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Is the "hot moms movement" a sign of progress?

By Kathleen Furin

I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded person, but I was still shocked when a friend of mine referred to me as a "MILF." "You know," she said. "Mother I'd Like to -- fill-in-the-blank."

I didn't know, but part of me was strangely relieved that mothers are, suddenly, considered fuckable. For so long in the eyes of popular culture, mothers have been regarded as washed out, dried up, useless for anything except caring for our kids. The pregnant belly was something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden under swaths of ugly fabric so that everyone could pretend that the woman with the belly didn't actually have sex (at least once). The myth was that once you became a mother you gave up caring about anything other than your children, and your sexual needs and desires were the first things to go. That, and your good looks -- if you had them in the first place.

Today, everything mom is "hot." Whether it is Tori Spelling baring practically all of her post-partum bod, the proliferation of pornographic websites featuring "MILFs," or TV shows, books, products, and magazine covers devoted to the new hot moms, hotness is the new must-have for the maternal set.

But is that such a great thing for women? At first glance, the MILF phenomenon seems pretty liberating. Finally, we can be moms and be sexy, too -- and bare our pregnant bellies (or take pole dancing classes) to our hearts' content. We can be moms who are women first -- women who are not only free to express the vibrancy of our sexual selves, but actually sought after.

On the other hand, haven't I spent most of my adult life rejecting labels in favor of self-definition? Is it possible that the hot mom craze is just another way to put women into boxes, and to make women who are not "hot," or don't feel "hot," feel lousy about it? The word "hot" itself implies an external standard -- an assessment of desirability made by a subjective observer. Enduring a culture of judgment has been the hallmark of modern motherhood -- and today's moms are sized-up as potentially deficient on every possible measure: epidural or no, breast or bottle, work or not, sleep training or co-sleeping. It seems that no matter how our kids turn out, it's always our fault. Are we now to be judged for how hot -- or not -- we look while we fuck up the kids?

As Judith Stadtman Tucker of Mothers' Movement Online says, "it's a complex issue -- on the one hand, it feels like progress that mothers are able to see themselves (and are seen as) sexually attractive women, but in order to do that we have to conform to the cultural standard of what sexy looks like, which means having a certain kind of body type and dressing a certain way that tilts toward what men supposedly like and admire, rather than creating more opportunities for authentic self-expression as the sexual creatures that we are."

Yet some would argue that authentic self-expression is exactly what "hotness" is. Carrie Stevens, model, actress, and contributor to hotmomsclub.com, insists that the hot mama movement is all about self esteem. "It is a woman who is independent, and takes pride in herself, a woman who feels competent and is able to embrace who she is. It is not about looks, but more about attitude." We can all get behind that, I think, but then she acknowledges, "There is a piece of it that is about keeping yourself up. Motherhood doesn't have to be a 'frump sentence' anymore."

The fact that many of the women I spoke to contradicted themselves on this subject speaks to its complexity. Who doesn't want to love herself and feel competent? But the underlying message of the hot moms movement is reminiscent of mass-market magazines that promise to help you love yourself for who you are, but are chock-full of advertising and editorial content reinforcing the idea that you're not lovable enough without Botox, hair dye, and the latest designer jeans. Self-esteem, meet consumerism. Of course you should love yourself for who you are, you'll just be a better you after a starvation diet, plastic surgery, or shelling out for a $3,000 Balenciaga pocketbook.

Not too long ago, women who dressed provocatively or indicated an openess to sexual experience were considered unfit for motherhood. (While Stevens said she has never been judged for being a gorgeous mom, she has felt judged for being a single mom.) Stevens' article, "Sex and the Hot Mom: Sex Prep 101" describes the cosmetic preparations a single-mom friend takes in order to get laid. Coloring, bleaching, waxing, painting, tanning, plucking -- $4,000 later and she feels fuckable. Even vaginal cosmetic surgery can be part of the bargain. The human race would have never survived if attracting a responsive sex partner was meant to be this complicated.

It's possible that the identity shifts inherent in the transition to motherhood make mothers even more vulnerable to culturally-defined messages of what makes women attractive and how to acquire it. Motherhood involves profound changes -- psychological and emotional, as well as physical -- and our culture has not created authentic spaces for women to engage with these transformations gracefully. Rather, it promotes idealized views of motherhood and demonizes women (meaning, all women) who don't live up to that ideal at some time or another.

For some women, the "frump sentence" can be a reprieve -- a time and a space to reject or ignore unrealistic cultural ideals of female beauty and body image issues.  "Being hot is the last thing on my mind right now," says Liz Stroik, mother of a six-month old son. She laughs. "He's like, my little boyfriend," she says. "I am so much more interested in experiencing him, enjoying my time with him, and feeling what I feel than worrying about how I look or how others perceive me. Enjoying my relationship with him is totally liberating."

And maybe that's the disconnect here. Shouldn't women in this day and age care more about having authentic experiences than in presenting ourselves -- or being perceived in -- a certain way? And that is what Stevens would say. "Being a hot mom is about not having to behave, to keep up with the Joneses, rather it's about being your own kind of a mom, a fun mom, whatever your idea of a mom is, not everyone else's." And this redefining, claiming for ourselves what motherhood looks like and feels like, ultimately does seem empowering. But it's hard to separate it from the pornified celebrity culture in which the star-struck public is obsessed with Angelina's balloon-sized baby bump and whether Britney will ever lose the baby weight. And doesn't this just put more pressure on women, create a higher bar for maternal competence? Not so long ago, moms received high marks for organizing bake sales and keeping their families clean and well-cared for. Now we're expected to fit into slinky, size 2 jeans within weeks of giving birth.

"I really disagree with the whole idea of "hot moms," says Dr. Marci Weiner, psychologist at the Post-Partum Stress Center in Philadelphia. "You have to take care of the house, take care of the baby, have a career, and now you have to look great while you do it all? It really sets up unrealistic expectations and can have a very negative effect on a woman's sense of self. Most women don't have access to the personal trainers, plastic surgeons, fashion designers, and personal chefs which make this ideal seem attainable."

Are there links between post-partum depression and this new standard of motherhood? "Post-partum depression is a very complex interaction of biochemical, hormonal, and societal factors," says Weiner. "On its own, this probably wouldn't have a huge impact. But for women who are more vulnerable, yes, this could definitely play a role."

So how did we get here in the first place? Haven't mothers been sexual beings since the dawn of time? (As my friend says, those who think the average wife-and-mother lacks a healthy libido should ask any 1950s mailman.) I'm quite sure that women had both sexual needs and sexual relationships even before it became fashionable to do so. What's concerning about this trend is the focus on conformity to an external standard of what makes women look and feel sexy. Tucker points out a recent spate of lifestyle reporting on sexless marriages. Is it possible that women are putting time and energy into looking hot-hot-hot, and yet avoiding sexual intimacy their partners? If so, it's ultimately unhealthy for men and women both.

Tucker suggests the hot mama trend may have more to do with feeling included in mainstream culture than with getting it on. "This generation of women, more than any other, has had a place at the table in ways that past generations have not," says Tucker. Looking and acting hot is a way of saying "I am still part of this conversation, pay attention to me." In a very real way, motherhood does remove us from the powerful realm of the public world; being "hot" is a way to allow us to stay engaged with what is popular and dynamic.

"I think the whole thing can be summed up with the question, "Where are the hot dads?" says father and communications scholar Josh Lauer. "Why does motherhood have to be sexy if fatherhood doesn't? If I had to choose between two options -- empowerment vs. objectification -- I'd say that the hot mom trend definitely seems to lay an extra burden upon women. If some moms want to trade in their high-waisted cotton underwear and baggy jeans for thongs and hot pants, good for them. But you hardly hear similar clamoring for dads to spend more time at the gym or at the mall shopping for clothes to please their partner or spouse. You just don't."

"Mother I'd Like to Fuck? How about mother I'd like to do the laundry for, or share childcare with, or wash the dishes for? Mother I'd like to support in furthering her own career? Women are still not celebrated or recognized as strong entities that have contributed to the existence of the world or of men. We are only recognized for our beauty. No way is this about feminist empowerment -- it's another way to continue to oppress women. Now I can be sexy and be a mother? How about seeing me as an equal partner first? Then call me hot," says Mayra Lopez, a social worker in New York City and the mother of two.

"I think it is pathetic [to see a] whole spread in People magazine with Trista Sutter complaining about her post-partum body," says Weiner. "She tried to get pregnant forever, and now this is what she is focusing on? How about appreciating your son and your new family? I think we earn our grey hairs, our stretch marks, and we are going to age no matter what we do….this focus on the external is detrimental for all women."

"Maybe it's the word "hot" you're reacting to," my hot mom friend says. "Maybe passionate," I say. "Not as catchy," she says. But "passion" seems more like a word I would use to describe how I feel about my life as a woman and mother, rather than a label someone else might stick on me. Some women surrender fully to the changes and challenges of motherhood, losing pieces of themselves in the process, at least temporarily, while some do all they can to hold on to their former identities (and bodies). Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, and most feel a tension between our new role as mom and our old identity as whoever we once were. Why can't we accept all of these variations as valid ways to be a mother in the world? The rise of the hot moms' movement and the diversity of voices insisting that every woman has a right to define the meaning of motherhood for herself can only be a positive thing. But maybe being a mother does mean sitting at the kids' table for a while. When we can do that, "hot" or not, and still be respected as full members of society, then things will have changed for real.

mmo : april/may 2008

Kathleen Furin is the co-director of the Maternal Wellness Center in Philadelphia, PA (www.maternalwellness.org), which provides education, psychotherapy, and advocacy for pregnant women, mothers, and families. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, The Birthkit, the web edition of Philadelphia Stories, The Expectant Mother’s Guide, and is forthcoming in the Bucks County Writer, The Mother, and Midwifery Today.

Also on MMO:

In my real life: hanging on to Salsa
Being a mother is definitely the most important thing in my life. It’s just not the only thing in my life.
By Kathleen Furin

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