She's Not Heavy, She's a Mother

By Jill Hudson Neal
Special to
Tuesday, January 9, 2007; 2:15 PM

Here's a question: Can you be a cool mom if you're overweight? Is it possible to be hip while you're carrying around a wriggly toddler -- and 25 extra pounds on your rear end? Are you a happenin' mama if you're not as thin as you were B.C. (Before Children)? According to Hollywood, the answer is an emphatic no.

Whenever I leaf through a celebrity tabloid magazine like Us Weekly or Star, or do my daily scroll through a few favorite celebrity-obsessed blog sites like Dlisted, Pink is the New Blog  or Young, Black and Fabulous the proof's in the pictures. What we see is that the chicest, hippest, most glamorous celebrity moms out there -- the Angelinas, Madonnas and Gwyneths of the world -- are very thin. There are more than a few celeb moms who've slipped into way-too-skinny territory, but many of them look really great: slender, strong and fit. Of course, appearing spit-shined and camera-ready is a big part of their jobs, and these moms have all sorts of experts on the payroll who make the star's illusion of perfection seem effortless.

Still, seeing pictures of these ladies in bikinis or on the red carpet can make it hard on the rest of us. The steady stream of "helpful" stories about how the celeb mom-of-the-moment (Jada Pinkett Smith, Katie Holmes, Gwen Stefani) lost her pregnancy weight mere weeks after giving birth sting the most.  Isn't it nice to know that Gwyneth was able to wear her pre-pregnancy jeans home from the hospital? Surely you are better off knowing how many hours tiny Kate Hudson worked out to rid herself of those pesky 60 pounds she gained carrying her son? I once seriously contemplated ditching a pint of Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream after I saw a full-page photo of supermodel Heidi Klum walking the Victoria's Secret catwalk like, two days after giving birth to her second child.

Full-figured celebrity moms do exist in Hollywood -- Mo'Nique and Kirstie Alley come to mind -- but they aren't exactly on the paparazzi's "must get" list. Try to name ten A-list celebrity actresses, musicians or models who are more than five to 10 pounds away from their pre-pregnancy weight. And name five who aren't SKINNIER than before they gave birth. Go ahead. I'll wait.

I don't resent the celebs, really. The mainstream media has done an outstanding job in the past few years of creating (and exploiting) the Cult of the Celebrity Motherhood, with largely mixed results. Regular gals have been inspired by actresses like Sarah Jessica Parker, Vanessa Williams and Holly Robinson Peete to celebrate their own burgeoning bellies by wearing sexy, fashionable clothing and staying fit throughout their pregnancies. The pressure celebs must feel to kick their baby weight to the curb has got to be seriously intense. If I were a big star like Julia Roberts and a movie studio was paying me $20 million to be thin in time to start shooting a film, you best believe I'd be on somebody's treadmill wearing a Saran Wrap tracksuit, contemplating creative ways to prepare my delicious lettuce leaf dinner entree.

Like a lot of women, my weight has fluctuated through four dress sizes over the span of my adulthood. I've managed to lose the considerable amount of weight I gained with each of my pregnancies, but I, like almost every mom I know, still marvel at how much my body has changed after having kids. I can't count the number of times I've seen a girlfriend shake off a sincere compliment, lifting her shirt in protest, angrily grabbing hold of a handful of loose skin around the waist. No matter how good she looks or how much of the baby weight she's lost, somewhere way down in her lizard brain, that mom's id is probably whispering: "This weight's gotta come off. No one notices the Fat Mom." We all know that's a complete lie, but being overweight can seriously chip away at your self-image. It isn't enough that society demands that a good mother be nurturing and self-sacrificing; popular culture now mandates that she do it while maintaining the lush, nubile body of an 18-year-old Las Vegas stripper.

The reality is that once you have children, everything changes. Nothing's the same: your life, your time, your body. The old you gets snatched away in that delivery room and the effect can be disconcerting. Especially if your weight was an issue even before having children, says Erika Peterman, a successful 37-year-old magazine editor from Tallahassee, Fla. Her lifelong struggle to have a positive body image has only intensified now that she's a mom. "When you have kids, the demands on your time are so all-encompassing that it can be overwhelming," she says. "Losing weight becomes yet another thing to put on your long 'To Do' list. It's like, 'God, something ELSE to have to think about!'"

A self-described "chubby kid," Peterman candidly admits that her motivation "for wanting to lose weight is because I just don't want to look like the hag in the minivan. I know I'm supposed to say 'I'd like to lose weight so that I can be healthy and blah blah blah.' But your body does a lot of the presentation for you, and when you're on the heavy side, what's being presented may not be the real you.

"When you're heavy, it's hard to find the kind of clothes that express who I really am inside," adds Peterman, a married mother of two. "It's ironic that at age 37, I have a much more clearly defined sense of who I am. But it's incredibly frustrating to realize that so many of the clothes I like don't come in my size. I feel like I'm so much hipper than how I look.

"If you're fit and trim, you don't have to put as much work into what you put on. It's just a cruel, hard truth that transcends age, race and class, in my opinion. We can all whine that it's unfair and anti-feminist, but I think railing against that particular paradigm is kind of useless," she says.

Dr. Mary Anne Alexander, an internal medicine specialist who cares for members of Fairfax County, Va.'s police, sheriff and fire and rescue departments, believes it's almost impossible in this culture to be overweight and to feel good about yourself. "I think 99% of overweight people who say they're truly happy and completely fulfilled aren't telling the truth," she says. "Happiness comes from being able to truly say that you're taking care of your physical and emotional health. A lot of the heavier moms I see use the 'I don't have time' excuse (for not losing weight). That's a symptom of their refusal to recognize that making themselves a priority won't make them a bad mom.

"Leading a healthy, balanced lifestyle can lead to having a more positive self-image," says 40-year-old Alexander, a mother of two who ran the New York City Marathon last year after six months of intense training. "And if you're thinner because of your new attitude about your health, what's so bad about that? Being a hip mom comes from having a positive attitude about yourself, not because you're wearing the same clothes [as a Hollywood actress]."

Alexander also cautions overweight mothers to be mindful of the impact a negative self-image will have on their children, especially their daughters. "As a physician, I see that if a parent is overweight, it's almost guaranteed their children will be, too," she says. "Girls also need to see their moms take a very proactive approach to feeling good about themselves."

Peterman agrees. "I'm working hard to make sure that my issues with food and body image aren't going to be my daughter's issues, too. Despite the fact that I'd love to be smaller than I am, I have to consider the reality that that might not happen. I also don't want to project an idea of self-hatred," she says.

"Moms can define a happy medium for their kids," she concludes. "One of the best things we can do as parents is to be as healthy as possible so that we can be more engaged -- and that's a hip mom I'd like to know."

In the end, strong, fit moms are the coolest chicks out there. Not because they look like movie stars, but because they know they've taken the right steps toward a more balanced, happy life .

© 2007 The Washington Post Company