Cartoon Women and Our Media Diet

I’m fed up with distorted images of women and girls.

Recently the websites I frequent kept assaulting me with pictures of a mother who’d made some questionable choices. It doesn’t matter which mother, because these news stories are all the same. Just another mother who does something extreme, which becomes sensationalized, it seems, entirely so that the vast majority of us will gasp in real or mock horror, and opine on this particular individual’s lack of parenting skills, sense of propriety, or grip on reality. Another crazy-pants mother spotlighted because of how she feeds, grooms, disciplines, or otherwise raises her kids.  Some cases are horrifying, others comically grotesque, but in all, the women (okay, parents: an occasional nut-job dad appears) are caricatures.

And that’s wrong. Because whatever the headline, these are real people making choices with real consequences. And often they are people who are sincerely parenting as well as they know how, and they’re held up as a punch line, or a symptom, or a cautionary tale. I’m not saying that the mothers in each Shocking Mother Story of the Day are blameless and innocent. But their children are, and they don’t deserve to have family lives raked over the coals to satisfy our collective blood lust. It feels like something primitive, a sort of bitter satisfaction, an appealing reassurance that, “No matter what my flaws are, I’m not that bad.”

I think that this rush to judgement is a reaction to how judged we all feel these days. Because the other side of this distorted female coin is the media-manufactured image of what we are supposed to be: beautiful, successful, slim, crafty, sweet, sexy, patient women. Women who adhere to a standard that is only possible with the help of photographic alterations and endless investments of time and money.

In both cases, media is obliterating the normal. There’s nothing newsworthy about an average mom who loves her kids and makes considered, reasonable parenting choices. The wacky just sucks us in.

But we’ve got to stop allowing ourselves to be spoon-fed media crap. It’s hard not to careen from a story of a mom of a 2-month-old taking her sleek-angled, spiky-heeled bod to a hot yoga class, then read about the latest mother who tied her child to a chair for not eating peas and console ourselves that, sure, we’ll never be her, but at least we’re not her.

Recently I fell into a sort of existential despair when I learned that one of my daughter’s 4th-grade friends loves the show Dance Moms. I’d heard, vaguely, that it was awful. Then I watched an episode–the little girls wearing make-up, the fights and emotional abuse, the sexualized dancing–and thought about what lessons it was teaching young girls who watch it. I’m sure that one could make an argument about the value of working hard, but there are surely better vehicles for learning those lessons, right? Please? Worse is knowing that these are real children living it, and real mothers who sincerely want to make the best choices for their little daughters and have somehow decided that this is it.

We need to refuse to consume the crap that denigrates and debases all of us. We need to stop finding entertainment in real lives that are lampooned in reality shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and Dance Moms. Refuse to accept fiction masquerading as how-tos in beauty and celebrity magazines. Stop fueling the social media frenzy over each Shocking Mother Story of the Day by refusing to click on all of those Bad Mommy Stories, no matter how curiosity-inducing a headline may be.

Because most of us are consuming way too many media-concocted narratives that are poisonous. These stories don’t help us learn about ourselves or make the world a better place. There is beauty, and drama, and power in the average and the everyday. There are plenty of “normal” mothers who do extraordinary things, and there is so much about our normal lives which is extraordinary. If we spent more time recognizing this and reveling in it, all of our lives would be richer.

What disturbs me most is that it feels like things have gone beyond sensationalizing the exceptional and into obliterating the normal. I read recently that some online shopping sites now airbrush out kneecaps when they’re selling skirts and shorts. Because kneecaps are considered unsightly. So pedestrian, really, to want to be able to bend your knees.

Screw that. I like my knees. Hell, I like your knees. And I don’t want to spend my time judging your parenting–or hers either–because life is hard enough without all the judging. And reading this stuff, and watching this stuff, it’s really tough not to judge. So I’m going to do my best to avoid it. Tune it out. I resent the stories about the Bad Moms, or seemingly Bad Moms, just like I resent those pop-up ads that show the sad fat lady shrinking and shrinking until she’s a happy skinny lady. I feel like these messages are trying to shrink all of us, and when we don’t notice it, we consume it mindlessly. We accept it as if it is worthy of our attention.

I don’t think that I’m the only one feeling this way. We so crave the normal and self-affirming that bloggers are giddy over a celebrity choosing parenting priorities over appearances.  We get all excited about Dove’s ad makeover campaign, even if it, like its “real beauty” campaign, is kind of fake, too. We congratulate smart, powerful women for being brave enough to eschew foundation make-up.  The Bloggess, a champion of all that is heartbreaking and hilarious about the everyday and who insists that every one deserves to feel gorgeous and special once in a while, is on the bestseller list, along with several of my favorite, most kick-butt women.

So, what can we do? Notice what we’re reading or watching and think about how it impacts our perceptions of ourselves and others. How is our media diet impacting the health of our souls?  We need to refuse to consume media that creates fun-house spectacles of other women or insane expectations of ourselves.  We need to take a lesson from that 8th grader with her Seventeen petition and speak up to media who aren’t treating us right. We can choose to focus on the perspectives of those moms and other women who offer integrity and insight, whose stories enhance our appreciation of our own journey as parents and as people and provide new perspectives and understanding of our world.

We need to ponder what deserves the gift of our attentiveness, and direct our attention with consciousness and compassion.

This not-super-fit but salty-delicious seaside chair was brought to you by. . . knees.







  1. @Claire, Sara, & Maggie: thanks, ladies. I was just telling Cute W that I was feeling vaguely sick about checking the blog after this big, bossy rant. So I appreciate the support.

  2. ErinW

    Good for you…this is one of the most intelligently written blogs I’ve come across and I’m glad you did it. 🙂

  3. @ErinW: Thanks! Always lovely to get a comment from someone new!
    @HollowSquirrel, Michelle, Christine, Cindy: Thanks! I feel all sassy and rockin’. Although then today I accidentally clicked on the Time Magazine Cover link. Force of habit, I guess. I’m not looking.

  4. Melissa

    Love the post… and, I especially love that she is licking the salt off your skin. Classic!

  5. Maggie

    What a great post to read–especially 6 days post-partum with baby number 2! (Which means I especially loved the link to the kellidaisy post about Jennifer Garner…)

  6. Janis

    Thank you very much for this post. Well said!! The media really can warp our world view if we are not careful, and then they go ahead and twist our daughters as well. It can make us think we no longer have a mind of our own and all we do is react without first digging in our heels, realizing who we are and what exactly we are doing. Sometimes I feel all these sensationalism in the media is a sad reflection of how we just can’t BE. How we can really be BETTER. Instead of focusing on improving ourselves, living a rich full life, doing our part for the planet, we pry behind curtains (or just stare into doors thrown wide open), oogle and gawk, point fingers and let the tongue wag loose. Thank you, this is a most fabulous post.
    To knees, parenthesis laugh lines and all that makes us strong women who can take a stand.

  7. @Janis–Thank you so much, Janis, and here’s to knees and wrinkles! It’s funny because last night I just finished The Happiness Project and, man, that lady is deeply motivated toward self-improvement. Impressive. I . . . try.

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