I worried about losing myself when I became a mom. This manifested in me spending the first year of my son’s life pushing the stroller the nine blocks back and forth from day care in 4-inch stilettos that required me to hunch over at an ungodly angle. It was extreme, and I don’t recommend it, but at least nobody could call me frumpy!
In addition to good shoes, my sexuality has always been an important part of my identity. I revel in the performance of femininity, whether it’s my acrylic nails, my lash extensions or my near-exclusive preference for dresses and skirts. I like to feel sexy on my own terms. Being sexy shouldn’t always be a priority, but gosh, I think it can be fun!
As someone who has struggled with self-esteem issues across a range of body sizes, that feeling of desirability is hard won. So sometimes, when I feel it, I take a photo and post it to my Instagram story, where it will self-destruct after 24 hours.
They’re never pornographic, but I’ll post a selfie in a swimsuit I feel good in, in one of my beloved loungewear sets that prominently features my not-meager amount of cleavage, in one of my clingy “activity dresses” that I’m convinced are for sex, not exercise.
Seeing a photo of myself, in this body, in which I feel sexy, is incredible therapy. And for those of us in marginalised bodies, like mine, seeing others share images like these can be revelatory.
And sometimes I simply like the way I look. Women are encouraged to cultivate a pleasing appearance since birth, but never to show satisfaction with our efforts. We are supposed to be embarrassed about feeling pretty, or taking pleasure in that feeling. We’re to be always quietly striving for beauty without seeming to be, never feeling like we measure up.
In a world where women waste decades just learning to like ourselves, I consider succeeding in that task an accomplishment, not something to be ashamed of.
Recently, I was intrigued by an Instagram trend in which users would post an anonymous message box through an app called NGL, mostly because it seemed low-key horny, eliciting crush confessions and declarations of the user’s hotness. It felt self-indulgent in a slightly embarrassing way, but if you read the previous paragraphs, you know I’m not against self-indulgence on principle.
So I downloaded the app and posted a semi-sheepish message eliciting confessions, questions and compliments, and asking people to be “nice-ish.”
And overwhelmingly, they were! But, look, you know there’s gonna be a mean one. The whole exercise is basically asking for a mean response. And I’ve been writing on the internet for over a decade, so I have a handful of haters.
Thus, while I received dozens of extremely kind messages and thoughtful questions, I wasn’t surprised or bothered when someone made fun of my eyeliner (it goes on my face, why would I care what you think about it?) and the quality of one of my tattoos (LOL, what a nerd).
But then one message I got did give me pause.
“Do you think you’ll ever stop with the constant narcissist risque selfies considering you’re a mom to a teen now?” the sender wrote. “There’s truly zero cringe? It’s not because of your size at all btw. Even if you were a size 2 it’d be a bit unusual.”
Criticising someone’s parenting is a low blow. Bringing a child into it (who, for the record, is 10 years old, not a teen) is a low blow. Parenting is such a difficult job, with very limited direction, and moms in particular are always being criticised for the choices they make as a parent. Whether we breastfeed or don’t, stay home or go back to work, give our kids “screen time” or don’t, we are scrutinised in a way that fathers rarely are. The end result is that I don’t think I know a single mom who actually believes she’s doing a good job.
When someone tells me I’m a good mom, I deflect. “That’s nice to hear,” I’ll say, “but I don’t feel like one.”
For someone to come right out and even hint that I’m a bad one, however ... that story has claws that sink in.
The allegation that I had been somehow inappropriate, the implication that I might be harming my son in some way ― I didn’t believe these things logically, but the suggestion hit me in an emotional place, as it was intended to do.
(As far as the postscript that this person’s feelings are not because of “my size,” that’s a whole other essay, but suffice it to say that larger bodies are often sexualized in ways that thin bodies are not, leading me to wonder if my selfies would be seen as quite as “risque” if, for instance, my breasts were smaller.)
Women’s sexuality is policed and stigmatised our whole lives. But if we make the decision to raise children, we are expected to adopt motherhood as the totality of our identity, shedding our old selves instantly. Motherhood immediately casts its long shadow over our essential humanity in a way that it simply doesn’t for men.
Nowhere is that more evident than with sex and desire. Whether we’re 20 or 30 or 40, we’re expected to pack it in when it comes to the joy of human sexuality. After all, we’re someone’s mother now!
Resisting this narrative is difficult, which is why I relish seeing Cardi B posing in skintight pants next to her baby’s stroller, or the fact that Zola’s Instagram bio once read “Mom 1st, ho immediately afterward.” Seeing a mother unapologetically express her sexuality is rare enough that I keep these instances in my mental “hot mom goals” file folder.
The only time a mother’s sexuality is routinely celebrated in our culture is when it’s performed for the pleasure of men. Our top porn searches are some variation of the term “milf,” but if a woman posts a sexy selfie for her own enjoyment or empowerment, she’s somehow corrupting her child despite the fact that he’ll never even see it. (My 10-year-old is not on Instagram, and my Instagram account is private.)
Yet, when a raunchy male comedian details his sexual exploits in his act, or a male actor poses in his underwear or takes his shirt off for a movie role, absolutely no one ever, ever asks what his kids will think. No, men are allowed to retain their personhood, and all its attendant desires, despite having children.
A few years back, a strange man slid into my DMs after I posted a story photo in a sheer-ish sleep camisole and shorts. “How did it work” to sleep in something so sexy when I had a young child, he wanted to know. Do you worry about him needing something during the night?
I don’t think I’d trip over my tits trying to get him a glass of water, I thought to myself.
Never mind the fact that I had posted the photo from my then-boyfriend’s house, where I hadn’t even been with my son. When you’re a mother, people always assume your kids are in proximity or else are alarmed that they are not, like the men in my neighbourhood who drink on the street and shout “Where is he?” at me if I dare to traverse to the deli alone.
But even if I’d been home, I couldn’t imagine a situation in which what I was wearing to bed would affect my son at all.
Whether it’s a “Ladies Man” onesie or the insistence that a toddler is “flirting,” people are forever projecting adult sexuality onto children when, in reality, young kids just don’t sexualise things like that. Some parents sleep naked! Some shower with their children. Just because this guy might look at my body in sleepwear and consider it sexual does not mean my child would.
So what if he needs something in the night? It was taking care of my son in the middle of the night after he woke up vomiting ― stripping the bed and his clothes, half-awake ― that first made me feel I’d earned the right to call myself his parent. Putting him in the tub at 2 a.m., peeling off my own vomit-splattered clothing, remaking the bed with clean sheets, then doing it all over when the same thing happened again an hour later, because I was his mother and who would do it but me?
I can’t remember what I wore to bed any of those nights, and I guarantee my son doesn’t either. He only remembers me rubbing his back and putting him back to bed. He remembers that he was safe and warm and loved.
Yes, my son is growing older. And part of the work of mothering a son, to me, is making sure he understands the humanity of women.
It’s why I explain to him what catcalling is and how it makes me feel when it happens, or why we can’t stay in the park safely anymore once it starts to grow dim. I want him to understand the nuances of women’s experiences, to be aware of the alternate reality we sometimes seem to live in.
But more than anything, when he grows to be a man, I want him to understand, in a way men do not always, that women are three-dimensional people. The best way I have to model that personhood is to insist on retaining my identity beyond simply being “his mother.”
Additionally, sex isn’t stigmatised in our household, and as a result he’s not ashamed to come to me with his sometimes very frank questions about it. By having open discussions about these topics, I hope to teach him that sex is an enriching and pleasurable part of adult life, not something “bad” or secretive.
Motherhood is an important part of who I am, but I am a whole person, and I insist on embodying every multifaceted part of myself, including the part of me that likes posting a photo to my private social media where you can see three-quarters of the tops of my boobs. (And it might be “cringe,” but according to my son, that word applies to pretty much everything I do.)
So, no, I’m not going to “stop with the” sexy selfies just because I’m a mom. And I refuse to be ashamed of it.
Emily McCombs is the deputy editor of HuffPost Personal. She writes and edits first-person essays in all topic areas including identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), love and relationships, sex, parenting and family, addiction and mental health, and body politics.