectacle;their sideshow, not ours. Weight loss was female entertainment.
But in the same way that gray hair went from natural to unacceptable in part because of Clairol's relentless marketing in the 1960s, ubiquitous imaging of 'sexy' moms has rewired society's expectations. Tropical cultures have no native words for 'snow';ours used to be devoid of words to describe a sexual or sexy mother. Now, we have terms like 'yummy mummy' and 'cougar'.
On TV, June Cleaver and Roseanne have been replaced by Sofia Vergara's Gloria on Modern Family, Courteney Cox on Cougar Town and cocktail-swilling, Botox-frozen Real Housewives. At school drop-off, sweat pants have been banished, as Balenciaga bags and blowouts make every day seem like mommy dress-up. (Yes, I like to look nice, too, but there are only so many tricks I can pull off before 7. 30 am while packing lunchboxes. )
Lately, though, signs are showing that this 1 per cent of lucky mothers with the time, money and good genes to be skinny in their skinny jeans have informed our judgment of the other 99 in a sort of trickle-down mean-girls effect. Shortly after People magazine put Beyoncê on its cover this year, TMZ ran photos of the actress Bryce Dallas Howard with her 4-month-old daughter, Beatrice, for no reason - except, perhaps, to let readers verbally stone her.
"Her next role is Mama Cass, " said one. Said another, "1 word=LAXATIVES!!! STAT!!!"In total, the post about a respected actress, who had earlier poignantly written about her postpartum depression and 80-pound gain from her first pregnancy, racked up 297 comments (and counting).
Jessica Simpson, whose 70-pound gain during her recent pregnancy hasn't quite reversed course, also is in the eye of a schadenfreude storm. Last month, she said, "After you have your baby, it's like, 'Oh, my God, what happened to my body?'"
The Bollywood beauty Aishwarya Rai, six months after giving birth, was featured in a much-viewed YouTube video entitled Shocking! Fat Aishwarya Rai! that juxtaposed before-andafter photos against the sounds of an elephant (some news media blamed 'Western values' for the uncivilised pile-on ).
Even the actress Hilary Duff discovered that her Twitter account was brimming with nasty remarks after she gave birth in the spring. "I read comments on my Twitter page about how I'm waddling into Pilates and I go: 'Wow, that's a really mean thing to say. I just had a baby three weeks ago!', " she said.
So what are we Pudge Island inhabitants to do? Of course, I am all for looking great, feeling good and getting skinny. There is no virtue in letting oneself go after giving birth. And let's face it: celebrities aren't always terrible examples;many eat well, exercise and dress far cuter than we do. They've learned how to pull it together, so much so that I wrote a new book filled with simple advice from their stylists, makeup artists and trainers.
We all can learn a little from people whose profession is to be attractive. If our livelihood depended on wearing a swimsuit in front of millions, we'd probably put down the doughnut too.
Still, our tendency toward these extremes makes us a self-loathing bunch. We play into the conflicts of Madonnas versus Whores, Working Moms versus Stay-at-Homes, Bettys versus Veronicas.
And now we have Fab Moms versus Flab Moms. Did you look like Heidi Klum before having children? No? That's okay. But if you don't look like a supermodel after having children, maybe you just aren't trying hard enough.
The recent 'Are You Mom Enough?' cover of Time magazine was either the apex or nadir of all our current mama drama. If it wasn't enough to get creeped out hearing grown men express envy of the breast-feeding 4-year-old boy latched onto his attractive mother, the question posed on the cover seemed to encompass not only the article's attachment parenting debate, but also the self-doubt that all mothers perpetually face.
While the men in our lives become wrinkly, lose hair, hide guts under stained shirts and comfortably watch TV while the children are crying, women fret when the milk isn't organic, check every toy for bisphenol A - and now, try to look 30 and slim, erasing any trace that our bodies gave birth. It's like our helicopter parenting (with nowhere else to go) has turned inward.
I've found it illuminating, having given birth to my third child, to see how times have changed. Not as many people I run into as I would expect ask to see baby photos, or ask what kind of designer stroller or crib I bought (those questions are so pre-2008).
Instead, I've noticed an unconscious reflexive once-over from others' eyes, looking to see if I'm 'back' to my old body or how my weight is faring. In the way men can't help but check out a woman's cleavage, women glance repeatedly at my midsection. From behind, I'm guessing there is a rear-end assessment as well. If we saw this behavior in chimps, Dr Jane Goodall would likely say it was the animals' way of assessing pecking order.
Yes, we are a looks-obsessed culture. One of our greatest virtues as humans is our desire to constantly improve. But in the same way that women can have it all, the notion that instantly stick-thin figures after birth are normal is untrue. Sometimes, in my sleep-deprived nights, I ponder our ideal of this near-emaciated, sexy and well-dressed Frankenmom we've created and wonder how to undo her. Even just a little bit.
Not only for the pressure to let up on me, and you, but also perhaps so my little baby girl can one day love her own children, too, without hating her body at the same time.
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