At my last haircut I told my stylist I wanted to go short, but, like, French-girl short, not "mom hair" short. She nodded immediately. Because, of course, I don’t want mom hair. I left the salon feeling light and bouncy. When I texted my sister a selfie, she replied with, “yessss HOT mom!” There’s pressure on women at all stages of life to be attractive, but there's something particularly gratifying about being perceived as not just a mom, but a hot mom.
My desire to be hot didn't start after birth—I was told through Barbie, through animated mermaids, through the cool clique in high school, through the manic pixie dream girls of the early aughts, by everyone, really, that to be hot was to be valuable. And by hot, I mean thin, conventionally very pretty, and sexually desirable. Catching a man’s interest was the pinnacle of mattering.
So I muddled through unfortunate wispy bangs and purple braces until I felt something close to hot in college. My boobs emerged and I wore tight tops from Wet Seal. My look has changed through the years (Abercrombie & Fitch clone, Anthropologie boho, quirky boys T-shirts from Goodwill to communicate that I was "chill"), but my goal was always the same: to be whichever version of "hot" the guy I was with wanted. Eventually, all this effort led to an engagement, which led to a wedding, which led to my ultimate performance of hotness: blushing bride. Everyone told me I was beautiful, and I stuffed myself with external validation until I felt full.
In my first trimester of pregnancy, I frantically googled “cute bump,” “bump vs. bloat,” and “celebrity maternity style.” Olivia Wilde was aspirational. Beyoncé was otherworldly. “Have you popped yet?” asked my cousin over the phone, to which I would woefully respond in the negative. When my soft belly finally turned hard and round, I felt relief, and the relief was justified when people said, “You can’t even tell you’re pregnant from the back!” Or “You’re so tiny!” Or “All belly!”
Writer Ashley Fetters wrote about mom jeans (and how adding “mom” to anything renders it immediately uncool) for The Atlantic, referencing the famed SNL sketch that includes the line “I’m not a woman anymore. I’m a mom.” And while the sketch is hilarious, I think it rings eerily true for many of us. Recovering from childbirth in the hospital, the nurses all called me “mom” as if my real name—my real self—was no longer relevant.
Following my baby’s birth, I battled postpartum depression. Calling my baby “my son” felt weird. Calling myself a “mother” felt weirder. Whenever a stranger called me "ma’am" instead of "miss," I worried I had crossed an invisible line into matronhood from whence I might never return. One afternoon, after unloading a bag of diapers and pureed pears from my Subaru, I put the baby down for a nap so I could ogle 20-year-old Madewell models and create a plan for how I might look more like them instead of what I was: a 30-year-old trying to figure out motherhood in rural New Hampshire. Every model looked so full of potential, so full of life left to be lived. They seemed unconcerned with tummy time. And they looked hot.
Maybe my appearance, which had always been important to me, was the first step toward retrieving the old me, the me that wasn’t crippled by the monotony of motherhood. Counting the minutes until nap time. Shaking the stupid shaky toys. Playing the same acid-trippy version of "Wheels on the Bus" to keep baby happy in the car. My life had gone from being largely focused on me—and what I might do or what I might be—to being wholly focused on someone else, and not in a particularly interesting way.
I started looking to mommy bloggers for help. Taza showed me that motherhood could be bright, colorful, and full of smiles. Or maybe I just needed a bold red lip. Amber Fillerup showed me being a mom could be akin to playing Motherhood Barbie with the right hair extensions, and James Kicinski-McCoy showed me via Bleubird, now Bleu, that motherhood could be photographed in ’70s-chic sepia tones in chill-as-hell Nashville. I respect these women and still follow a bunch of them, but I also understand looking a certain way is part of their brand. Their mommy aesthetic is their currency, and it doesn't always translate to moms without a million Instagram followers.
I realize now that my attempts to be seen as a hot mom are attempts to be seen as myself—that is to say, a person with sharp edges, who wants to be seen as smart and interesting; a person with a fierce, undying love for the episode in Schitt’s Creek in which David bombs at bagging groceries. Who I was before I became Mom. I’m a feminist but I live in the world, which means the simplest tool for self-performance and self-assertion has always been my appearance. Feeling seen and respected remains stubbornly linked to my desirability.
So, am I hot? Well, my personal style has evolved into exactly what I want it to be: tomboy in the woods (albeit with dewy skin and painstakingly balayaged hair). And while part of me wishes I could fully transcend the pressure to be an attractive mom, there’s another part of me that is happy my version of hot is no longer based solely on a man’s preference. I feel hot in cotton bralettes with zero support, nubby fisherman sweaters, and button-fly high-waist jeans that look vintage but aren't because vintage jeans are uncomfortable. Maybe all these choices scream “New Hampshire mom,” maybe they scream "hot mom, but chill." But maybe what matters more is how the person making these choices feels, which is like herself.
Sara Petersen is a writer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Follow her on Twitter @slouisepetersen.
Originally Appeared on Glamour