Mirror, Mirror:  Motherhood and Self-Image

When my 4-year-old daughter considers her reflection wearing her Sleeping Beauty costume, adjusts the tiara just so and smiles, she is clearly pleased. What do I see when I look in the mirror? I see a loosely assembled version of my former self: a woman in a T-shirt, hair pulled back in a ponytail, maybe a bit of lip gloss if I had extra time that morning. The image in the mirror does not lie. I’m still floating between my pre-pregnancy size and my post-partum reality.

Between the princess and the childbearing years, women’s self-image undergoes considerable change.  Generally, girls possess a positive self-image through the age of nine when external influences such as peers, media and society begin to affect their self-esteem. Whether obsessing over body image or self-identity, somewhere in early adolescence many women embark on a path of extreme self-scrutiny. After we become mothers, particularly if we choose to take time away from careers to be at home with children, we often face a double threat to our self-image.  Many of us find ourselves disliking our bodies and becoming unsure of our identities.

 

Body Image

Diet plans, fitness programs, personal trainers—one need only walk into the local bookstore to witness the health craze promoted through prominent displays of Atkins’ books and the South Beach Diet. Even Dr. Phil and Suzanne Somers have something fitness-related to share. Even so, two thirds of the American population are overweight, with roughly one third considered obese.

While America heaps on the pounds, the media continue to shave them off by portraying thinner, younger images. Today seven of 10 magazine models boast near skeletal images. The average American woman is five foot four and a size 12. This is in sharp contrast to top models like Gisele Bündchen who pack 115 waif-y pounds on a frame reaching over six feet in heels.

The media also feature increasingly more material about weight concerns and body image. For example, just over 10 years ago, Good Housekeeping covers did not have one line on dieting, yet in 2000 it ran 11 cover stories about dieting, two on a better body and one about looking younger. It’s hard to find a women’s periodical without a diet or health article, and this is true of parenting and home glossies, too.

Further contributing to the reality rift between burgeoning waistlines and slimmer ideals, barely teenage models dominate fashion ads, especially the high-end companies like Chanel or Gucci. Magazine cover models undergo rounds of computer alteration and photo magic to achieve these “ideals,” making computer technology and digital retouching protocol in the fashion industry. A teenager posing as a glamorous, sophisticated woman in her 20s distorts reality. Women in their 20s don’t look like teenagers, especially if the photos are retouched, shaved or stretched. Imagine how this makes women in their 30s or 40s feel.

This significant gap between reality and ideals has the potential to contribute more stress to the lives of women and mothers. Like all people, mothers come in varying shapes, sizes and body types and we need to recognize the media caricatures of beauty. So what can we do when faced with increasingly unreal “standards”? We can set reasonable goals, address weight problems and create a healthier lifestyle not only for ourselves but also for our families. Like so many things moms manage, we can assess our own level of fitness and commit to improvement if necessary. The good news about the proliferation of health and fitness related information is that resources for good health are everywhere (indeed, you can hardly escape them): books and periodicals, nutritionists, medical professionals, gyms, personal trainers, other moms and support groups like the Mothers & More Healthy Moms group.  By seeking a healthy lifestyle while rejecting society’s extremes, we can bolster our body image.

Identity

Body image is only one aspect of a mom’s self-image. Another major part of a woman’s self-image is her identity, or how she defines herself, and the value society places on this. Mothers continue to grapple with societal acceptance and judgments about our decision stay home or not stay home.  Our roles evolve with our life stages and cutting work hours or leaving the workplace to parent full time can affect the way we feel about ourselves. We no longer identify with our “work” and as related by Theresa Welles, mother and child psychologist, “Let’s face it, a paycheck and the respect of other adults gives a person a strong sense of value.” Conversely, the unpaid work of mothers appears to imply less value.  These things can significantly impact our feelings about who we are.

When asked the dreaded question, “And what do you do?” I say I’m home with my kids. Taking in the nonplussed reaction, I often follow with, “All three of them, ages 4 and under.” This appears to gain me a bit more empathy. As Michelle Emery, a member of North Tampa, FL Chapter 37, says, “Defining myself now is a multi-layered explanation that few people want to hear.”

There’s more here than just an exchange of words about what moms do. There are expectations based on education level, prior profession and value judgments about the choice to stay home. So we don’t just give our job titles anymore because we’re often no longer teachers or CPAs, but saying “mom” doesn’t seem to satisfy the person asking—or ourselves.

In her book Staying Home (co-authored with Darcie Sanders), former Forum Editor Martha Bullen stressed several key points about choosing to parent at home that help combat this shift in identity.  She encourages us to know what we want our jobs to be, acknowledge our skills and validate ourselves. Perhaps one mom enjoys home-based business, another community activism or focusing primarily on her family. The important thing is that each mom determines—and takes advantage of—her own talents and skills. Doing these things can help us to retain a positive sense of identity.

So what now?

We can start by recognizing the issues that affect our self-image and deal with them as best we can. Recognize the impossible ideals found in the media. Model and teach healthy living and eating to our children while educating them to recognize unrealistic media images. In addition to a healthy body image, we need to understand our own value, skills and influence so we can establish confidence and an identity based on a strong sense of physical, emotional and personal self.

I went to my book club tonight. After getting the kids ready and making dinner for my family, I had about 10 minutes for myself. I put on some pearls and nice pants, no time to do my hair but I neatened it up. Hurrying out the door, I glanced in the mirror. There was no Sleeping Beauty there, but there was a well-dressed woman, confident in who she is; a woman who is trying to make sure her self-image is not dependent on what others think about her, but on what she thinks of herself. 

MyLinh Shattan lives in Lutz, FL with her husband, Mark and three children: Cara 4, Davis 2 and Norah, 8 months. She’s a member of North Tampa, FL Chapter 37. A former army officer, human resources manager and college instructor, she cautiously approaches her most recent parenting adventure, hosting a princess ball for her daughter’s 5th birthday.

Resources:

Body Image, A Reality Check, Pamela Shires Sneddon

Spin Sisters, Myrna Blyth

Staying Home, Darcie Sanders and Martha M. Bullen

National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Childstats.gov

U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000.

Oct 5, 2004

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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