Are weeks-old celebrity moms with flat abs and slimmed-down physiques promoting self-care, or depressingly unrealistic beauty standards? It’s an age-old question, one that re-surfaces every time a Victoria’s Secret Angel shows up on the catwalk weeks after birth, or an actress “debuts” a familiarly slinky post-pregnancy look. When it comes to Fergie’s new, tongue-in-cheek song and music video “MILF$,” released over the July 4th weekend, feminist-minded media types have settled on the latter—adding a dollar sign to an old, sexist acronym is probably not doing anything useful for women.
A brief summary of the video, in case you haven’t seen it yet: “MILF$” centers on a young, attractive milkman who has ventured into a strange world called “Milfville,” where strong women work and play. Fergie stars, as do a squad of models and actresses including Kim Kardashian, Ciara, Gemma Ward, Chrissy Teigen, and Alexandra Ambrosio, who are depicted alternately doing yoga, clipping hedges, and selling real estate. In the song (and accompanying Instagram account), Fergie has changed the MILF acronym to “Mother I’d Like to Follow”—a gesture of celebrating powerful women on social media and, as she told Entertainment Weekly, “empowering women who did it all.”
Journalists aren’t buying it, given that the video shows women posing in various states of undress, some seductively pouring milk over their bodies. “Female hotness is the only thing at stake,” Elissa Strauss wrote in Slate. Similarly, For Every Mom pointed out that the focus on the women’s bodies wasn’t exactly a subversion of the acronym: The video’s depiction of mothers grinding and shimmying in bikinis and lingerie recalls the original definition of MILF—not Fergie’s Instagram-era model.
The video’s critics have a point, given that the MILF template has historically been the slim, Pilates- and yoga-practicing, nutrition-minded mom—an exclusive, highly labor-inducive beauty standard that Fergie and her squad embody. (Fox talk show host Wendy Williams, for her part, shot back at the “MILF$” critics by speculating the criticisms came from jealous moms who hadn’t lost “that last 20 lbs.”)
For years the MILF label has also been repurposed by women to promote empowering messages: Tori Amos incorporated it in a song to celebrate 40-something women who feel sexy; the lingerie brand True&Co used it in a wholesome campaign about bras that fit moms, and Jessica Porter had deployed the acronym to promote a “diet” based in “natural” foods like whole grains and sea vegetables (something Fergie does, too, when she shows up as a substitute teacher in the video teaching a “nutrition” class). The popularity of MILF fantasies has even purportedly led to more employment opportunities for older female porn stars.
But what about ordinary women? Do they find celebrity women-driven MILF reclamations like “MILF$” empowering? Or do postpartum celebs with toned bodies and nutrition agendas just give busy moms the sinking feeling that they should attend to more unpaid work—namely, on their post-baby bodies?
The research offers a surprising in-between response: Images of slim, famous moms aren’t good for regular ones’ self-esteem, but they aren’t tanking it either. New moms’ real-world social networks, though, might be.
You don’t need to be a scholar to recognize that celebrity culture doesn’t exactly offer moms the most realistic vision of the post-baby body. And yet researchers, bless them, have revealed precisely to what extent mommy spreads are peddling fiction to the general populace.
According to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University who analyzed three entertainment magazine websites, the media’s tone of pregnancy weight-gain coverage was either negative or neutral, while only a minute percent of coverage of postpartum life (6.2 percent) covered body image dissatisfaction. This, in spite of the fact that the Mayo Clinic recommends that a woman of normal weight gain 25 to 35 pounds over the course of her pregnancy and lose only one postpartum pound per week after pregnancy. A woman’s dissatisfaction with her body, moreover, tends to climb after pregnancy, and reach its height around nine months after birth. Most women aren’t Heidi Klum, who (perhaps you recall the coverage?) walked the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show a mere five weeks after the birth of a fourth child.
But are unrealistic celebrity “bounce-backs” hurting women’s self-esteem? Researchers who interviewed several postpartum women on Victoria Beckham’s post-pregnancy weight loss for a forthcoming study reported in 2012 that women reported not paying much attention to celebrity weight loss. “The women acknowledged that celebrities have access to wider resources… and thus expecting celebrity weight loss was deemed unrealistic,” the researchers write.
Studies with larger sample sizes have supported the notion that women aren’t paying as much attention as journalists may fear. A study of 48 Canadian women in 2015 found that most respondents dismissed celebrity weight loss as unattainable to women like themselves, while another found that women’s attitudes toward their pregnancy weight gains were more likely to be influenced by their sisters than by celebrities.
Which is all to say: Women aren’t stupid. They know there’s a whole production team behind images of slimmed-down celebrity mothers that personal trainers, dietitians, personal chefs, time, and money are all in part responsible for. In the age of Instagram, celebs are quite explicit about that: Kardashian, whose waist is so tiny in one screen grab in the “MILF$” video that some accused the producers of Photoshopping it, swears by a grueling daily workout. As she posted to Snapchat in June, she runs four miles a day, does planks, push-ups, and 1,000 jump ropes. To achieve that waist in the video, she also wore a corset. Oof.
When compelled to stare at images of super-thin celebs, though, we’re always going to feel a tad sheepish. One study looking into how real pregnant women respond to images of famous moms-to-be found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that women tend to self-objectify more when viewing celebs than control images. And women who are concerned about weight gain during their pregnancy tend to focus more on this kind of coverage, according to one 2014 study, which isn’t good.
“Arguably media and marketing efforts that promote or focus on pregnant celebrities’ activities in regard to unhealthy or unrealistic control over the pregnant body may play an important part in fostering poorer outcomes for both mother and baby,” the researchers write.
And yet, for most of us, postpartum celebrity bodies aren’t to blame so much as their antecedents. In the analysis of pregnant women’s views of pregnant celebrity images, women got more self-conscious when they saw images of celebrities’ faces rather than their pregnant bodies. Why? Probably because we associate those faces with super-thin figures, childbearing status aside.
“Images of thin, toned, and sculpted celebrity bodies are so prevalent in our culture and these bodies are so frequently objectified by the media,” the researchers explain, “that it is likely just seeing their heads triggered these women to visualize images of these celebrities’ bodies that they had previously been exposed to.”
This veneration of thinness is, of course, culturally entrenched, and the pressure to be thin isn’t exclusive to celebrities. That’s probably why, for most women, it’s actually images of regular women who have slimmed down post-pregnancy that tank their self-esteem. Social media—Facebook and online forums—perturbed women more than slimmed-down new celebrities, according to the Canadian study. The appearance—online and in person—of women like themselves, who had babies but were thin, put pressure on women to get ‘in shape,’” the authors write.
The pressure that regular, but also highly active, women put on others to get back in shape on social media receives perhaps a tad less media attention, but is no less daunting for regular moms. A brief look through Instagram hashtags like #postpartum, #postpartumfitness, and #postpartumbody show that Fergie and Kardashian aren’t the only ones participating in grueling baby fitness regimens. Clinical psychologist Jo Lamble has said that these omnipresent images of washboard abs and moms carrying their children in sports bras makes some women feel like they are “failing.” Real-world MILF$ are probably doing less for women’s self-conceptions than Fergie and friends.
That said, moms we follow aren’t all promoting unrealistic beauty ideals. Several recent projects, both native to social media and simply heavily shared, have sought to adjust the West’s beautiful-mother ideal. Photographer Liliana Taboas, for instance, shares photographs of mothers of all shapes and sizes in her widely covered photo series “Divine Mothering.” Meanwhile, the Instagram handles takebackpostpartum and youraveragemama celebrate images of stretch marks and natural weight as beautiful features to highlight, rather than flaws to be Photoshopped. These accounts are expanding conceptions of postpartum beauty, not just aesthetically, but also racially and socioeconomically. The women featured therein aren’t primarily posing in the gym or with fancy sports equipment, but at home, at the grocery store, and in restaurants. Even a brief scroll through these postpartum projects shows that, perhaps not surprisingly, with situational diversity also comes racial diversity.
That’s no ding on Fergie, whose video stars some women of color, and whose suburban Milfville is, while entrenchedly middle-class, something of an intersectional subversion of a ’50s fantasy. In Fergie’s slice of white-bread Americana, women dominate both professionally and domestically; they work in jerseys and gold chains as well as Eisenhower-era A-line skirts. But the empowerment project only goes halfway: If Fergie wanted to radically subvert the MILF label, she could have ditched the models for some regular moms. Showing the many ways in which postpartum women are beautiful, irrespective of money, access, and social class, would have truly broken with MILF tradition.