It is half-term, and we have been in Wales getting a sprinkling of half-arsed sunburn, in that northern-hemisphere kind of way. It was gorgeous and lovely, and we had excellent company. And I will get to that, but first. Here’s a funny little thing to post. You remember how I promised that it was very likely that I wouldn’t mention that Dove ad again? Well, it turns out I was LYING.
Because a thing happened about a week after it got aired. As I was googling the ad obsessively, with the kind of dogged dedication and sheer hard work that would have made me an honours student at Law School fo’ sho’, I came across an article in The New Statesman http://www.newstatesman.com/media/2014/05/dove-s-mother-s-body-ad-idealises-motherhood-exploit-women-s-bodies (still can’t hyperlink, obvs) which was all a bit ranting and so I drafted a response. And so, if you fancy a few pages on bodies and exploitation and hurt feelings and quite a lot of self-lovin’, then read on. It would be interesting to see if there is a debate to be had here. Do we all hate our bodies? Is this version of motherhood a dupe? Thoughts on an envelope, please.
A Mother’s Body – Mine
A few weeks weeks ago, I was shot for a new Dove ad with three of my small children as part of Dove’s wider ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. The ad, directed by Amanda Blue, was a kind of visual accompaniment to the words of UK poet and spoken-word artist Hollie McNish. Her poem was about, and in tribute to, a real mother’s body – and its stresses, aches, tendernesses, exhaustions, and beauty.
I was asked to be in the ad because I am a mother of five little boys, and my body bears the marks of pregnancies, births, breastfeeding, weight gain and loss. In short, they wanted authenticity, and my three kids and I could give them that. I felt really proud to be in the ad, and was made to feel beautiful, which is something that doesn’t happen all that often. My body became the focus. There were scenes where parts of my body show – a t-shirt riding up to expose my hips, my jeans tight on my stomach, still showing the signs of my last pregnancy in September, bare thighs and upper arms – bits that I sometimes feel like hiding. The camera just rolled.
The result is a short film of a few minutes, beautifully shot, edited tightly, focusing on many different parts of my body from my feet, to my skinned knees, to the muscles in my shoulders, following me interacting with my kids on a typical day. My body appears imperfect, a little roughed up and worn, albeit with a kindly soft-focus. I was brave to show it. It was an empowering experience for me.
Following the airing, an article appeared in The New Statesman written by Glosswitch, a writer with a “feminist take on parenting and politics”. In it, she said that the “sickly and patronising” ad idealises motherhood to exploit women’s bodies.
Her article begins by stating that women are taught to hate their bodies, a hatred that becomes embedded and trivialised, and that advertisers take advantage of this, packaging up creams to sell back to us. The Dove ad, she says “hones in on two key insecurities: the fear of women that they are unattractive and the fear of mothers that their work is of no value.”
She said she watched the ad as a mother herself, and she noticed, among other things, that I have a “slightly fat tummy”, and an “arse”, and that I was energetic with my kids, and those things and the questions they raised within herself made her feel bad. “I keep coming back to this: is Dove basically saying that it’s okay to be a tiny bit podgy if you’re an ace, devoted mummy?” Essentially, my body on screen first made her feel better about herself, then worse. It wasn’t quite real enough – she was being sold a con, and my body, (not quite thin enough, not quite fat enough) doing the things a mother tends to do, was part of that con. She goes on to say she feels the ad swaps the usual, unrealistic view of a mother to this new one – one that is sold as ‘real’, and ultimately limiting.
I read this, and was surprised and saddened that that is all Glosswitch takes from the film. And, for the first time in this whole experience, I began to feel bad about my body. While she certainly raises some important points, her words about me, the Mother, felt like judgement and objectification.
The loathing that she says women feel for their bodies is simply not true for me – my body is what it is, it is healthy, it has housed and fed my babies, and it keeps trucking on. I long ago made peace with my stretchmarks and by extension, with myself, but when she looked at me in her terms, I suddenly felt exposed, and started to see my body in pieces, as a series of parts that were unacceptable. I had thought that those bits of my body were actually really wonderful to see and to show. The film works as a visceral portrait of a Mother, and when I became that Mother, I didn’t feel I had to make excuses or justifications for my shape and size. I thought I was being brave, and maybe helping other women to feel brave too.
Yes, it is an ad for a beauty company. Women have complicated relationships with their bodies, and the beauty industry benefits from this. But this ad isn’t really trying to fool anyone. It just might be attempting something new. Caitlin Moran in her March column for The Times Magazine, writing about the ‘imperfect’ films 12 Years A Slave and Fifty Shades Of Grey, said that:
“the thing is, when you are starting a revolution, by which I mean, altering a landscape, so that new voices become dominant – you have to take the longer view. Because the history of change is someone has to start the conversation. But if we attack those who start valuable new conversations for not delivering the perfect revolution, straight off the bat, we scare the next generation of writers, directors and actors. We end up having no new conversations at all.”
Amanda Blue, her team and I took a small risk in the ad. It showed a different version of motherhood, and it placed on screen something a little bit more honest than we usually get to see. It is still an ad. But it was a brave one, an empowering one. Let’s not let that get lost before the conversation begins.
As Glosswitch writes, “Above all, I want mother’s bodies to be seen as the bodies of human beings: not objects, not tools, but flesh, blood and endless possibility.” That is exactly the way I see mine. There was no con – that Mother’s body is mine, and it is unapologetically beautiful.