Zanthe Taylor M.F.A.

A Million Meals

Confronting Mothers' Self-Hatred

Breaking a toxic cycle of self-criticism

Posted Oct 22, 2012

If you are one of the four people in the world who hasn’t yet read blogger Allison Slater Tate’s piece “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” it’s my pleasure to bring it to your attention now. Allison, a highly accomplished mother of four whom I’m lucky to call a friend, realized she’s in almost no photos with her own children. In over ten years of parenting, in the tens of thousands of pictures she has of her kids, she herself appears in a scant handful. This is in part because Allison’s often the photographer, like many mothers, but more often because she—again, like so many of us—is highly critical of her own appearance. When you’re more likely to be wearing spit-up than makeup, when you’re still carrying so-called “baby weight” at your child’s fifth birthday party, when showering counts as the most luxurious form of pampering, you too may be understandably reluctant to be immortalized on camera. Messy hair, thrown-on clothes, no lipstick—this is not how we want to be remembered, we think. Allison’s revelation—one that has resonated with astonishing depth, making her piece the Huffington Post’s most-read of the year—is that mothers’ self-criticism is robbing children of the memories those photographs ought to commemorate. She makes a simple and moving case for why it’s so much better for our children to have photos of their imperfectly coiffed or woefully out-of-shape mothers than no pictures at all.

Public response to Allison’s work has been electric—she’s been on a media whirlwind of television shows, her blog has been translated into many other languages, and readers and viewers have submitted comments and their own photos in the tens of thousands. Readers have also pointed out that they too often don’t have photos of their own mothers, or photos of themselves with children who have since passed away. The responses to Allison’s simple exhortation have been by turns heartbreaking and exhilarating, as mothers (and fathers, in some cases) resolve to put themselves back into those photos, for all the reasons she lays out and more.

To me, the saddest part of all this is what it reveals about female self-image, and about mothers’ self-esteem in particular. What further proof do we need that our obsession with appearances has escalated to an unhealthy level? Mothers, charged with teaching self-esteem to their children, are so unhappy with the way they look, the way they fail to meet some kind of impossible standard of appearance, that they are literally erasing themselves from the visual record. Several of Allison’s media appearances focused specifically on weight, which seems to be the most prevalent reason mothers recuse themselves from photos. After all, having a baby takes a huge toll on a mother’s body, though you’d never know that was normal from the way the media obsesses over celebrity mothers. Star moms are either Beyoncé, back to performing in skimpy sequined leotards within months of giving birth, or Bryce Dallas Howard, paparazzi-hounded looking unrecognizable with her infant. Guess which set of mothers—the “I’m wearing my skinny jeans a month after delivery” or the big as a house variety—is treated more kindly by the press?

But this isn’t all the media’s fault; mothers have been heading down this path of self-negation for a long time. Every time, and there have been many, that I’ve stepped out of a photo with my children, I relive my own mother waving her hands and saying “No! Don’t photograph me!” And this is a woman so beautiful that people still stop her in her mid sixties to tell her, unsolicited, how lovely she is. It’s easy to see how I became camera-shy after motherhood—if my (beautiful) mother wasn’t going to get in front of the camera, why on earth should I, especially since I spent the first years of both my children’s lives in a body of unfamiliar girth and voluptuousness? It was so disconcerting to see the images of myself leaving the hospital after my first delivery—still looking pregnant, which no told me would be the case going in—that I shunned the camera for years afterwards.

Alison’s piece reminds us that photographs with our children aren’t about our own vanity: they are for our children, and by taking ourselves out of the picture we are succumbing to the worst kind of maternal self-loathing. In a world where fat is associated with sloth and greed and laziness, that makes sense; we need to start truly accepting that our body size does not determine who we are. Certainly, it’s a facet of ourselves, but when we give into self-loathing, we are sending our children, and especially our daughters, a toxic message of self-hatred. 

What I cooked this week: