The Value and Visibility of Momfluencer Bodies

Parsing the motherhood we're allowed to see, with Sara Petersen

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There’s a slew of “Look at this mama, she’s so beautiful inside and out.” And it’s always on the photos of women who are thin. We see this equating of “you are slaying motherhood,” with “you don’t have any physical reminders that you’ve created a human and birthed a human.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast about about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith.

Today’s conversation is with Sara Petersen, a writer based in New Hampshire. Her first book Momfluenced, which examines the performance of motherhood through momfluencer culture, what this reveals about the texture of modern motherhood, and what we might learn from it, is coming next year from Beacon Press.

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Quick disclaimer: Sara and I are both white, straight, cisgender women who had our children biologically. We both have varying degrees of thin privilege. This conversation is inevitably focused on the experience of motherhood as this white, straight, cisgender phenomenon because that’s the reality of momfluencing. It’s not an inclusive world.

If a conversation about pregnancy, childbirth and body changes does not sound safe for you, feel free to skip this one.


Sara Petersen

Episode 27 Transcript

Virginia

Hi, Sara, thank you for being here!

Sara

Hi, I’m so psyched.

Virginia

Why don’t we start by defining some terms.  What is a momfluencer? I loved the way you put it in your Harper’s Bazaar piece, that “they enrage us and yet we cannot look away.”

Sara

The standard definition is an influencer who is also a mother who has monetized her social media platforms. I’m broadening it for my research and book to look at how we all perform motherhood on social media, whether or not we have a monetized following.

Virginia

Interesting. That makes sense because it is true you get micro-influenced by mothers in your space, even if they’re not “capital M” momfluencers.

Sara

Totally, and it impacts how you think about posting your own motherhood content on your own page. It’s this self-conscious narratization of your own story. You start calling yourself a mama versus a mother or a mom. And there’s a romanticization of the basic facts of motherhood.

Virginia

As professional momfluencers have become a legitimate industry, we are seeing much more analysis and discourse around them, which I really cannot get enough of. And I’m so excited for your book. What made you want to dive so deep into this topic?

Sara

Taza, Naomi Davis, was one of my first obsessions. She made motherhood look so joyful. That was confounding for me because I’m someone—obviously I love my kids and I’m super grateful for them—but nine times out of ten, I don’t love the work of motherhood. It’s tedious, it’s monotonous, it’s boring a lot of the time, like playing store or whatever. So seeing someone constantly posting this beautiful, joyful picture of motherhood got in my psyche. Why wasn’t I so readily able to access that same joy? And then I went down the rabbit hole from there.

Virginia

There’s also the aesthetics of momfluencing. I’m recording in my four year old’s bedroom right now because my office is under construction. I’m sitting next to a giant sloth named Stella who is an important part of our family and she’s pretty hideous.

Sara

I really should have brought Kevin. I have a dolphin in my house. Oh, it’s narwhal named Kevin.

Virginia

I find motherhood is a real drag on my aesthetic vibe. This room is filled with stuffed animals that I would never have chosen to surround myself with because they bring my children great joy. But in the momfluencer vision, your children perfectly fit into this beautifully curated life. Their children do not have giant sloths and narwhals. Or they have the cute Etsy versions.

Sara

The detritus of children in a home is ugly, nine out of ten times. I just spoke to Bethanie Garcia about this—The Garcia Diaries. She’ll do the staged photoshoots with her kids in cute little shaker fishermen cardigans, but she’s transparent about the fact that she bribes her kids to wear those because  as soon as the photoshoot is done, they want to wear their SpiderMan onesies.

Virginia

We should mention for folks who are as fascinated by momfluencers as we are, if you want more on these topics, we recommend Kathryn Jezer-Morton’s newsletter Mothers Under the Influence and the podcast Under the Influence with Jo Piazza. And Meg Conley wrote about the mommies of Instagram.

But we are going to talk about momfluencer’s bodies and how the momfluencing sphere intersects with diet culture. It’s important to articulate that these women are both products of and creators of diet culture. They are both living under these rigid standards about what their bodies should look like and reinforcing those standards through all this content creation. There’s also a very specific vernacular to how much influencers do diet culture.

Sara

Pregnancy and postpartum are the two biggest phases where you’re going to see it. Documenting of pregnancies and the barrage of comments. Like, “how do you look so good, pregnant with your fifth kid? I’m pregnant with my first.” Then there are the postpartum photos. It’s “How did you get your body back so quickly? How did you bounce back?”

Virginia

You have made humans and yet you look like you’ve never made humans, which means you’ve achieved what diet culture tells us is a woman’s primary goal in life: To be a mother and to look like that never happened to you.

