The Time cover and our mom anxieties

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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So Time really wanted to sell some magazines. Can you imagine an image more provocative than a three-year-old child with his mouth around the nipple of his young, fit, attractive 26-year-old mother — or at least an image that’s that provocative without also being straight up pornographic?

The picture captures a whole range of hotly controversial topics, from public breastfeeding, to attachment parenting, to incest, to the arrested development of kids these days. But what’s truly revealing about Time‘s cover, and the controversy surrounding it, is not the age of the child. It’s our culture’s growing anxieties about moms and motherhood. Showing off that you’re a mom or that your body is preparing to become one is taboo.

Even in Hollywood, with all of its sex and violence, such things are off-limits for the screen. “Hollywood’s Last Taboo,” we’re told, is depicting scenes of childbirth on the screen: “Sex, violence and language are one thing; showing babies being born is quite another.”

Like the straight-talking pregnancy manual “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the movie of the same name deals explicitly with gas, hemorrhoids, vomiting, intense labor pain and epidurals. What the film, starring Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks and Chris Rock, conspicuously doesn’t show in any detail: babies being born.

“What to Expect” steers clear of the blood and gore of labor, but other recent films that were more explicit shocked their audiences:

Two films that pushed: Last year’s “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1” (PG-13) depicted Bella giving birth to a half-vampire baby: the scene reportedly induced seizures in some viewers. In 2007, the R-rated “Knocked Up” portrayed a baby crowning for comedic effect. Some studio executives wanted to excise that scene, but director Judd Apatow fought for it, especially after early screenings. “There are three different cuts to that shot,” recalls Clayton Townsend, one of the producers. “I remember vividly the repeated gasps from the audience three times — ‘Oh, oh, OH!’ … Judd [was] a little bit like, ‘Yep, that was what I was going for.'”

OK, so childbirth and breastfeeding are not appetizing to watch, whether it’s happening on the cover of Time or in a Judd Apatow movie. But were these aspects of womanhood always as taboo as they are today, or is it only a recent development in the history of our culture? The history of art (and feminism) suggests that it’s a very recent development. I doubt that this statue of Isis nursing Horus, housed in the Louvre, raised eyebrows or shocked its onlookers when it was created in 664-332 BC. Actually, Isis was the goddess of the dead and of rebirth, and this statue was used in its time for religious and/or funerary purposes. People worshiped it. They certainly didn’t view it with disdain as people do the Time mom today.

Modern society has turned women into control freaks as they try to manage the demands of their two lives: private-familial and public-career. The revulsion to birth and public breastfeeding — to motherhood in the flesh, so to speak — is, in my opinion, coming from a place of alienation and fear. We are alienated from our true nature as women and we fear those things that we can’t control in our lives, like the biological and hormonal changes of pregnancy and menstruation (yet another cultural taboo). Though women in the West have become increasingly liberated in the social and political sense, there is still one large, vast, all-consuming entity that we will never be able to liberate ourselves from: Nature.

From the ancient earth-goddess cults that go as far back as the Paleolithic period to more modern and bland representations of “Mother Nature,” womanliness and nature have always been indissolubly bound. The fertility of the earth and the fertility of women were considered part of the same life-giving process. Think again of Isis, the goddess of rebirth, suckling her son. Fertility was celebrated in art by accentuating the distinctively female parts of the body. The Venus of Willendorf (24,000-22,000 BC) is a perfect example, but there are many, many others:

Today, the Venus of Willendorf would be criticized as obese. Until very recently, women who were big and ample in those parts of the body associated with childbirth — the breasts, the hips, the belly, the area around our sexual organs — were the paragons of beauty. As late as the Victorian period, the ideal of female beauty was still a big-busted, curvaceous, healthy-looking woman.

This ideal of female beauty started to change in the twentieth century. In their quest to become more like men, women embraced a more masculine style, even toying with drag on occasion, as Marlene Dietrich did and others continue to do. Three years before Betty Friedan declared that a “woman is handicapped by her sex” in The Feminine Mystique (1963), the FDA approved birth control pills for public consumption, freeing women, somewhat, of the biological imperatives of her body. In the decades between then and now, the female aesthetic changed dramatically. Our supermodels today are considered beautiful for embodying the very opposite of the fertility ideal. Kate Moss, who has been on at least 30 Vogue covers, is skinny to the point of being androgynous and sickly looking. She has no hips to speak of, her chest is flat, and her stomach is tiny. This is not a sexy or sensual depiction of womanliness. Our anorexic models today are, in fact, completely sexless.

We live in a world where women are getting married later and later, where they can take birth control pills to regulate their periods and pregnancies, where their careers are overtaking their families as the primary objects of affection in their lives — a world, in short, that feminism has created. Images that epitomize motherhood and womanliness have become deeply disturbing to us in this world because we’re estranged from the natural processes of womanhood. Bearing children is not only what differentiates women from men, but is the very essence of womanhood. We should be celebrating this essence rather than hiding it beneath the sterility of white starched hospital sheets and starving it off of our bodies.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.