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  • Writer's pictureZara Oteng

The Sexy Series Part I: The Mother Of All Sins

I started off trying to write about motherhood and sex appeal, and touched on so many areas that I decided to write about this topic over a couple of blog posts. I’m calling it The Sexy Series and in part one, we’ll talk about how mothers aren’t allowed to be sexy.

In the months immediately following the birth of my twin daughters I experienced a full-on identity crisis. Everything that I knew of myself as a woman now seemed so thoroughly removed from my grasp – from how I looked, to what I did, to how I felt. I simply didn’t know who I was anymore, and that was compounded by the societal messaging about who I should be now that I had become a mother.

Despite the added psychological pressure of isolation during this global pandemic, the worst of the identity crisis has petered off. But I’ve still been thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman and a mother and how I experience these two strands of my identity. I’m thinking a lot about sexiness and how to express my sex appeal during this new stage of my life.

But I’m getting the feeling mothers aren’t really allowed to be sexy. There’s that wonderfully sexist, monolithic paradigm of womanhood; the Madonna-Whore dichotomy, that permeates the fabric of our society. Where we were once desired as childfree women, as mothers, we are now chastened. Newly maternal, we are simultaneously exalted – allocated status and value, and idealised as virtuous, respectable and good – whilst being tightly bound by those very chains of reverence.

How conveniently simplistic and utterly constricting, is it not? It’s not remotely surprising that there isn’t an equivalent paradigm for manhood and fatherhood. And there’s something seriously wrong with tying a woman’s worth to motherhood, especially when not all women are able to have children, or may not want to.

... As mothers, we are now chastened. Newly maternal, we are simultaneously exalted – whilst being tightly bound by those very chains of reverence.

Nearly six months into motherhood, what I’m learning is that mothers are supposed to behave in a particular way. Perhaps you’ve noticed: in television adverts, mothers are usually depicted in an almost asexual light. These mothers revel in the maternal role, content with the joys of breastfeeding, packing school lunches and smelling laundry with their eyes blissfully closed as they inhale deeply. They don practical getups perfect for completing chores; jeans, jumper and sensible shoes, accessorised with a knowing smile. We get the message: being primarily occupied with their children and homemaking, mothers shouldn’t really want or need anything more.

How is it that in 2020, nowhere in the mainstream consciousness do sexy women and mothers coexist? Apparently, we can’t be desirable and be a mother. And if we want to be desirable, we have to hide all the marks that babies leave on our bodies – anything else doesn’t even register as attractive.

What I’ve also learned is that now I’m a mother, there are a new set of rules for my body. Not only is flaunting my body now commonly seen as wildly inappropriate, but even referring directly to my body outside of the context of motherhood, even in passing, even in jest, can cause real discomfort to others. It’s as though you cease to exist as a sexual woman; now that you are a mother, that part of you is relegated to the past, and irreversibly erased.

Which law mandates that I can’t show my body now that I’m a mother? Where is it written that I can’t clothe this body a certain way? And why is it slightly outrageous to want these things?

But I don’t want to be erased – that’s just not sexy to me (pun whole-heartedly intended). Which law mandates that I can’t show my body now that I’m a mother? Where is it written that I can’t clothe this body a certain way? And why is it slightly outrageous to want these things?

Sex appeal is a powerful thing and I have vacillated between feeling robbed or punished for that power for my entire adult life. In our society, women and girls (especially Black women and girls) are in turn hypersexualised at a young age, fetishised for our youth and then, when we embark upon motherhood, swiftly and suddenly desexualised. Everywhere I look, I’m told with resounding finality that mothers like me can no longer be objects of desire. Sexiness is under the conservatorship of single and child-free women and I should, in the very least, dress accordingly.

To add insult to injury, not only is sexiness now the exclusive reserve of women who are not mothers, but as I understand it, being desired is something that I should willingly give up, instead contenting myself with the smell of my daughters’ skin and their vomit, freely and frequently proffered in my direction. For a mother to want to be desired and to indulge in the behaviours that previously made her feel as such (e.g. spending time on hair and makeup, wearing ‘revealing’ clothes), is to be vain and selfish. Apparently, my breasts are only to be ogled by my daughters when they are hungry, or by my husband and that’s only once my daughters are finished with them.

That’s about as exciting as a two-pack of Marks & Spencers nursing bras.

All my life I’ve been told how to behave as a girl or woman and I’m sick of it. Don’t get me wrong - I’ve had an absolute ball. I’ve enjoyed my body but all the while, I’ve had to contend with a running commentary on it: how it should behave and whether or not it is attractive enough to matter. There’s always a set of rules we’re expected to comply with that feel totally arbitrary and contradictory. Be thin but curvy. Be beautiful but unaware of it. Look sexy but not too sexy – that’s called trashy. All women must contend with this. These rules aren’t initially our own but the scary thing is that we internalise them until they take up space in our heads like a no-good boyfriend: They put us down all the time, they won’t shut up and they have a huge effect on how we view ourselves and our sense of value.

Upon being launched into motherhood with no landing mat and no training period (pregnancy simply doesn’t cut it), the rules have changed yet again and seem just as arbitrary as the last set. It feels like being chewed up and spat out, and I can’t quite get to grips with it. I know that I want to see more women who are grappling with this, like I am. I don’t want to feel like a pariah for being a mother and wanting to be sexy anyway. I don’t want to feel shamed for dressing in a ‘sexy’ manner and showing a little bit of skin, which is mine to show.

I just know that I want to feel sexy because it makes me feel good, and it’s a reminder that the old me hasn’t completely disappeared. Although I’m a mother now and much of my life is currently consumed with my maternal work, I’m still the Zara I was before my daughters arrived.

So, for now, I’ll do my best to throw out the rulebook. Wish me luck.



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