"Keeping It Real": Representations of Postnatal Bodies and Opportunities for Resistance and Transformation

Christina Amelia Rosa Malatzky



Contrary to popular understandings of academia, the work of academics is intrinsically community driven, because scholarly inquiry is invariably about social life. Therefore, what occupies academic scholarship is in the interest of the broader populace, and we rely on the public to inform our work. The findings of academic work are simultaneously a reflection of the researcher, and the public. The research interests of contemporary cultural and social researchers inevitably, and often necessarily, reflect issues and activities that they encounter in their everyday lives.

My own doctoral research into contemporary cultural discourses informing the expectations, and experiences of motherhood in regional Western Australia, reflects an academic, personal and community interest. The doctoral research drawn on in this paper, stresses the relevance of cultural research projects to the concerns and behaviours of the wider public. The enthusiasm with which participants responded to this project, and reported back about their feelings and actions following the interview was unexpected. The immediacy of the impact this project has had on assisting women to create and consider alternate discourses demonstrates the capacity of this work to inform and direct contemporary social, political and cultural debates surrounding the bodily expectations, and experiences of motherhood.

The feminist inspired methodology adopted in this project facilitated my speaking to other women negotiating cultural ideals about what constitutes a "good mother" in contemporary regional Western Australia. It has the potential to open up conversations between women, and between women and men, as evidenced by subsequent responses from participants. By examining the impact of these cultural ideals with everyday women, this project provides a means for women, and men, to reflect, engage critically and ultimately re-shape these discourses to more accurately reveal the desires and aspirations of everyday Australian women.

From my perspective, three discourses in particular, the Good Mother, the Superwoman, and the Yummy Mummy, inform the expectations and experiences of motherhood. The orthodox discourse of the 'Good Mother' understands motherhood as a natural feminine desire and it describes characteristics such as enduring love, care, patience and selflessness that are often presented as synonymous with motherhood. Women who can successfully juggle the expectations of being a 'good mother' and a dedicated professional worker, are 'superwomen'. Increasingly dominant is the expectation that following maternity, women should not look as if they have had a child at all; the discourse of the Yummy Mummy focused on in this paper. 

The relationships between these discourses are complex; "failure to perform" them adequately can result in women being labelled "bad mothers", either by themselves or others. Although these discourses are Western and globalising, they have a tangible effect locally. The cultural scripts they proscribe to are often contradictory; resulting in many women feeling conflicted. Despite some levels of critical engagement with these competing cultural agendas, the women in this study reflected, to differing degrees, their internalisation of the expectations that accompany these cultural scripts.

The outcome of this work, and the process of producing it, has the capacity to influence the direction of current debates in Australia. Amongst others, the debate surrounding the contemporary cultural "presentation" of postnatal bodies, including what women should look like as mothers. The role of the media in shaping the current expectations surrounding the postnatal body, including the recently raised proposal that glossy magazines, and other forms of media, should have to declare incidences of Photoshopping, or other forms of photo enhancement, is one agenda that this project can influence. I explore the potential of this work to influence these debates through an examination of the impact of popularised fantasies on women's subjectivity, and feelings towards their postnatal bodies. An examination of the ways that some aspects of mothering are excluded from popular media sources highlights the capacity of this work to provide a practical means of sharing contemporary expectations and experiences of motherhood amongst women, those already mothering, and those intending to mother, and men. These debates have an impact on, and relevance for, the everyday lives of Australian women and men.

Feminist Methodologies: Opportunities to Foster Mutual Understanding and Recognition of Shared Experience

The motivating emphasis of feminist research is "women's lives and the questions they have about their own experiences" (Bloom 112). Consequently, a feminist methodology includes a concern with transformation and empowerment through the research practice (McRobbie, "Politics" 52). For Luff this reminds feminist researchers that their first duty is to "deal respectively with women's subjectivity, and indeed the inter-subjectivities of researcher and participants" (692). Olesen, in her account of feminist qualitative research, articulates that:

the researcher too, has attributes, characteristics, a history, and gender, class, race and social attributes that enter the researcher interaction … in light of the multiple positions, selves, and identities at play in the research process, the subjectivity of the researcher, as much as that of the researched, became foregrounded. (226-7)

This signifies for Olesen the indistinct boundary between researchers and researched (227), and for myself, signals the potential that feminist research praxis has for uniting the academic and broader, communities.      

According to Reinharz the interview has historically been the principle way in which feminists have pursued the active contribution of their participants in the construction of their research projects (Heyl 374). The research findings of this doctoral project are based on a series of interviews with nine intending to mother women, and twenty one already mothering women. The research questions were open-ended to allow participants to answer "in their own terms" (Jones 48). Participants were also encouraged to reflect on aspects of mothering, or plans to mother, that were most significant to them.

Following Oakley (49) and others (Bloom 11) argument that there can be no intimacy between researcher and participant without reciprocity, while I chose not to express my personal disagreement to any statements made by participants, I self-consciously chose to answer any questions that participants directed to me. I did not attempt to hide my personal empathy with many of their accounts, and allowed for email follow up. By doing my upmost to position myself as a "validating listener" rather than a scrutinising judge, I allowed the women to reflect on the fact that their feelings were not necessarily unusual or "abnormal", and did not make them "bad mothers". In this way, both the process, and the final product of this work can provide a practical means for women to share some of their feelings, which are often excluded, or in some cases, vilified (Arendell 1196; O'Donohoe 14), in popular media outlets. The outcome of this work can contribute to an alternate space for everyday women to "be real" with both other mothers, and intending to mother women, and contribute to discourses of motherhood.  

Unreal Imagery and the Postnatal Body: Possibilities for Communication and Alteration

Drawing on the principal example of the impact of unreal imagery, specifically images of airbrushed supermodels and celebrities, on the real experiences of motherhood by everyday Australian women, I propose that this project can foster further communications between intending to mother, and already mothering women, and their partners, about the realities, and misconceptions of motherhood; particularly, to share aspects of mothering that are excluded or marginalised in popular media representations. Through this process of validating the experiences of "real" everyday women, women, and men, can affect a break from, or at least critique, dominant discourses surrounding motherhood, and appreciate that there are a multiplicity of opinions, information, and ways of mothering.

A dominant aspect of the "unreal" surrounding motherhood concerns the body and what women are led to believe their bodies can, and indeed, should, look like, postnatal. Unsurprisingly, the women in my study associated this "unreal" with Hollywood representations, and the increasing plethora of celebrity mums they encounter in the media. As McRobbie has suggested, a popular front page image for various celebrity chasing weekly magazines is the Yummy Mummy, "who can squeeze into size six jeans a couple of weeks after giving birth, with the help of a personal trainer", an image that has provided the perfect foundation for marketing companies to promote the arena of maternity as the next central cultural performance in terms of femininity, in which "high maintenance pampering techniques, as well as a designer wardrobe" ("Yummy") are essential.

The majority of women in my study spoke about these images, and the messages they send. With few exceptions, the participants identified popular images surrounding mothering, and the expectations that accompany them, as unrealistic, and inaccurate. Several women reflected on the way that some aspects of their experience, which, in many cases, turned out to be shared experience, of mothering are excluded, or "hidden away", in popular media forms. For Rachel, popular media representations do not capture the "realness" of everyday experiences of motherhood:

I was looking at all these not so real people … Miranda Kerr like breast feeding with her red stiletto's on and her red lipstick and I'm just like right you've got your slippers on and your pyjamas on and you're lucky to brush your teeth by lunchtime … I don't think they want to keep it real … It's not all giggles and smiles; there is uncontrollable crying in the middle of the night because you don't know what's wrong with them and you find out the next day that they've got an ear infection. You know where's all that, they miss out all that, it's all about the beautiful sleeping babies and you know the glam mums. (Rachel, aged 33, mother of one)

The individual women involved in this study were personally implicated to differing degrees in these unreal images. For Penelope, these types of representations influenced her bodily expectations, and she identified this disjunction as the most significant in her mothering experience:

I expected to pop straight back into my pre-maternity size, that for me was the hugest thing actually, like you see these ladies who six weeks after they've had their baby, look as good as before sort of thing, no stretch marks or anything like and then I thought if they can do it, I can do it sort of thing and it didn't work like that. (Penelope, aged 36, mother of four)

Penelope's experience was not an unusual one, with the majority of women reporting similar feelings.

