Written by Amélie Keyser-Verreault.
Many feminist analyses emphasize the influence of neoliberalism in changing maternity and causing intensified beauty pressure. In this article, I seek to inaugurate a discussion of the relationship between motherhood and the quest for beauty, primarily the phenomenon of a new sexy maternity in Taiwan’s neoliberal context. Since the rapid spread of neoliberal ideology might favour the inclusion of beauty as part of human capital—and non-Western societies can be thought of as directly affected by this global beauty culture—it is relevant to observe the phenomenon of regaining one’s body. One can do this by exploring the Western feminist analysis of the cult of beauty and the ideal of the yummy mummy in a non-Euro-American society, Taiwan.
While transition toward maternity is a massive change for women in Taiwan as elsewhere, there is – on the one hand – a continuity of social norms regarding aesthetic expectations and women’s continuous bodily beautifications on the other. For instance, the “skinny pregnancy (瘦孕)” phenomenon that promotes only 8 kg of weight gain during childbearing has grown into a prevailing mode. Another example of the intensification of beauty pressure is “Bony Beauty (懷孕骨感美)”, a recent fashion that materialized regarding an expectant mother who, throughout her entire pregnancy, looked precisely like a slender young girl, except for a slight belly. Thus, becoming a pregnant beauty and a Yummy Mummy after childbirth and always looking good has become a normative choice and an ongoing project of self-governance.
Under this influence of beauty cult, I also underline the ambivalence about women’s attitude toward maternity. On the one hand, maternity is seen as a devaluation of physical attractiveness due to bodily changes. Still, women seek to create an empowering continuum between single-hood and motherhood, mobilizing the quest of regaining one’s own body and other intensified aesthetic labours on the other. Firstly, many women consider maternity is a painful transition since many women said that pregnancy “breaks” women’s bodies—that is, their beauty. Thus,pregnancy is seen as a deterioration of women’s primary asset. Bodily changes such as getting fat, having a big belly, getting stretch marks, and changes in the breast’s texture or shape and the areola’s colour are incompatible with the Taiwanese ideal of feminine desirability. For these women, the zhenmei (正妹) ideal is undermined by the reality of a pregnant body. One of my interviewees made a typical remark: “The body of a woman who did not have kids is better, and everybody agrees with that.” Almost all the women I interviewed reiterated the same perception and told me that people around them agree on this perspective. Thus,pregnancy is seen as a deterioration of women’s principal asset. Secondly, despite this transitional bitterness, women seek to create an agentic continuity by doing various aesthetic labours to have a sense of empowerment. In Taiwan’s case, if these mothers seek to “erase the physical evidence of motherhood to ‘resemble’ the prepregnancy self,” it should not be seen as simple patriarchal coercion. According to another of my interviewees, “It is very important to get one’s figure back as soon as possible in order to look like a young woman without children. It is important not to look like a mummy.” Thus, the summit of pleasure-seeking is reached when a mother is mistaken for a pretty young girl.
We can also illustrate such ambivalence by the example of changing yuezi practices. Yuezi of “sitting the month” is a tradition that prescribes to the mother to rest for forty days after the birth of a child and follows various self-care and food consumption rules. The interaction of traditional practices of yuezi and the increasing beauty pressure is a new phenomenon, which often causes many interpersonal and intergenerational conflicts. Many informants underline how this is a recent phenomenon that marks a substantial generational difference.
For example, Linda told me that: “I have compared my mother’s photos before and after childbirth, and there is a huge difference! In their generation, there was no such thing as bouncing back after childbirth, but now women want to become what they looked like before becoming a mother.” Thus, in a major maternal magazine, we can find articles promoting some new practices of yuezi to keep the mother’s beauty capital attractive. For example, in an article of a popular maternity magazine, “Mommy and Baby” (嬰兒與母親 2016, no 471, p 111), we can read: “Does yuezi mean simply eat and sleep? Many new generations start to rethink these practices and find that the traditional postpartum practices mean simply eating more and sleeping more and learning to take care of the newborn. Still, there is not enough place for the concern of women’s changes in their physical attractiveness.” However, this desire of regaining one’s own body is often refused or trivialized by older family members during the postpartum period.
One typical situation is that some older family members oppose the necessity for such bodily beautification; another is that women’s relatives prepare a lot of high-calorie meals for them, hoping the mothers eat all the food. Thus, these glamorous mothers need to tactfully manage these complex family and social relationships to ensure their bodily projects. Some informants decided to order prepared yuezi meals, explaining that these meal companies target mothers who want to lose weight quickly and provide nutritious meals without many calories. At the same time, a few of them chose private postpartum-care establishments offering specialized meals and many beauty services, which helps them refuse unwanted or troublesome relatives. Another example of the changing yuezi is the interpretation of breastfeeding during yuezi. For instance, according to public health campaigns, breastfeeding symbolizes a mother’s best care for her infant.
In contrast, for many women, the idea that breastfeeding helps weight loss is also a pervasive theme. For example, Lisa said, “I chose breastfeeding because it supports me in my project to bounce back after being pregnant.” Many women affirm that they choose to breastfeed regardless of the babies health because they see it as an efficient weapon in bouncing back without much extra effort. Despite this ambivalent coexistence of changeover and continuum, this “in-betweenness” could be partly overcome, since, for instance, their spouse will inevitably remark women’s bodily changes and make negative remarks about this. Zhen-Qiu made an emblematic assertion about this bitterness of transition: “For unknown people, I can look like a young lady, but not for my husband who can see everything when I am naked… Pregnancy and motherhood are not things that give good feelings.” Due to the robust impacts of beauty pressure, I contend that it is time to promote body-positive attitudes toward mothers and maternal bodies.
Amélie Keyser-Verreault is a Postdoc Fellow at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University and at the Global Asia Research Centre, National Taiwan University.
This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan