Beautifully coiffed hair, perfect make-up, size eight skinny jeans barely six weeks after delivery. The media would have us believe it’s attainable… and expected.
By Kate Murray
Looking glamorous and slim while pushing the latest cult stroller with a designer baby bag and a perfect, cherubic infant might be possible for some new mums, but magazines and social media make it look like child’s play. Celebrities pop out babies and are back at their desks, looking better than ever, in less time than it takes to change a diaper. They insist on organic. They spend afternoons creating mini masterpieces from pasta shapes and glue. They do toddler yoga. But is this picture of maternal perfection real? And is it helping mums? Experts say it’s quite the opposite, and the damage it can cause is frightening.
“The myth of perfection perpetuated by modern media has a profoundly negative psychological impact on the ordinary woman,” says Dr Yaseen Aslam, consultant psychiatrist and medical director at LightHouse Arabia in Dubai. “Popular celebrity figures from the music and film industry are given icon status and, as consumers, we’re bombarded with pictures of their perfect physiques and perfect children; in many ways, they’re depicted as having the perfect lives. These icons are used as barometers by which we compare and judge our own success, which is clearly not realistic.”
Raising children, being a parent as well as a partner and maintaining a successful career is challenging enough, says Dr Yaseen, without adding in the pressure of having to emulate these seemingly perfect women. “It’s clearly not realistic, and fuels feelings of guilt and inadequacy with which many women struggle.”
The Illusion of Perfection
Particularly on social media, Dr Yaseen notes, the perfect life may not be all it appears. “Surveys have indicated many mums do, in fact, tell white lies about what they cook for their children, how much time they spend with their husbands and so on, to conceal their sense of falling short of expectations,” he says.
Andrea Allen, pre- and post-natal doula and founder of support group Out of the Blues, agrees. “There are plenty of mums who, on the outside, appear to be coping wonderfully and doing everything just right, or what we all perceive to be just right,” she says. “Their Facebook pages are full of pictures of home-made organic puree and educational toys but in reality, they’ve fed their children McDonald’s when they were too tired to cook, parked them in front of the TV to get five minutes’ peace and quiet and bought the next size up in their favourite jeans.”
And even if – by some miracle – they are as perfect as they appear, they haven’t necessarily done the hard work themselves. “Often the celebrity women portrayed in the media have a team of helpers making sure they’re looking their best; they’ll have a hairdresser and make-up artist, a chef and a dietician, a stylist and a personal trainer, all of whom make portraying the image of perfection as easy as possible,” Allen says. “And, in doing so, they’re setting up the normal mum to fail as she doesn’t have access to such a team of helpers.”
Bombardment with images of perfect – whether real or embellished – can contribute to serious psychological disorders, says Dr Yaseen. “We’re seeing an increase in the prevalence of new mums being diagnosed with post-natal depression, which is consistent with evidence reported in scientific literature indicating the phenomenon is on the rise.”
While Dr Yaseen stresses there are a multitude of reasons responsible for a diagnosis of PND – and the associated feelings of intense anger, irritability, sadness and guilt – he says constant pressure to be the ‘perfect mum’ certainly doesn’t help the situation, and it’s not just the mother herself who is affected. “Women who experience these intense negative emotions after giving birth can experience difficulties bonding with their babies, and such a negative post-birth experience can also lead to significant disharmony in relationships with partners too,” he notes.
Dr Yaseen feels a large chunk of the responsibility for getting rid of the myth of perfection lies with those publishing the offending images. “I think the media industry needs to be more responsible in propagating more realistic depictions of mothers, and needs to give a more balanced impression,” he says. And post-natal support ought to step up, too. “Modern mums need more support and need to be heard. They need to be directed to appropriate sources of support and help when the going gets tough.”
Allen says having a non-judgmental, supportive network is essential. “Surround yourself with positive role models and open-minded, grounded support who can remind you this online portrayal of perfection may not be real and, even if it is, it’s rarely a reality for the vast majority of women who simply don’t have access to the resources these celebrity mums have,” she says. “For years the media has sold us a dream which, for most of us, is unattainable. Being able to rationalise the situation will go a long way towards heading off any possible negative repercussions.”
Making sure there’s downtime is also key. “Whilst of course it’s difficult to make time, It’s important for new mums not to neglect themselves and their own wellbeing in order to remain balanced and truly enjoy motherhood,” Dr Yaseen says.
Allen agrees. “It’s impossible to give your best as a mother if you don’t take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself, and that includes ignoring unrealistic, impractical standards set by external influences such as social media, the press and so-called celebrity mums whose lives are so far removed from ours. It is important to remember not to believe everything we read; sadly we all share the good days but rarely share the bad, and social media such as Facebook is one of the worst places to find images and stories to fuel your anxieties and make you feel inadequate,” she says.
Crucially, Dr Yaseen says, women need to ensure they have their priorities straight when a baby comes along and they mustn’t be unduly affected by media and social media. “Women should focus on working in partnership with their husbands so they can support each other and share the responsibilities of parenthood, which can undoubtedly be challenging and demanding,” he says.