Wearing Our Shame: Motherhood, Clothing, and Self-Denial

by Courtroom Mama on July 19, 2010

Scarlet Letter

Forever 21 recently announced that it will be adding a maternity line, Love 21. Media have jumped on this, claiming that the line is being targeted to states with high teen pregnancy rates. One site asks readers whether they are “offended” by the addition of the new line. Offended? Not any more offended than I am that Old Navy only sells the jeans that fit me online.

The theory is, of course, that by making non-hideous maternity wear, the store is encouraging pregnancy in the segment of its clientele that is Not Yet 21. A number of responses expose the flap as bunk and un-news, mostly circulating around the theme of “I am over 21 and I shop there!” or “that ‘correlation’ is really reaching.” Indeed, there is probably some unknown, unrelated 3rd variable that makes the states with high teen pregnancy rates coincidentally good test markets for the line (like number of malls, age distribution of population, popularity of that style of fashion, etc.). With all the stigma that we heap on teen mothers, the fact that they can only dress in tents and sails is the least of the factors that makes teen motherhood a less-than-compelling option. And anyway, are pregnant teenagers more likely to be shopping at Forever 21, or at less expensive stores like WalMart or Target that already carry “fashion conscious” maternity lines (i.e. not giant t-shirts that say “Bun in the Oven”)? Far more interesting than the clothing line underlying the controversy is the fact that this would be considered even possibly controversial.

This reminds me of a recurring theme in my inbox: the C-Panty. The C-Panty is underwear created specifically for use post-cesarean. I can’t tell you how many times this underwear technology in its million incarnations has been forwarded to me with some sort of “ugh! I can’t believe this exists!” note attached. Honestly, I’m not crazy about the idea of elective cesareans without medical indication either, but if someone had told me that such undergarments existed when I was recovering from my surgery, I would have kissed their feet. Every pair of underwear I owned cut into the incision, and it was a year before the nauseating “hurty-numb” feeling of nerve damage dissipated and I could sit with my jeans buttoned.

Something about both of these controversies similarly rubs me the wrong way. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I could always be wearing elastic-waisted jeans, but can we really say with a straight face that teens are thinking about those wonderful elastic waists on stylish boot cut pants when they’re conceiving their babies? It’s not about incentives, it’s about the idea that clothing that fits = comfort. We’re grudgingly willing to accept that women act in ways we don’t approve of (assuming of course that the C-Panty is about maternal request cesareans–a stretch), but if they have the audacity to be comfortable, we just can’t abide it.

In my mind, this evokes the hair shirt, a garment worn in Biblical times and the Middle Ages to show penance through constant discomfort. Saints and martyrs literally dressed themselves in atonement.

What I want to know is what if there were a line of clothing just for teen mothers, something trendy to make them feel a little less like lepers among their peers. As it stands, many people see parenthood as the punishment for the transgressive act of unwed female sexuality (lest we forget, it’s not the age of motherhood moving back, it’s the age of marriage moving forward).  Are ugly clothing simply the wages of sin, a modern scarlet letter? Is having to throw out all your underwear the punishment for vanity, or how one “proves” that a cesarean was against her wishes? The message seems to be that mass-produced clothing is made for people who are “normal” and therefore creating mass-produced clothing for teen moms and cesarean moms is “normalizing” something we don’t want to be considered normal. Aside from having some weird ableist undertones fundamentally incompatible with the spectrum of human bodies, this seems to be singling out and picking on people who already have enough to deal with.

Food for thought: note the lack of moral panic when American Apparel introduced its maternity line*. Everybody knows that only Olympic gymnasts can fit into their lilliputian fashions – is the difference that Forever 21 has a not-too-parenty age in its name?  Or is it that gold lamé maternity unitards are per se punishment?

*Granted I don’t think this counts as an actual maternity line if the items aren’t specially cut for pregnant bodies. C’mon, people, haven’t there been enough visible celebrity pregnancies for us to be past the whole “just buy it in XXL” strategy?

(h/t Momotics)