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The Facebook Fit Mom and the Endless Cycle of Mommy Judging

October 22, 2013
Dr. Peggy Drexler

Recently, California mom of three Maria Kang became headline news after a photograph she posted to her Facebook account more than a year ago suddenly went viral. The picture shows 32-year-old Kang, toned and tanned in a sports bra and short shorts kneeling behind her three young sons beneath the provocative caption, "What's Your Excuse?"

The photo got millions of views on Facebook and the response was nothing less than fierce. Many took the photo as inspiration; much-needed proof that goals can be achieved if people stop making excuses. And indeed, Kang looks good. But others shot back, in comments that reached the tens of thousands, that Kang was a bully, "an idiot" and fake, out to fat shame women into Maxim-established conformity.

The photo likely served, to different degrees, to motivate, inspire, brag and, just maybe, shame a bit -- how could it not? As someone who claimed she's struggled with weight issues and her own genetics in the past, Kang must have known that the 'if I can do it, anyone can' assertion would be hitting an essential nerve, especially among those who may have tried and failed (and hasn't everyone, at one point or another?) At the same time, Kang said, her own obstacles are precisely why she feels change is possible for most who make the effort.

But the conversation quickly moved off of weight and healthy eating and the "awareness of obesity" Kang says she was trying to raise. Instead, though perhaps not surprisingly, many women -- moms in particular -- used the photo as evidence of Kang's shoddy dedication as a mother, as if tight abs leads to neglected children. Wrote one commenter, "My kids are my first priority. If what you say is true you are a very busy working mom with no nanny. Where are your kids while you're spending all your free time working on you? ...Put some clothes on and spend some time with your children." Wrote another, "Those precious little things need their mommy more than they need you to have glamour muscles."

The message these women are sending, of course, is that in order for mothers to be considered "good moms," they need to put aside, or at least appear to put aside, all other areas of their lives that may take up time. "Good" mothers are necessarily limited to motherhood. "Good" moms would rather have happy kids than look good in skinny jeans, or excel in business, or cook gourmet meals every night, as if happy kids means abandoning all else. Doing well at something outside motherhood must, then, mean failing at the essential task of taking care of your children.

Time and again, these either/ors imposed on women -- often by women -- are limiting and judgmental, and yet people continue to insist on issuing them. A recent survey found that 90 percent of mothers judge other mothers for the choices they make as parents and as women. Worse, there's no way to avoid such judgments: A mother might be judged for keeping a messy house. Or she might be judged for having things "too perfect" or making things look "too easy." Which exposes the real question at the heart of moms judging moms: Is it easier -- is it necessary -- to find comfort in others' failures?

The answer, sadly, is probably. Judgment of others is, in fact, an extension of judgment of one's self. When people succeed, they may judge others for not being able to succeed in that same way. When people fail, they judge others who didn't fail in order to feel better about our own shortcomings. Chances are if Kang had posed for that photograph as a successful businesswoman, wearing a nice suit and standing in front of a nice car with her three children, she likely would have received a response quite similar to the one she got.

If Kang didn't start this particular battle, she at least played to a particular reality. Her original message that if she 'can find the time to work out, everyone can' is a statement designed for making others feel inadequate. The fact is that people have plenty of "excuses" Kang couldn't possibly know about. By posting the photo, and its missive, on a public forum, she was issuing judgment on others -- and she had no reason to expect anything but judgment in return. And that's the cycle that needs to end.