When Susanne and I were still trying to get pregnant, we made an appointment to see a fertility specialist in Seattle, and were told that there was new paperwork to sign because the Federal rules had changed about informed consent and patient monitoring in light of the eight pregnancies Nadya Suleman had carried to term in California. Ms. Suleman was known more popularly as “Octomom,” and derided in the media as a bad mother even before the birth of the eight children, because she wanted to birth all of them (she did also have other children at that time, but this wasn’t mentioned, in what I read back then, as the reason for questioning her parental fitness). Eight embryos didn’t magically appear in her uterus–some health practitioner had to put them there (and in fact, 12 were transferred into her). Thus while the question of malpractice or medical negligence was brought up by some of the talking heads, most of the attention was focused solely on why a woman would even want to carry and care for that many children. And although the medical board in California investigated the practitioner and subsequently revoked his license, it wasn’t he who came away with a derisive nickname.
In context, the TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus Eight was getting great ratings and later, a reality show about the Duggers, who have 19 children in Arkansas, also started on the cable channel. Yes, Ms. Suleman has courted some of this attention, gracing the cover of Star Magazine to show off her body and dole out exercise advice. But that shouldn’t absolve people from mocking her every move.
The tabloid press has never stopped questioning Ms. Suleman’s quality as a parent, blaring headlines about how much she spends on her hair to her declared bankruptcy, home foreclosure, attempts at getting her own television show, visits from Child Protective Services, and her appearance in a porn film. All of these activities are fodder for disparaging her, but it’s reached the point where even her friends have called CPS to look into her caregiving, saying that “the boys are in girls clothes and the girls in boys clothes. I can’t tell which is which.” Other details about the home environment and her choices include comments that she is “currently accepting” food stamps (quelle horreur) and that the plumbing doesn’t work (an actual concern). TMZ, classy publication that it is, even listed the amount Ms. Suleman receives in food stamps–$2,000 a month. Guess how much it would cost the State of California to put fourteen children into foster care, TMZ?
Five hundred dollars seems like a lot to pay for a haircut in any case, but it’s the unrelenting pressure on this woman and the decisions she makes that seems even more dysfunctional. Otherwise why not see more articles about great parents? It’s the perceived mental instability and sinfulness of Ms. Suleman’s behavior that keeps the press fascinated. But step aside, California cul-de-sac-dweller! There’s a new mother to admonish and ridicule! Meet Patricia Krentcil, who has helped our nation popularize another mashup term: tanorexia.
In the span of just a few weeks this New Jersey mother has gone from unknown to Saturday Night Live spoof skit. She becomes furious at the media when they stick microphones in her face. . . so of course reporters keep running up to her with electronic equipment. One entrepreneur with questionable taste has even created an over-tanned action figure in her likeness. All of this is because her 6-year-old showed up at the school nurse’s office with sun burns and said she often accompanied her mother to the tanning salon.
News shows across the cable and satellite universe caught fire reporting on Ms. Krentcil. Also over-tanned Snooki even weighed in, to which Patricia responded her comments were due to her jealousy over Krentcil’s results. Experts came out of the woodwork to discuss tanning as an addiction, and none of us should be shocked that very racialized statements about why a white woman would want to look so dark were made without an iota of self-reflection or context. Her face has been compared to a “truck tire,” “burned raisin,” “stretched leather,” and overdone toast. Surely becoming darker on purpose is a sign that she’s a bad mother, too, according to the fixated media.
Now Ms. Krentcil has been “banned” from tanning salons in New Jersey, some of which have even hung pictures of her face in their reception areas like a wanted poster. Because otherwise there would be no problem letting her in for an hour soak in the rays?
We do this, this point and laugh thing, all the time. Maybe it’s simpler to dwell on the person who looks extreme, with their extremely large stomach or overexposed skin, but these women are consuming services available to women across the country, and responding to messages about motherhood and beauty that somehow manage to go under the radar of critique. It’s not that we push women to become mothers, it’s that she wanted too many children at once (and without being married). It’s not that we create tanning salons for women to use, it’s that she goes too often. While there may be real safety issues at hand for these children—locking them in a room to get a haircut and not having working plumbing, or bringing them to a place that could endanger them with ultraviolet rays—the louder conversation here has been about ridicule and castigation.
In a context in which pregnant women are verbally abused by strangers in public who don’t agree with whatever behavior the mother-to-be is doing, Ms. Suleman and Ms. Krentcil are stark evidence that moms everywhere are under constant surveillance. Stressing out mothers seems hardly child-centered, but hey, we’re too busy pointing and laughing to notice.