The findings of this study concur with the outcomes reported by a recent United Kingdom survey of 2000 women, which found that 82 per cent were unhappy with their postnatal bodies, 77 per cent were "shocked by the changes to their body", and, more than nine out of ten agreed that "celebrity mothers' dramatic weight loss 'puts immense and unwelcome pressure on ordinary mums" (O'Donohoe 9). This suggests that celebrity images, and the expectations that accompany them, are having a widespread effect in the Western world, resulting in many women experiencing a sense of loss when it comes to their bodies. They must "get their bodies back", and may experience shame over the unattainability of this goal, which appears to be readily achievable for other women. To appreciate the implications of these images, and the power relations involved, these effects need to be examined on the local, everyday level.

O'Donohoe discusses the role of magazines in funding this unreal imagery, and their fixation on high-profile Yummy Mummies, describing their coverage as "hyper-hypocritical" (9-10). On one hand, they play a leading role in the proliferation, promotion and reinforcement of the Yummy Mummy ideal, and the significant pressure this discourse places on women in the wider community. Whilst on the other hand they denigrate and vilify celebrity mums who are also increasingly pressured into this performance, labelling them as "weigh too thin" (cover of Famous magazine, Jan. 2011) and "too stressed to eat" (cover of OK magazine, June 2011).

Gill and Arthurs observe how:

the female celebrity body is under constant surveillance, policed for being too fat, too thin, having wrinkles or 'ugly hands' … 'ordinary' women's bodies are under similar scrutiny when they participate in the growing number of reality make-over shows in which … female participants are frequently humiliated and vilified. (444)

An observation by one of my participants suggests the implications of these media trends on the lives of everyday women, and suggests that everyday women are inscrutably aware of the lack of alternative discourses:

It's kind of like fashionable to talk about your body and what's wrong with it, it's not really, I don't know. You don't really say, check out, like god I've got good boobs and look at me, look how good I look. It's almost like, my boobs are sagging, or my bums too big, it's never anything really positive. (Daisy, aged 36, mother of two)

The "fashionable" nature of body surveillance is further supported by the vast majority of women in this study who reported such behaviour. A preoccupation with the body as a source of identity that emphasises self-surveillance, self-monitoring, and self-discipline (Gill 155) is a central component to neoliberalism, and the Yummy Mummy phenomenon. As O'Donohoe surmises, maternity now requires high maintenance (3). O'Donohoe comments on the concern this generates amongst some women regarding their weight gain, leading to some cases of infant malnutrition as a consequence of dieting whilst pregnant (9). Whilst this is an extreme example, mothering women's anxiety over body image is a widespread concern as reflected in this study.

This trend towards body surveillance suggests that the type of sexualisation Attwood describes as taking place in Western cultures, is present and influential amongst the women in this study. I concur with Attwood that this trend is supplementary to the intensification of neoliberalism, in which "the individual becomes a self-regulating unit in society" (xxiii). The body as a key site for identity construction, acts as a canvas, on which the cultural trend towards increasing sexualisation, is printed, and has implications for both feminine and maternal identities.

The women in this study reported high incidences of body self-surveillance, with an emphasis on the monitoring of "weight". For many women, the disjuncture between the popularised "unreal", and the reality of their postnatal bodies resulted in feelings of shock and disappointment.  For Teal, positive feelings and self-esteem were connected to her weight, and she discussed how she had to restrict weighing herself to once a week, at a particular time of day, to avoid distress:

I'm trying to make it that I don't go on the scales, just once and week and like in the morning, because like I go at different times and like your weight does change a little bit during the day and your oh my goodness I've put on kilo! And feel awful and then next morning you weigh yourself and go good its back. (Teal, aged 25, mother of one)

According to Foucault (Sawicki, Disciplining 68), the practice of self-surveillance teaches individuals to monitor themselves, and is one of the key normative operations of biopower, a process that attaches individuals to their identities. The habitual approach to weight monitoring by many of the women in this study suggests that the Yummy Mummy discourse is becoming incorporated into the identities of everyday mothering women, as a recognisable and dominant cultural script to perform, to differing degrees, and to varying grades of consciousness. A number of participants in this study worked in the fitness industry, and whilst I expected them to be more concerned about their bodies postnatal, because of the pressures they face in their workplaces to "look the part", the education they receive about their bodies gave them a realistic idea of what individual women can achieve, and they were among the most critical of weight monitoring practices.

