Exercise in America has become an increasingly punishing pastime in recent years. Running a marathon, once king of impressive physical achievements, has been edged out by more brag-worthy endeavors like completing a triathlon or extreme obstacle course race. And the mild dehydration brought on by a hot yoga loses much of its wow factor when compared with the whole-body physical depletion experienced by CrossFitters, who have a reputation for working out until they puke, then continuing to work out. Things have gotten so extreme that people now have few opportunities to advance in this communal game of self-flagellating one-upmanship. One option is alter not the exercise itself, but the state of the person doing it. Enter the Fit Mom.
At New York’s the Cut, Allie Jones looks at the rising phenomenon of the Fit Mom, “a new class of Instagram celebrity made up of expecting and new mothers who work out a lot.” Instagrammers have used the #fitmom hashtag more than 7 million times, and tabloids have turned some of the more prominent moms into minor celebrities with thinspirational stories like “Why This Fit Mom Gained Less Weight During Her Third Pregnancy—with Twins!” and “Forget Sarah Stage—This Super-Fit Mom-to-Be Has Abs of Steel Over Her Pregnant Belly.” (To clarify, Sarah Stage is a woman who merely had a “tiny baby bump” and lacked the rock-solid muscular encasement that Stacie Venagro, the subject of this story, had.)
Time was, women saw the softening and broadening of their midsections as an inevitable and acceptable part of being pregnant. When I was pregnant, I read Vicki Iovine’s still popular and funny—though largely outdated—book The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, in which she tells women not to worry about exercising while pregnant. I went with it. Between working, walking my dog, and the various other quotidian demands of an urban bipedal life, I had little additional energy to spare.
But the combination of Instagram (and other social media–enabled methods of visual self-promotion), the ongoing incorporation of motherhood into celebrities’ personal brands, and the intense-exercise craze has created an atmosphere in which pregnant women and new moms are unduly rewarded for staying fit. These include Fit Mom Chontel Duncan, who has 564,000 Instagram followers and is, according to Jones, “famous for having a relatively small belly during pregnancy”; and Hannah Polites, who has 2 million followers and is also best known for “having a relatively small baby bump.” Their fame isn’t earned merely by staying active—something most doctors recommend in moderation—but by staying unusually thin.
Like all women, Fit Moms should be able to decide for themselves what kind of exercise and diet regime works best for them while pregnant, as long as it is doctor-approved. These women don’t need us telling them what to do. We also don’t need them telling us what to.
Unfortunately, many of the Fit Moms’ attempts at motivation morph easily into a critique of other women. Last month, Sia Cooper, a Fit Mom who painstakingly chronicled the deflation of her postpartum belly, told People: “We do not have to let ourselves go during pregnancy. If you can help it, help it. You owe it to yourself and your growing baby.” Her tone is similar to that of Maria Kang, the infamous and original Fit Mom, who’s still asking women what their “excuse” is for not exercising more.
The language of “letting yourself go” is not benign. Where exactly have these women’s selves gone? Nor is the claim that a not-fit-enough mom, by Kang’s standards, is hiding behind her “excuses.” Both assume that all women feel a need to account for the state of their bodies during and after childbirth when we shouldn’t and don’t. While not all Fit Moms are as critical as these two, they all share a taxonomical approach to the female form that pushes women to notice—and resent—bulges they might have never noticed before. (Such behavior has already brought us categorical wonders such as “muffin top,” “thigh gap,” and “chicken wings.” We don’t need more.)
In addition to making women feel terrible, the Fit Mom movement comes with physical risks for our children, too. Exercise during pregnancy is generally seen as perfectly safe, though doing a too-intense workout can reduce blood flow to the baby. Most doctors recommend that women shouldn’t try anything new or more difficult than they’re already doing after becoming pregnant—a message the Fit Mom Instagram universe doesn’t adequately communicate. Also, despite what People magazine says, a tiny baby bump can often be cause for concern, not praise. Health officials estimate that 30 percent of women don’t gain enough weight during pregnancy, which can lead to an increased risk that the fetus won’t develop properly while in utero and of infant mortality during the first year of life. Another study found that women who gain too little weight during pregnancy may be more likely to have an overweight child—something I can’t imagine many in the Fit Mom community taking kindly to.