There’s often a lot of body positive talk woven in with the “bouncing back.” Which can get murky, because there’s a lot of “I’m doing this for me. This is #selfcare,” without acknowledging that you’re reinforcing fatphobia in that process. There’s also the reality that there are very few major name fat momfluencers.1 There’s often this rhetoric of like, “Oh, you’re so brave, because you’re showing us stretch marks.” But the only people who get to be brave are thin white women. 

Sara

Another one of the tropes is the conflating of moral goodness with how one’s body is presenting. There’s a slew of “Look at this mama, she’s so beautiful inside and out.” And it’s always, again, on the photos of women who are thin. We see this equating of “you are slaying motherhood” with “you don’t have any physical reminders that you’ve created human and birthed a human.” Which adds to the erasure of the labor of motherhood. It erases the need for things like postpartum leave and universal preschool, things that actually help mothers in systemic, meaningful ways, versus the hashtag #noexcuses.

Virginia

You’re right. If you manage to look like you never had a kid at six weeks postpartum, then why do you need maternity leaves? Because you got your body back. You’re done. Oh, that’s infuriating. 

So you have some case studies for us to analyze.

Sara

Alright, so the first one we’re going to look at is Hannah Neeleman. She’s @ballerinafarm. She’s a rancher in Utah. She’s Mormon. She’s married to one of the heirs to JetBlue. But that’s not a big part of her platform because that would go against the homesteading rancherwoman vibe.

This is the birth announcement for her seventh child. The comments are praising her superwoman powers. Like, “How does she look like this pregnant with her seventh kid?” Then there’s another comment that says, “I think she’s just got amazing abs and was able to hide it this long!” So there’s this really pointed dissection of mothers’ bodies where commenters are saying, “I knew it!!!!!!! I thought I saw a little pooch last week!!! ❤️❤️❤️ congrats!!!”

Virginia

There’s a sense of ownership over this woman’s body. That’s a very uncomfortable dynamic.

Sara

Yep. She posts a lot of cleaning videos where she’ll clean up the mess of six children and make it look like a lark, with lots of thumbs up. She does it all with a smile. There’s a comment under this pregnancy announcement post that says, “This is what true feminism looks like! Doing it all! So cool.”

Virginia

Sara, help me, how is this feminism?

Sara 

Feminism here is being a mother, assuming motherhood as a gender essentialist, natural role that a mother should do easily and well and with a smile on her face. She’s adhering to all the patriarchal standards that there are. She is conventionally attractive. She’s retaining her heterosexual desirability, in spite of and despite motherhood. She’s in the home and she’s happy about it all. She’s not complaining.

Virginia

I think about young women, especially coming from rural America, from a conservative background, aspiring to this. It feels like such an unfair bar. There’s so many things about this that are resting on all the different kinds of privilege she has. She’s only doing it all because she’s married to a gazillionaire. I mean, and she’s certainly not doing it all.

Sara

She also homeschools her kids. And there’s never any acknowledgement of outside childcare help or housecleaning help. Another part of her “doing it all” narrative is the idealization of her marriage. When she went to the pageant, she made a big point of posting stories like “Daniel’s staying at home with the kids and he’s the best.”

Virginia

That’s interesting. It’s almost like a cosplay of equality and co-parenting, with that need to overly praise your husband for doing his part.

Who do we have next?

Sara

Amber Fillerup Clark. She used to be known as Barefoot Blonde. I don’t know if I would call her ex-Mormon, but she’s written some really insightful posts disagreeing with the church, which is refreshing. But she, again, is a thin woman. This is how she announced her fourth pregnancy.

I guess we could say she feels “empowered” to lean into her sexuality in a way that not all momfluencers do. There’s a comment that says "No wonder he keeps putting babies in you. LOOK AT YOU! 😍" So she gets a lot of the hypersexualized comments that make me feel feelings.

Virginia

Well, again, it’s the sense of ownership over her body that her followers have. Because yes, she’s putting a semi-naked photo of herself out there for the world to discuss, but I still feel violated on her behalf. Does she not deserve some privacy?

Sara

Totally. This is the whole, “but they’re putting themselves out there so they deserve whatever intrusive behavior or commentary they get.” Which is obviously absurd logic. There’s a comment here that says, “She already looks hungry and then to think that she’s meant to be nurturing a baby as well in there 🥺”

Virginia

I think a lot about the responsibility of influencers putting these images out for young girls. They do have a responsibility to not perpetuate these  dangerous beauty ideals. And yet, we do not know this woman’s health. We cannot make assumptions based on her body that she has an eating disorder or she’s not eating enough to nourish her pregnancy. Healthy pregnancies look different on every person. There’s no evidence here that she’s doing anything dangerous for her pregnancy. I’m troubled by the standard this reinforces and I feel like it’s important to just emphasize that we don’t actually know what we’re seeing. We also don’t know how much of this is even real, right? Because the photos are heavily edited and styled.

