In a recent interview with Barbara Walters, Scarlett Johansson talked about life as a new mom and the conversation inevitably moved towards her once-again slim physique. Her secret for losing the baby weight?
"I'm nursing and I love it. It's the best way to get back in shape," she said.
Johansson's post-natal fitness tips echoed those of actress Mila Kunis, who called breastfeeding the "greatest workout" on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson earlier this month, as well as similar comments in the past from Beyonce and Gisele Bundchen.
With nonsensical phrases like "getting her pre-baby body back" in heavy circulation in women's magazines and the tabloids, it's not surprising that these women show little sign of having carried a human in their bellies mere months after giving birth. The weight loss is basically compulsory for those who make a business out of the way they look.
So fine: Beautiful, famous women of the world, display those flat abs and toned arms while relaying stories of labor and sleepless nights. Just please stop crediting it to breastfeeding.
First, there's the not insignificant fact that breastfeeding is not actually a bulletproof diet, and promoting it as such makes the new mothers who retain a lot of that baby weight while breastfeeding feel bad. In spite of what many lactation activists say, there is little scientific evidence that breastfeeding actually leads to weight loss, and certainly nothing that says it all happens in the first few months.
On the other hand, diet and lots of exercise, which is what I suspect Johansson and Kunis did, is proven to lead to weight loss.
The problem here isn't just dishonest body talk from celebrities, which is all too common. It's the increasingly ridiculous ways in which celebrities perform motherhood and the insidious effect this has on all mothers.
The first fiction of celebrity motherhood is that it is effortless. The baby weight came off from breastfeeding is matched by other lies about the magic of early motherhood and how they would like to "spit out a litter of kids." Parenting in their world is all joy, a spirited adventure that yields all gains and no losses. Yes, with the kind of staff these women can afford, they probably end up sacrificing a lot less in the name of parenthood than most of us. Still, they must feel at least some of the physical and emotional drain that all parents experience. (Astutely captured by an honest celebrity parent who is not back to his "pre-baby weight," Louis CK, here.)
The second fiction of celebrity motherhood is that you haven't really changed, physically or otherwise. In their book The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels talk about how celebrities are emblematic of the supermom mystique. They have careers, are loving moms, and look incredible. It's a fantasy that exists outside of choice-laden feminism, one where women can do traditionally masculine things like work without their traditionally feminine side — looking good and being a good mother — suffering.
Losing weight while breastfeeding fits perfectly into this fantasy. The woman can boast about how much she enjoys nurturing her child while returning to her youthful "pre-baby body." The recent trend of celebrities posing elegantly while breastfeeding underscores this. Sure, it's nice to see examples of how women can still be attractive, even sexy, after having a baby. It's just that it helps if the women actually looks like she had a baby, be it a soft midsection or dark circles under her eyes.
Douglas and Michaels call celebrity motherhood "a powerful Trojan horse" of the having-it-all myth, one that suggests that if women just try hard enough and love their kids enough they too could be both the best version of their new selves and old selves too. I see the seduction. These women evoke an alternate universe where all work/life problems and body anxieties have disappeared, where having a child only adds to an already bountiful life. Too bad it's a myth. Even for them.