Motherhood is being rebranded, eschewing the soft and passive in favor of the candid and bold.
Survey the covers of fashion magazines, entertainment platforms, brand campaigns and catwalks; there’s a new trend emerging—and it’s bump-shaped. Unabashed and extended breastfeeding is featured in frank display; unruly, proud, pregnant covergirls put their bumps on show; there are real and raw portrayals of motherhood that reject the reductive notion of mothers as passive caregivers and turn to a language of bold empowerment. Motherhood, in all its aspects, is being embraced by fashion, influencers and entertainers, while its appearance is also reframed for younger female audiences with a new lens.
Audiences cheered as Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Mara Martin walked the runway this summer in Miami in a glittery gold bikini while breastfeeding her five-month-old-daughter Aria. Asked about her choice to nurse unapologetically, Martin told Harper’s Bazaar, “Breastfeeding is a natural thing and has become such a normal part of my daily life the past five months that I didn’t really think anything of it when I decided to walk out.” Martin’s shame-free and matter-of-fact approach to feeding her child is part of a larger cultural shift to #normalizebreastfeeding and celebrate #motherhoodunfiltered, one that’s been gaining momentum in the media and pop culture.
There are other examples, from the celebrated Gap ad featuring a mother casually nursing her toddler to tennis powerhouse Serena Williams talking breastfeeding woes in Time magazine to Elvie launching a wearable breast pump on the runway at London Fashion Week. Rihanna’s pregnant muse Slick Woods graced the July 2018 cover of Elle and also took to the runway for the New York Fashion Week Savage x Fenty lingerie show, alongside another heavily pregnant model. Strong mothers are defying traditional gender roles, opening up about their challenges, and taking charge.
Frank dialogue about juggling motherhood and work is also hitting center stage. In reaction to the many mothers on the court at Wimbledon, one Reuter’s headline exclaimed, “Mamma Mia! It’s a mum’s world at Wimbledon.” In her fourth tournament since giving birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian in September 2017 and suffering life-threatening postpartum health complications, Serena Williams reached the finals with a history-making comeback. While it’s hard to imagine the world-class athlete navigating the same emotional hurdles as mere mortals, in her Time cover story, she shares her work/life balance challenges, as well as her reluctant choice to stop nursing after eight months in order to get her body back into fighting shape.
“You have the power to sustain the life that God gave her,” Williams says, of the emotionally and physically nourishing bond that accompanies breastfeeding. “You have the power to make her happy, to calm her. At any other time in your life, you don’t have this magical superpower.” By speaking candidly about her own journey, Williams contributes to a modern and evolving dialogue about motherhood—one that embraces its many ambivalences and complexities.
Model and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen is another prominent voice in the cool mom movement who is sharing frank portrayals of motherhood. She frequently populates her Twitter feed with harrowing experiences navigating postpartum depression (PPD) and perineal tears (very common—but Google at your own risk). The unofficial mascot of motherhood unfiltered, Teigen’s uncensored musings include Instagrams of pumping in the car on date night, breastfeeding her daughter’s baby doll, and rocking those infamous hospital-grade mesh diapers. Her posts are paving the way for honest discussions about the less glowing side of childbirth and pregnancy.
And speaking of those mesh diapers, comedian Ali Wong, who performed while over seven months pregnant in her breakthrough Netflix special “Baby Cobra” and again in the sequel “Hard Knock Wife,” has trailblazed a new genre of taboo-tackling comedy—one that both sexualizes and politicizes motherhood and puts the “bad” in badass mama. “I didn’t understand that the whole price you had to pay for staying at home is that you gotta be a mom,” she jabs, referring to the far-from-competitive benefits that accompany the “wack-ass job” of being a SAHM (stay-at-home mom). “You’re just in solitary confinement all day long with this human Tamagotchi that don’t got no reset button. So the stakes are extremely high.” With her biting commentary on breadwinning and breastfeeding, Wong is normalizing the ambivalence and anxiety that so many mothers have previously had to face silently.
Motherhood under the lens
In her 2018 TED Talk, reproductive psychiatrist and New York Times columnist Alexandra Sacks uses the term “matrescence” as a new way of understanding the fraught transition into motherhood—specifically, the physical and psychological shift that’s previously been little explored and underestimated by the modern medical community and that destabilizes many new moms. She explains that when a baby is born, a mother is too, “both unsteady in their own way.” Yet, so often, she writes, “people expect you to be happy while you’re losing control over the way you look and feel.” In her work, Sacks aims to untaboo and validate the emotional rollercoaster of “worry, disappointment, guilt, competition, frustration, and even anger and fear” that is commonly felt by new moms—and to burst the deceptive myth of new-mom bliss that makes so many feel as though they’re doing it all wrong.
While many are celebrating this heightened visibility of motherhood as a step forward, journalist Elisabeth Egan worries that it means forgoing equality in favor of veneration. She writes that that, while she’s proud to see so much maternal realness in pages and on screens, she’s more interested in seeing substantive change and policy that improves the lives of all parents.
“I don’t need to be fawned over. I don’t need anyone to tell me how hard I work or how honest I’m being about the hardships of raising kids. I need federally funded child care and ironclad government policies around paid family leave,” she writes in a Glamour essay titled “Motherhood Is Having a Moment—but I’m Not Loving It as Much as You’d Think.”
What this means for your brand: Frank portrayals of motherhood and the experience of motherhood are being embraced by celebrities and fashion brands alike. This open new dialogue follows the ‘frank feminism’ trend JWT Intelligence has charted, in which every aspect of women’s lives from menstruation to menopause is being discussed in a newly empowered, straight-talking, pithy way. Brands take note…