On Motherhood, Womanhood, Identity, & Beauty
A chat with Sara Petersen of In Pursuit of Clean Countertops.
I am not a mother. But something in me resonated with the inaugural post from In Pursuit of Clean Countertops, Sara Petersen’s newsletter about momfluencer culture. It was this paragraph in particular that did it:
“[This] entire post encapsulates the darkness at the heart of some momfluencer spheres: the celebration and perpetuation of idealized white motherhood. The glorification of the beautiful (as she should be) thin (as she should be) non-disabled (as she should be) white (as she should be) cis-het (as she should be) … apparently made wholly happy (as she fucking should be!) by complete devotion to serving others.”
Is it just me, or does that sound like a pretty accurate description of beauty culture, too??
I was so down when Sara asked me to chat with her about the overlap between mom influencers and beauty influencers (there’s a lot!) for her newsletter. You can read our full conversation here, but I’ve excerpted some of it below as well. Read on for our thoughts on the link between “good” mothering and “good” skin; the myth of “one product to do it all!”; and the beauty identity crisis I think so many of us — and moms especially — are experiencing right now. (NOTE: You do not have to be a mom to get something out of this convo!!)
SARA PETERSEN: In your research, have you seen many momfluencers hawking beauty and skincare products?
JESSICA DEFINO (Me): Oh yeah. I think there's a very natural flow between motherhood and beauty. And I also think a lot of beauty influencers with huge followings are now at the age where they're becoming mothers. And so they've been able to transition a lot of their beauty and skincare content into motherhood content into beauty-and-skincare-as-a-mother content. So I do see a lot of flow and overlap between the two categories (motherhood and beauty), especially in the MLM space.
SP: Oh my god, yes. The oils!
Yeah, MLMS have always preyed on mothers and beauty is a huge, huge sector in the MLM industry.
SP: One thing that I've talked to a lot of moms about is how motherhood can be an identity eraser. I mean, almost as soon as the baby vacates your body, the nurses and healthcare providers start calling you “mom” versus your actual name. And I feel like the beauty industry has really latched onto this identity shift, and is really good at convincing mothers that if they buy this fun pink lipstick or if they buy this, you know, fucking $60 eye cream, they are reclaiming their identity, their individuality, their autonomy, their womanhood. And so yeah, I just find that messaging really problematic.
I think it's hugely problematic. I think it really preys on women and mothers when their sense of identity is shaky. One thing I always hear from mothers especially is like, I don't feel like myself anymore. I don't look like myself anymore. And you want to go back. And my response to that is, you're not supposed to feel and look like yourself. You’re growing. The whole point of life is to continue evolving. And like yeah, sometimes those evolution points can be painful. And they're scary and they're weird because you don't know what's going on. But that's a sign that you are living your life. Because if everything is always the same, then something is not progressing. You're not learning, you're not growing, you're not evolving.
And I think it’s really dangerous to target women when they're at that sort of point of in-between stage, and tell them, you must revert back in order to be good. Reverting back is almost never going to be the best path forward for your own personal fulfillment. And I also think that this messaging is really dangerous because it props up beauty as this sort of radical alternative identity to motherhood. And it's really not. It's like one of the three default archetypes of woman. You are Mother, you are Wife, or you are Beauty Object. And deciding to feel less like a mother and more like a beauty object is not radical. You're just floating through these three societally conditioned archetypes that are not actually you or your identity.
It props up beauty as this sort of radical alternative identity to motherhood. And it's really not. It's like one of the three default archetypes of woman. You are Mother, you are Wife, or you are Beauty Object. And deciding to feel less like a mother and more like a beauty object is not radical.
SP: Totally. And I think momfluencer culture in particular has done such a terrifyingly good job of marrying all three of those archetypal identities together. Like, you can have a kid but still be hot. And by hot, I mean conventionally or marketably attractive, which often also means thin and white and non-disabled.
Yes, yes. And I don’t know if this is unique to mothers at all, but I think the reason that beauty marketing gets to us so much is because I think real beauty (not standardized or industrialized beauty) is an inherently spiritual concept that every human craves. Like, we want to see beauty all around us. We want to be immersed in beauty, we want to be part of the beauty, but not all of us feel like we belong in standardized, industrialized ideals of beauty, right? The longing for beauty is very pure, but we’re given very limited tools to access or express it.
SP: And the beauty industry makes it easy for us to recognize beauty within ourselves if it looks a certain way. Like if I put on whatever fucking highlighter and I see that my face is subsequently glowy then I can sort of internally check a box and say, okay, this is beauty. I'm doing beauty right.
I think it all comes back to this idea of goodness. Beauty has always been messaged as a moral imperative. An ethical ideal. Even in Disney films. The princess is always beautiful and has, you know, pale skin. And red lips and she’s thin. And then you have a villain like Ursula who is fat and “ugly.” And so from a very young age, we learn that beautiful is good and ugly is bad. And beautiful is this very narrow ideal and ugly is everything else. And I think that directly correlates to motherhood. Like, think of how much ethical, moral shit is tied up in what a good mother is and what a good mother does. So I think in both of these struggles, we just want to be good, and we’re given really bad models for what good is.
SP: For Momfluenced, I did a bunch of research about the history of marketing to moms. And I wonder what you've come across in terms of how mothers specifically have been marketed to and how influencer marketing has just been super effective with moms in particular.
I think the first thing that comes to mind for me is skincare. Because all of a sudden, as soon as you get pregnant, there's a whole bunch of very mainstream ingredients that you’re no longer supposed to use. Suddenly you've been restricted on what you can use. And just like anytime you're restricted, that naturally makes a human being want to overindulge, you know, to sort of replace that thing. So yeah, I think skincare is a really natural gateway into the whole beauty and motherhood realm.
SP: Is there an inherent danger in chasing the dopamine rush of perusing a momfluencer’s feed and clicking “purchase now?” What’s wrong with chasing that momentary little blip of hope that this beauty balm or whatever is going to make my experience of motherhood somehow less shitty?
It's so layered. Whatever you're hoping to get from the product, you will not get from the product. I think that most people would agree with that statement, which is why we keep buying the damn products. So it creates this cycle where like, you need to buy more products to get that dopamine rush because a prior product has let you down, or simply doesn’t work, or maybe it gave you a rash, or a new product came out that’s supposedly better. There’s always going to be something more. So if we don't interrupt that cycle within ourselves and within our minds, we're just setting ourselves up for future failure.
And then there’s the more widespread effect of what that constant cycle of consumerism does to the world. If you want to tie it back to motherhood, almost all beauty and skincare products contain palm oil or petrochemicals in some way. Mica and a lot of these ingredients are harvested by child labor all over the world. There's this very weird tension of wanting to take care of yourself and take care of your kids. But what about other people's children, who are being harmed by the process of harvesting these ingredients? And being harmed by the process of producing all of these plastic bottles? Or the effects of climate change, to which the beauty industry is a huge contributor.
I think we're in a beauty identity crisis. Like a mass crisis event of like, who am I? And we're just trying to like, claim our identities through the products we put on, and it doesn’t work that way.
Everyone deserves a little pick-me-up. Everyone deserves a little dopamine rush because life is fucking hard, but I just don't think all of the downstream effects of buying beauty products is a good way to get it. And in terms of wanting to feel beautiful or wanting to express ourselves, these larger concepts don't actually require products. But we've been trained by consumer culture to believe that they do. So when we buy ourselves something, we think we're doing something beautiful for ourselves in terms of like, empowering ourselves or believing it to be self-expression. And I think it all just causes more physical, psychological and environmental damage. We would be better off looking for dopamine hits and self expression and empowerment in concepts that don't require an external product. Maybe it’s art. Or writing, singing, gardening, getting your hands in the earth. There are so many ways to access beauty that don’t require products.
SP: I am seeing more and more products being peddled as the only product you'll ever need. And this is so tantalizing for moms. I’m currently getting assaulted by Jenni Kayne’s new beauty line, which does a lot of this. Like, I put it on my kids. I put it on my lips. I can put it on my elbows. And I'm throwing out all my makeup because my glow is incredible. Can you just talk about that because it's sort of making me crazy.
It's possible for them to use that one product for everything because of a lot of invisible and expensive labor on the back end. They have a lot of privileges that perhaps the average consumer doesn't have, in terms of money, in terms of staff, which frees up a lot of their time. Like you said before: being able to sleep; having health insurance; being able to go to the doctor for actual health issues instead of covering them up with a product. And when it comes to beauty—injectables, surgeries, cosmetic procedures, in-office treatments—all of this contributes to these people “only needing one product.” They only have to use one product because they've already outsourced 100 different things to 100 different people and the average consumer is not doing that.
SP: I personally find myself mesmerized by quick little snippets of somebody rubbing a serum in on Instagram or whatever. I don't know if the act of seeing someone else apply cream psychologically makes me imagine myself doing it (and then pushes me harder to buy the product)? I don’t know. I'm just curious about the psychology of that type of imagery.
I do have some thoughts. It’s a big trend. Like, influencers doing their skincare routine or putting on makeup while speaking about something that's a little bit more serious. So they’ll be doing a skincare routine and being like, I'm in the middle of a mental health struggle right now and here's what I'm going through. Or they'll be putting on their eyeliner and being like, remember that you are worthy. You kick ass! So there's this really odd juxtaposition happening between basic beauty behavior and these larger, more important messages which subsequently get tangled up with the idea of beautifying your self. And I do think that's kind of a mindfuck. It sort of reminds me of pharmaceutical commercials, where there's happy music on and the person onscreen is like, frolicking through a field, and the voiceover basically says “this medication might cause you to drop dead.” And with the beauty videos, it feels like the making of your face is the making of yourself. I think we're in a beauty identity crisis. Like a mass crisis event of like, who am I? And we're just trying to like, claim our identities through the products we put on, and it doesn’t work that way.