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Young Mothers Talk Back
The First of Two Special Issues on Advertising and Motherhood

My mother and I traveled through Scandinavia together last summer. As in the United States, where we have spent our lives, and the United Kingdom, where I am now living, young women in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, seem to be affecting a revolution in dressing pregnancy. With tight dresses stretched across swelling abdomens or slouchy skirts slipping below bulging bellies, young mothers-to-be were “strutting their stuff” in a way that my mother found shocking. Her repeated comments on this new style made me reflect on the difference in attitudes between her generation, my own, and my daughters’ (who are in their early twenties). I remember that when I was pregnant, my mother was shocked that I bought new clothes to wear. Her generation had foregrounded the temporary aspect of pregnancy by wearing borrowed clothes. Maternity clothes were a trial to be endured for her cohort, the mark of an unpleasant passage—not unlike mourning weeds. When I became pregnant, however, new mothers were bravely continuing to work at jobs that had only recently been opened to women. The dress-for-success ethic that had helped gird many women for the tokenism of banks and boardrooms was extended to maternity wear. We bought slick, professional outfits that minimized our femininity—and hid our pregnancy as best they could. We were still “passing” in a male environment, but we were at least out in the world, instead of modestly nursing our “condition” in the privacy of their homes. Still, I can recall feeling fat and ugly when I became pregnant, apologizing for my size to everyone I met. To me, the pride implicit in the body-displaying dress of today’s pregnancies is a hopeful, gutsy change, and I applaud it as much as my mother disapproves of it. Yet in preparing this issue for publication, I came to see that this fresh, proud appearance had its own set of fears and shames. 

This is the first of two issues Advertising & Society Review will be doing on advertising and motherhood. I invited the participation of a research group, formed in 2005, to focus on the issues of mothering in contemporary society that are reflected in and affected by advertising. The founder and leader of this group, Andrea Prothero of University College Dublin, was the guest editor on this issue, helping to weave together a complex web of articles, videos, pictures, web links, and commentaries. This group consists entirely of academics—they are all professors in marketing departments—but they are also young mothers. Their mission is to observe the condition of maternity in postindustrial society, to interview other mothers who are enmeshed in this moment, and to reflect on their own experiences of motherhood in the twenty-first century.

This ongoing research project is conducted by an international collective of eight professors working in marketing departments. All the scholars are mothers who work full-time and live with their partners. Between them they have a total of 16 children, ranging from six months to nine years, and a 17th is due in January 2007. The professors work in four countries (Denmark, Ireland, the UK, and the US), and three live in a country other than the one in which they grew up. Their project is broad, exploring various aspects of motherhood and marketing, with advertising being only one dimension.

For this collection and the one that will follow in the next issue of Advertising & Society Review, this group explores, singly and together, the different facets of motherhood reflected in media, especially advertising, and how these elements affect mothers and mothers-to-be. Each essay is full of a variety of ads (for baby food, prams, fragrance, or books) and links that illustrate the phenomena of motherhood today. Each article is followed by a commentary from other members of the group, with an additional commentary on Susi Geiger's essay from a former user of IVF services. Some recall personal experiences. Others call attention to the cultural differences that still occur even in countries so physically close or historically related to one another.

The issue begins with an essay by Lisa O’Malley that explores the portrayal of pregnancy in advertising. Our gaze on the pregnant body has changed drastically over the past fifteen years. Various media events and trends have made the experience of being “with child” glamorous (a notion that is difficult to imagine in my mother’s day or mine). Yet, the attention that fashion magazines and celebrity hounds give to the taut, toned pregnancies in the press’s slick pages has transgressed the few private spaces women have had to let their guard down about their bodies. In this light, the proud display of pregnancy we see on the world’s streets may reflect a new cultural demand that could have far-reaching and not entirely positive consequences. Certainly the “Yummy Mummy” phenomenon that Stephanie O’Donohoe describes in her article has already shown signs of negative backlash. This cultural stereotype, apparently peculiar now to Britain, seems likely to extend to the other countries of the western world because it is so closely related to the celebrity fever that seems to infect those cultures. As we trade gossip about the slimness of a celebrity who recently gave birth or criticizes one who looks a little dowdy while carrying her new infant, we should pause and think about the pressures such expectations put on ordinary women all around us. The sleep deprivation, postpartum adjustments, and looming worries that the new mother has to face are compounded by the new imperative to be beautifully groomed and fashionably clad. 

Susi Geiger’s article reveals the way in-vitro fertilization is advertised around the world. She interrogates the manner in which age-old images of motherhood are adapted by this brave new world and questions the contradictions and ethical dilemmas that are hidden by such nostalgic imagery. Geiger analyzes the dehumanizing aspects of fertility treatments and argues that they make a “cyborg” out of the hopeful mother. The last essay, by Susan Dobscha, analyzes the explosion in the blogosphere caused by a Clorox ad that depicts six generations of American women, and represents the current generation by featuring a pregnant woman with her belly exposed. Readers will be able to intensely feel the ambivalence that Dobscha documents in recounting the arguments among women on the Internet regarding the ad’s implications.

The responses to the essays are as interesting as the essays themselves. The responses reveal different views of fertility clinics, shared insecurities about personal appearance, puzzled expressions over cultural differences, and righteous indignation—themes and concerns that run through both issues—about the absurd expectations that societies establish for mothers today.

I look forward to the next issue, in which three more articles will expand upon the work in this issue by analyzing the consumer choices that mothers face over the first years of child-rearing. We will see a different kind of pressure imposed on mothers and new ways of glamorizing the myriad challenges that most young mothers must face with trepidation. I am sure that readers will agree that this group offers important, unique insights into the many ways that mothering, advertising, and the market interact.

Linda M. Scott