The rise of the ‘yummy mummy': popular conservativism and the neoliberal maternal in contemporary British culture
This is a brief post summarising (much of it paraphrased) the above article, which analyses the rise of the ‘yummy mummy’ – I’m not a huge fan of cultural studies, but I like this…. It’s helped me understand why I’m so intolerant of them, and why I’m right to be.
What is the yummy mummy?
In short, she is a white, thirty something in a position of privilege, shoring up the boundaries against the other side of the social divide (so-called ‘pramfaces’).
The yummy mummy, as constructed through autobiographical celebrity guidebooks and ‘henlit’ novels espouses a girlish, high consuming maternal ideal as a site of hyper-individualised pyschological ‘maturity’. ‘Successful’ maternal femininity in this context is often articulated by rejecting ‘environmentally-conscious’ behaviour – disavows wider structures of social political and ecological dependency in order for its conservative fantasy of autonomous, individualising retreatism to be maintained.
Whilst the characteristics of the yummy mummy might appear as changeable as her clothing, most often the term is used to symbolise a type of mother who is sexually attractive and well groomed, and who knows the importance of spending time on herself. She is, according to Liz Fraser’s book ‘The Yummy Mummy’s Survival Guide’ (2006) ‘the ultimate modern woman: someone who does not identify with the traditional, dowdy image of motherhood… who knows her Gap from her Gucci’.
There are various blogs and websites maintained by women ready to embrace the term, and is frequently used to describe glamourous celebrity mothers – books by Myleen Klass and Melanie Sykes are two well known examples in the UK.
Yummy mummys tend to think of themselves as exemplary successful individuals who are making the most of their lives and through their high-consumption lifestyles they demonstrate to the rest of us that it is possible to ‘have it all’ – the children, the job and the looks. Truly, they are (in their heads) the ultimate modern women.
However, just as with the yuppie, or the new man, the emergence of the yummy mummy can also be read as indivative of an underlying social crisis, in which case her emergence can tell us about how ideas of feminity and parenting are changing and about the times in which we are living….
Most obviously the yummy mummy positions the mother as a sexually desirable being. This is a substantial cultural shift – previously, mothers had been perceived as asexual.
For generations, patriarchal norms had typically constructed women as either Madonnas or Whores – either asexual Sacred Virgins or sexual beings deserving of brutalisation (hence witches being burnt at the stake) – It was precisely this myth of the asexual female which second wave Feminists such as Germaine Greer, Ann Oakly and Kate Millet criticised, (although little was said by any of them about the constructued asexuality of mothers in paprticular).
A brief history of motherhood in western cultures looks something life this (from Woodward 1997)
- The 1950s domestic goddess – groomed yet chaste
- The 1970s oppressed housewife – made-up and miserable
- The 1980s working mother – powerful and besuited
Given this history, the yummy mummy’s positioing as desirable and sexually active might be regarded as emancipatory because now mothers themselves are encouraged to look hot, however, there are other ways of intererepting the yummy mummy – as outlined below…
A) As expressing a very limited (traditional) femininity and sexuality
Littler points to three limitations with the yummy mummy’s sexuality
Firstly, certain aspects of performance come to be expected – mothers are not just allowed to express their sexuality but are expected to express a particular kind of sexuality. Treatments like facials, for example, are now advised as necessary and routine. As minor UK celebrity (I love this description) Melanie Sykes tells us….
‘Being a gorgeous mum just takes a bit of imagination and more planning than it did before, but you really have no exuse for sinking into frumption and blaming it on parenthood’
It is harder to imagine a clearer expression that this of how the onus, no matter the extent of resources or income, is on a self-governing subject to regulate herself. Such urgings are part of a wider canvas of neoliberal responsibilising through self-fashioning. In this context the yummy-mummy is an aspirational figure, with the specifics of how to become her outlined in various guidebooks suchaas The Fabulous Mum’s Handbook.
Second, sexuality is delimited because the preferred model of femininity is ultra-feminine – well-groomed, wearing fashionable clothes and being very slim. In other words, this is the extension of a fashion and beauty complext to the post-pregnant body.
Even the ‘slummy mummy’ still aspires to the yumm-mummy, the former being a Bridget-Jones type of mother – Still accepting the ideal, but endearing through her failure to live up to it. Both types (according to Mcrobbie) share in common a rejection of Feminism.
Third, the yummy mummy is more of a desired than a desiring object, although unlike with the pornoised MILF, there is something eerily infantile about the yummy mummy construction – part of the identity inolves a coming down to the level of the child and depoliticsing yourself, suggesting you are incapable of dealing with political issues, rather all you can do is consume.
(B) The yummy mummy as neoliberal agent (a social class based analysis)
In the UK there are generally two routes to motherhood, and there is now a signficant gulf between working class younger mothers who are demonised and middle class mothers in their 30s who are the ideal, and it is from this later type that the yummy mummy emerges.
The yummy-mummy is basically a high-consuming, stay at home mum drawn from the top 10% of society. She does not think about the wider social context which affects all mothers, because she does not have to, and rather than doing politics she retreats from public life and and focuses on a very delimitted range of concerns – deciding what consumer-oriented activities her and her child should engage in. The message of the yummy mummy is clear – you have the power to solve your own problems, and the solution to these problems is conusme more – no need to get political.
The problem with this is that the very visiable yummy mummy construction ignores completely the wider structural context of motherhood and parenting….
This context is that neoliberal policies have reduced support for working mothers make it very hard for most mothers to stay at home for any length of time outside a year’s paid maternity leave – Working conditions remain very unflexible and radically unfriendly to families. On top of this there is still an expectation that the mother will be the ‘foundation parent’ (NB recent changes to paternity leave may help change this). This makes it very hard for parents (and especially women) to combine work and soical care in equitable and supportive fashion –
As a result the majority of mothers (say 90%) simply do not have the resources to be yummy mummys, only (say 10% do), and it is these 10% who get the air-time and get to publish books and tell the other 90% what they should be worrying about.
Thus in sociological terms the yummy mummy is a neoliberal agent whose function is to encourage individualisation and responsibilisation on the part of all mothers and to demonise mothers who are working class, in any way political and/ or do not subscribe to a tradtionally feminine (infantalised) sexuality.
C) – Finally, the yummy mummy is inherently anti-environmental
She is basically a pro-corporate consumer, and she has wider agency in encouraging and driving consumerism. In many contemporary novels, high end consumers are often contrasted against frugual-consumer mothers who are cast as freaks and social misfits.
It is not hard to see why the yummy-mummy is anti-environmental when you think that environmentalism is overtly political whereas the YM is high-consumption, individualistic and narcissistice.
This article has helped me understand my own high degree of irritation at yummy mummys and thier brats disturbing my peace and quiet in coffee shops around Reigate. Before reading this I was somewhat concerned that I should find this so annoying.
Now, however, I realise that I haven’t just been being irritated by the mums their brats, it must have been my unarticuclated subconscious telling me that these people are the shallow, selfish, narcissistic agents of neoliberalism.
In short, my peace in those coffee shops was being disturbed by the agents of everything that’s wrong with global politics, not to mention the reproduction of it at the level of the life-world.