Alright, who’s next?

Sara

I just wanted to briefly touch on Rachel Hollis. I included her infamous tiger stripes bikini shots. Do you want to describe the image Virginia?

Virginia

Yes. She is standing on a beautiful beach and she is wearing a monogrammed bikini top. Her hair is very messy. She’s giving us a lot of beachy waves and big sunglasses. This does look like something that maybe her husband just snapped on his iPhone. It has a much more loose, casual, lower quality vibe to the photo. Her stomach, which is very flat because she is a thin person, has some bumpy skin. I wouldn’t even say it’s loose skin exactly. It’s like her skin is just not perfectly taught. There’s a little bit of texture to her stomach.

Sara

This one exemplifies something that is characteristic of Rachel Hollis’ whole thing, which is, “Everything I have is a result of my individual hard work and not because of my various layers of privilege.” And she writes, “Those marks prove that I was blessed enough to carry my babies. And that flabby tummy means I worked hard to lose what weight I could.” So again, it’s this imperative. I have to work out. I have to change the way my body looks after birthing humans because that makes me morally superior to people who choose not to exercise or choose not to prioritize weight loss after pregnancy. She goes on to uphold her sexual desirability when she says, “I wear a bikini because the only man whose opinion matters knows what I went through to look this way. That same man says he’s never seen anything sexier than my body, marks and all.” 

Virginia

I feel frustrated that none of these women are even questioning the premise. There is never a sense of maybe I don’t have to lose the baby weight. Maybe my body is allowed to look like it changed.

Sara

Katie Crenshaw—she’s a great follow—writes a lot about body image stuff as it pertains to motherhood. She talks about the bullshit of calling images like these brave. She says, let’s stop qualifying perceived flaws. Imperfections aren’t more beautiful or acceptable because someone produced a child. There’s no moral hierarchy. That’s so important to underscore in this whole conversation, this assumption that if our bodies changed because we had children we are somehow given more grace than people who haven’t birthed children when their bodies change.

Virginia

Yes, lots of people’s stomachs who look like Rachel Hollis’ stomach, or significantly fatter, are actually just fat stomachs and they haven’t had kids. They don’t owe us an explanation or justification for that either. You don’t have to earn the right to have a flawed body.

Sara

It goes back to the tiger stripes, like Rachel Hollis saying that somehow her body looks the way it does, because she’s gone through some sort of whatever. The warrior goddess mentality of motherhood.

Virginia

Which is also another way of fetishizing motherhood, instead of seeing motherhood. If  you’re equating the experience of giving birth to running a triathlon—now you’re stronger than ever, and it’s made you a better person—then we don’t have to do anything for moms because they’re walking through this fire so willingly and bravely. If they can withstand that, then they don’t need paid leave or childcare. So this justification for her body is both harming moms and harming all the people who are not moms.

Sara

Which goes back to @ballerinafarm and how she does it all with six kids and one on the way. That’s not good. We shouldn’t be worshiping this cult of burnout.

Virginia

I will just quickly shout out of course Maintenance Phase did an excellent two part episode on Rachel Hollis. So, if you want way more Rachel Hollis analysis, Aubrey and Michael have you covered there.

Sara

Do you want to go into Hilaria?

Virginia

Okay. She is another extremely thin woman. She’s in a profile, so you can really see the definition of her ab muscles, which I feel is important to the story. She’s wearing a black lacy bra and underwear. She is holding a cute little baby in a red onesie. They are near a bathtub, although they are both wearing clothes. Her hair is also in a nice half up style. So I feel like this is not post-bath. She is sniffing her baby in her underwear.

Sara

So again, a lot of the same patterns that we’ve seen in our other case studies. The “Oh my goodness you look absolutely incredible!! 👏👏🙌🙌❤️❤️ After baby number 2 my body decided to give in to gravity. 🤦🏻‍♀️” That demonization of a body doing what a body does. 

Virginia

That other comment you pulled is “Dam girl!!!!!!!🔥 I wish I'd looked like that. If I had, I too would have had more! But I didn't, so I stopped at 2.”

Sara

Yeah, that one really stuck out for me. We’re in a place where we’re considering how many children to have, how many human beings to add to our family based on how our body responds to pregnancy?

Virginia

I think she’s saying the silent part out loud. The postpartum experience can be so brutal and put you through the wringer in so many ways. For me, personally, it was more about like, I want my body back. I don’t want my body to belong to this other creature anymore. But I can understand what they’re saying, even though it makes me also die inside.

Sara

What I hate about that is the emphasis on the visuals of the body. I had a heinous time, especially postpartum with my first kid. It had nothing to do with how my body felt or looked, but it had everything to do with postpartum depression and the huge mental and emotional shifts that I went through. We’re putting so much emphasis on the appearance of the body versus what the person in the body is experiencing.

Virginia

Yes, like if this person had only managed to look a certain way—even if two was the right number to stop at, or the postpartum experience was brutal due to mental health—it would be like, well, I can have more because my body bounces back. 

Sara

This perceived notion of success runs rampant in all things motherhood. I successfully breastfed, I successfully potty trained. 

Virginia

Wasn’t there some controversy about her and surrogacy or secret surrogacy?

Sara

Yeah, her next kid was born via surrogacy. There was some discourse about, “Oh, she just didn’t want to be pregnant and put her body through that again. So she had someone else do it.” The assumption that we all should be and can be judging mothers and their behaviors.

Virginia

We’re assuming it’s a choice. I mean, it may have been a choice for her. I have no idea. But obviously, using a surrogate is often not a choice. We’re also then feeding into this hierarchy of the best mothers are the ones who can have them biologically and look like it never happened. Second to that would be you—I apologize, I may be using the wrong terms—gestated them yourself, even if you look like that happened. You can be a brave thin mom who gestated your own children. Moving down the hierarchy is people who need IVF or need assistance or go the adoption route. We’re playing into this terrible hierarchy of who’s the the “real” or “true” mom. We’re also belittling the experience that every mom has with their body. Only if you went through some hideous natural birth experience is your story worth telling, is that a true motherhood war story. Other ways that motherhood intersects with our bodies isn’t worth talking about isn’t worth holding space for. I know moms who adopted their kids whose bodies also changed dramatically. It’s still a very physical experience of being a mom.

Also, if your body was your job in the way this woman’s body is, maybe it is a reasonable business decision to say I can’t be pregnant because I have to maintain my body looking like this. 

Sara

There are lots of burgeoning conversations happening in the momfluencer space about how we need to be focusing less, obviously, on mother’s bodies and more on the experience of motherhood, which is work and which is often rendered invisible.

Virginia

I’m so here for that shift in conversation. And I hope some of these influencers feel like they can participate. There’s definitely some opportunity to change some narratives here.

Sara

Yeah, it’s almost always met with overwhelming fan support. 

Virginia

I think the next phase of this is we need to see non-thin moms able to do the same thing, and non-white moms, and non-straight moms, and non-cisgender moms. We need to blow apart this definition of motherhood in so many ways, right? And I am grateful you are doing it.


Butter For Your Burnt Toast

Sara

Okay, so my favorite thing to do these days is to knit while listening to a podcast. 

It’s so heavenly. Because you feel like you’re doing something. Not that you need to be productive at all times, but there’s this virtuous sense of here I am using my hands while also feeding my brain that just feels very good to me. It’s just basically relaxing.

Some of the podcasts I’ve been really into are: Once Upon a Time at Bennington College, and The Plot Thickens.

Virginia

And what are you knitting while you’re listening to all these things?

Sara

The patterns I mostly use are from a knitting momfluencer. Her knitting patterns are beautiful. It’s a cosmos-pink, funnel neck, chunky sweater that I made for my daughter.

Virginia

My recommendation is ignoring your children to read books. Because unlike when you stare at your phone while you’re with your kids—I do that as well, to be clear, but you have to feel guilty because you’re not “present”—when you’re reading, you’re modeling “good behavior.” I’ll pick up my book, become invisible in plain sight, and just read. I do recommend starting out with some light fiction, something you can dip in and out of, because you will get interrupted. 

The thing I’m reading right now, which I’ll admit is so beautifully written it’s not ideal for this, is Matrix by Lauren Groff. I can tell I’m already going to be mad when it’s over. I’m actually going more slowly with it because I don’t want this to end and I want this to be a 500 page book and it’s not.

Sara

That’s the highest praise.

Virginia

So Sara, tell listeners where they can follow your work.

Sara

So, I’m on Twitter and Instagram at @SLouisePetersen. Louise is my middle name. And then I have a website Sara-Petersen.com.


The Burnt Toast Podcast is produced and hosted by me, Virginia Sole-Smith. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter.

Burnt Toast transcripts and essays are edited and formatted by Corinne Fay, who runs @SellTradePlus, an Instagram account where you can buy and sell plus size clothing.

The Burnt Toast logo is by Deanna Lowe.

Our theme music is by Jeff Bailey and Chris Maxwell.

Tommy Harron is our audio engineer.

Thanks for listening and for supporting independent anti diet journalism!

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But here are few plus size momfluencers for your consideration! Feel free to add more in the comments.

Meg Boggs, Maddy Gutierrez, Tori Block, Fat Positive Motherhood, Mia O’Malley, Plus Mommy, Alyssa Goldwater, Ashley Dorough, Nabela Noor.