As several feminist and poststructuralist theorists suggest, disciplinary practices, such as self-surveillance, both underscore, and contribute to, contemporary cultural definitions of femininity. From a Foucauldian perspective, a woman in this context becomes "a self-policing subject, self-committed to a relentless self-surveillance" (Hekman 275). However, although for Foucault, total liberation is impossible, some parts of social life are more vulnerable to criticism than others, and we can change particular normalising practices (165). Creating alternate mothering discourses is one way to achieve this, and some women did reflect critically on these types of self-policing behaviours. 

A minority of women in this study recognised their body as "different" to before they had children. Rather than agonise over these changes, they accepted them as part of where they are in their lives right now:

I'm not the same person that I was then, its different, I like I just sort of feel that change is good, it's okay to be different, it's okay for me look different, it's okay for my body to kind of wear my motherhood badges that's okay I feel happy about that.  So I don't want it to look exactly the same, no I don't actually. (Corinne, aged 33, mother of four)

As many of the women who have been in email contact with me since their interviews have expressed, the questions I asked have prompted them to reflect more consciously on many of these issues, and for some, to have conversations with loved ones. For me, this demonstrates that this project has assisted women, and the process of taking part has elicited conversations between more women, and importantly, between women and men, about these types of media representations, and the expectations they create. 

In response to a growing body of research into the effects of unrealistic imagery on women, particularly young women and the increasing rates of eating disorders amongst women (see for example Hudson et al.; Taylor et al.; Treasure) in Western communities, there has been debate in a number of Western countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Australia, over whether the practice of digitally altering photos in the media, should be legislated so that media outlets are required to declare when and how images have been altered. The media has not greeted this suggestion warmly. In response to calls for legislative action Jill Wanless, an associate editor at Look magazine, suggested that "sometimes readers want hyper-reality in a way—they want to be taken out of their own situation".

The justification for "perfected" images, in this case, is the inferred distinction they create between the unreal and reality. However, the responses from the everyday women involved in this study suggest that their desire is not for "hyper reality", but rather for "realness" to be represented. As Corinne explains:

Where's the mother on the front page of the magazine that says I took 11 months to lose my baby weight…I hate this fantasy world, where's the reality, where's our real mums, our real women who are out there going I agonise over dropping my kid in day care everyday when they cry, I hate it. That's real.

Performativity, as an inextricable aspect of hyper reality, may be ignored by those with a vested interest in media production, but the roles that discourses such as the Yummy Mummy have in proliferating and creating the expectation of these performances, is of interest to both the community and cultural theorists. 


The capacity to influence current cultural, political and social debates surrounding what women should look like as mothers in contemporary Western Australian society is important to explore. Using feminist methodologies in such work provides an opportunity to unite the academic and broader communities. By disassembling the boundary between researcher and researched, it is possible to encourage mutual understanding and the recognition of mutual experience amongst researcher, participants' and the wider community. Taking part in this research has elicited conversations between women, and men concerning their expectations, and experiences of parenthood. Most importantly, the outcome of this work has reflected a desire by local everyday women for the media to include their stories in the broader presentation of motherhood. In this sense, this project has, and can further, assist women in sharing aspects of their experiences that are frequently excluded from popular media representations, and present the multiplicity of mothering experiences, and what being a "good mother" can entail. 


I would like to sincerely thank the following for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this article: Dr Kathryn Trees, Yann Toussaint, Linda Warren and the anonymous M/C Journal reviewers.


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feminist research; postnatal bodies; yummy mummy; media representations

Copyright (c) 2011 Christina Amelia Rosa Malatzky

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