What’s a hot mom?” my friend asks when I in-quire where she thinks I can find some. Tentatively she adds, “Are we hot moms?”
I scoff and then instantly feel bad, both because she is hot and because I’m adopting a defensive stance toward a subject that’s more complicated than its surface triviality makes me want to admit. The problem, or one of them, anyway, is that the very idea of the hot mom is predicated on a false dichotomy that’s probably as old as civilization but still annoying: that hotness is the opposite of momness. To be a hot mom then, particularly in L.A., the capital of hot mommies and hot mommy backlash, is to embody a contradiction—one that, to be honest, I wasn’t aware of until I had my own child three years ago.
Like many notions about how women should behave in the so-called postfeminist era, the question of how sexual attractiveness squares with the end result of procreative sex is frustrating in that button-pushing way that seems only to entrench it in the biases that already surround it. The subject of hot moms feels best approached in a hazmat suit, with a bomb-defusing robot leading the way. The woman we imagine—and see all over town—appears never to have been kept up at night or vomited on in public. At her most idealized, she is a creature of seemingly superhuman breeziness. Her casual, carefree beauty is in itself an upping of the ante, as in “I see your hotness and raise it a kid.” To be a mother in L.A., especially a new one, is to feel forever measured against her standard. Which is to say we must look as though postpartum exhaustion and personal neglect never took place (as perhaps, in some cases, it didn’t—hello, Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Camille Grammer!). This L.A.-specific hotness—telegraphing as it does that these women never have to endure their offspring pitching a fit at Costco—implies a certain level of leisure and money that most of us don’t have. It communicates its priorities clearly and without self-consciousness: Motherhood may be magical, but hotness is nonnegotiable. While of course many attractive mothers go to work each day, the hot mom phenomenon is its own hypothetical argument against labor (pardon the pun) of any kind except maybe as it relates to muscle tone.
Naturally this makes it enormously fashionable. In the past decade or so the hot mom phenomenon has split into multiple personalities: the United States of the Hot Mom. It’s gone mainstream, inspiring TV shows, blogs, and books dedicated to sexy and stylish motherhood, from The Real Housewives of every major city and some minor ones to chatty, girlfriend-y guides like The Hot Mom Handbook. Yet as much as many of us feel ideologically bound to resist the archetype, the alternatives can be similarly fraught. It’s not only the dumpy mom of “mom jeans” infamy that haunts us (especially here); it’s also the mom on the other end of the spectrum: the trying-too-hard-mom, the mom who tips the balance from high standards to parody.
When you Google “hot mom,” porn sites cascade down the screen, part of the “MILF” legacy attributable to Stifler’s mom, the character played with transcendent absurdity by Jennifer Coolidge in the 1999 comedy American Pie. In those Precambrian days, before the word housewives became linked with desperate in both scripted and unscripted fictions, Stifler’s mom wasn’t just sexy and funny—she was funny because she was sexy. Her sexuality, rather than being hemmed in by motherhood (as God and the Victorians intended), was rendered berserk by hormones in the style of an irradiated ’50s sci-fi monster. By the time the Fountains of Wayne recorded the hit single “Stacy’s Mom” in 2003, though, the scorching sexuality of the titular mom (model Rachel Hunter in the video) wasn’t being played for laughs anymore but for real.
Today women like her aren’t viewed as aberrations; herds of them stalk the wilds of basic cable, dressed inappropriately, lips and boobs out to there. It’s easy to dismiss them yet also impossible not to acknowledge their influence. In its first season, Pregnant in Heels, the reality show about the adventures of the Manhattan-based “pregnancy concierge” and fashion designer Rosie Pope, featured women who seemed completely uninterested in caring for the infants they were about to deliver. The more Pope quizzed her clients on their “baby readiness,” the more they balked at the suggestion that they were put on this earth to do much more than look fabulous.
The women on the show are meant to come across as appalling. Their stories are chosen for this purpose, as cautionary tales that prove that when you take this hot stuff too seriously, the mom stuff goes out the window. Granted, these are not necessarily the same women we see at the Malibu Country Mart on weekday mornings, pushing their Bugaboos and cutting through Madison on the way to the playground. But they represent the kind of either-or thinking that keeps us conflicted. It makes me wonder if maybe our ambivalence toward the hot mom is her most salient quality, which is saying almost nothing and also a lot.
Photograph by Peggy Wong