October 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Keeping mum

By Kaz Cooke
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The mummies in ads and the fashion pages and celebrity magazines are really starting to get to me. There are hundreds of them on TV selling Panadol or "health" bars, and they all seem to be snapping back to their pre-baby figures like industrial-strength rubber corsetry.

While the mothers of my nanna's generation were judged on their ginger fluff sponges and lack of dust in the crevices, today's mothers need to do all that and pull down a wage, but most of all be a "yummy mummy", a trim-figured youngster always poised for public view and approval, up to pussy's bow with topiaried pubes, pedicures, hairstyles, fashions, facials, light-reflecting make-up, coloured hair and high-hoisted bosomry. Mothers, as well as working outside and inside the home, for pay and not for pay, and cleaning up other people's sick, should look like sex workers, or Nelly Furtado in the video for her single ‘Promiscuous'. Nelly's a mother but has the good commercial sense to writhe about like a stripper.

Being a mother - no, wait, looking like a mother - has become a badge of dishonour. And of all the modern insults, isn't "mumsy" an absolute pearler? The Cambridge dictionary helpfully explains that the word describes a woman with an old-fashioned appearance, like that of a traditional mother, and supplies this delightful example: As she became more successful, she changed her mumsy hairstyle for something more glamorous. The Oxford chaps say it means homely and unfashionable, adding: chiefly humorous, one's mother. As in, "Oh, Mumsy, why don't you look like Pamela Anderson?" Other dictionary definitions include: old fashioned, drab, frumpy, dowdy, disagreeably mother-like, a lady who looks like a mother, a way to describe something your mother would do. And in the garment world, a "mumsy" is not, as you may have thought, a leopard-print crotchless one-piece lingerie-style thingy (that's a teddy), but a crocheted brooch in the shape of a chrysanthemum.

"Mumsy" suggests cardies and dowdy tracksuit pants, being built for comfort and not for speed, being a little thick around the middle and unkempt up the top. Me, actually. "Mother of all -" (battles, wars, underpants) suggests a gargantuan event, or all-consuming, enormous ... well, me, again. Thank you for not calling me Fatimah Boombah.

Film star Kate Hudson's not mumsy, oh no, she's sprayed shimmery golden and has floaty blonde hair and teeth as white as a bathroom basin and wears a size 000 (which, as mothers know, fits a newborn up to three months old). Goodness, these mummies are all so madly fit and tanned, where do they get the time to do their fingernails? Angelina Jolie manages to steal husbands (boo), save the Third World (hurrah), shut down Namibian airspace over her holiday house (what?), go adopterama (um) and give birth (okaaay), all while looking like a Bratz doll with tatts and a rock-chick wardrobe. No elasticised waists for her, by jingo.

Judging from school drop-off, most mums make a decent but not full-on effort in the grooming department before 8.30, unless they work outside the house and must put on a good show for the customers/in the office. Some don't need to go to much trouble, bless 'em: they're just naturally young, gorgeous, slim mums who show their tummies. To use a Kim-ism, old groganny, mumsy ones, like me, would only show their tummies if they fell over in an unexpectedly involved manner and were then so embarrassed they closed their eyes and pretended to be dead.

I tend to be either in pyjamas, sarong and gumboots or in "meeting clothes". Once, in April, my hair was done. I have no idea what I look like from behind, and I'm not asking you to tell me. I think I know if my bum looks big in this, and frankly I don't care to dwell.

There are some dads, I am pleased to say, holding their end up marvellously in the let-yourself-go stakes, with mismatched sideburns and wearing quite disgraceful, mis-shapen old hand-knits and jeans which have never been taken up to the right length and go that accordion shape round the ankles, with that frayed billygoat's beard at the back of the hem. It makes you like them. If they looked like those poncy bastards in the fashion ads, you'd hate their guts.

Rather than a huge rivalry between mums, I've always felt a camaraderie with most of them; I don't care whether they work at home or not, whether they're half dressed or all frocked up, and whether or not they're 20 years younger, 12% less confused, 76% firmer and 93% more radiant. Probably because I need them to tell me stuff, like whether it's curriculum day and that I seem to have sat in something.

"Mumsy" is the most hurtful word snarled by those fashion harpies Trinny and Susannah, who have their own TV show, What Not to Wear, in which they harangue and prod women to buy new clothes, and force them to stand in front of endless 360-degree mirrors in their pants until they cry, and make them say to the camera that they will try to make more of an effort for their husbands. Women described as "mumsy" know they're at the bottom of the pecking order, and Trinny and Susannah are just the chooks to get the message across. "Don't hide your tits!" was one of their charming BBC bon mots.

No, by all means, ladies, take the hokey-pokey approach, get your breasts out of your bodice and wave them all about, wabbity-wabbity. Get a pair of thigh-high boots and some hotpants and chandelier earrings and a carroty fake tan, or you'll look like a big mumsy mum-mum. And how embarrassing would that be?

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