Women's Artistic Motherhood

Screenshot from my motherhood/gymnastics parody video
In a recent article with a catchy title that poses the question "Is Watching Gymnastics Worse than Being an NFL Fan?" the author, Meghan O’Rourke, an ex-gymnast and longtime fan, writes about her conflicting feelings toward the sport. She’s both “enthralled by the spectacle of adolescent girls defying gravity” and yet can’t help but be reminded of its “history of sexual and emotional abuse” as well as its “amplification of adolescent body-image problems.”

Later, she goes on: “This year’s U.S. Championships were replete with many of the stranger trappings of the sport, the startling incongruities between the gymnast’s strength and her performance of girlishness — her spangled leotard, her beribboned hairdo, her makeup…”

As I read the article—an ex-gymnast and longtime fan myself—I related to much of what O’Rourke was saying. As I’ve written before, I’ve bristled at the sight of U.S. gymnasts in bright lipstick and heavy eye makeup. One of my favorite gymnasts, Aly Raisman, the reigning Olympic floor champion and the owner of body-builder-esque trapezius muscles, often posts about her pre-meet makeup choices on Instagram. At the same time, I can’t blame her. Raisman is 22. At 22, I straightened my hair and wore lots of black eyeliner. And yet when I try to imagine the U.S. women’s soccer team running down the field with lips in the shade of Nars’ Dragon Girl and colorful ribbons tying back their hair, it seems so silly.

But with gymnastics, it’s not silly—at least not straightforwardly so. After all, the full title of the sport is Women’s Artistic Gymnastics. That is, the women are being judged on their athleticism, on their ability to perform incredibly difficult skills, as well as on artistry—a word that, unlike Raisman’s muscles, eludes a clear definition. The most unambiguous one I could find was within the International Gymnastics Federation’s 2013-2016 “Code of Points,” which is the official and behemoth-sized rulebook for judging gymnastics skills.

Although numerous mentions of the word artistry or “artistic performance” exist, it isn’t until "Section 12—Balance Beam" that we get the following explanation: “An artistic performance is one in which the gymnast demonstrates her ability to transform her [routine] from a well-structured composition into a performance. In so doing the gymnast must demonstrate creativity, confidence of performance, personal style and perfect technique.” And then in a separate, one-sentence paragraph with a couple of bolded words (and one strangely capitalized H), we get:

            This is not “what” the gymnast performs, but “How” she performs.

In other words, gymnastics is a sport where you have to do it all. Style points literally count. You must perform jaw-droppingly difficult skills and look good doing it. I don’t think the same can be said for most other sports. (I’m specifically thinking of those triathletes that collapse across the finish line in a style that might best be described as “dying an extremely painful death.”)


The more I read O’Rourke’s piece, the more I began to relate less as a gym fan and more as a woman and mother. Just like my young gymnastics heroes, I too have felt the pressure to do it all.

Specifically: I want my body to work; for my belly to stretch to carry my children; to stretch—to put it gently—even more in order to birth them; and for my breasts to fill (read: stretch) with milk and therefore grow larger than they ever had been in my pre-child life. And yet I also want my body to “bounce back” to my pre-child level of thinness, to my pre-child muscularity. (Bounce is actually a horrible word for it, since, in order to work out—to run and jump—like I once did, I now have to wear two sports bras.) And then I want to adorn this imaginary post-child-yet-pre-child-level-of-thinness body with loose, shapeless dresses, wear no makeup, and appear effortlessly beautiful.

Like I did with my first son, I want to be at home with Isaac for at least his first year. I want to breastfeed him for at least that long as well. I want to know what he’s eating, to purée his food, change his diapers, and cover his face with kisses. Simultaneously, I also want to have time to take care of myself, my body, and my brain. I want to read, to work on my next book, to journal, to go to yoga; I want to have this long, sexy hair even though I can’t wear it down for more than two seconds without Isaac or Teddy painfully yanking on it.

I want to have a beautiful, clutter-free, clean house, and yet I also want to enjoy my home, to not feel, as psychotherapist Francis Weller puts it, “flattened under the weight of domestication, which, smothers the heat and howl of our wild selves.” Speaking of wild, I want my boys to run free. I want to run free. (Currently, my two-year-old is much more familiar with the vacuum and collecting “fuzzies” (dust balls) than the beach and collecting rocks/shells.)

I want to strive, strive, strive, push, push, push. And yet, I also want to suddenly come to a screeching halt in order to get those eight hours of sleep everyone is always reporting are so important to your health (read: not looking haggard).


Gymnastics has evolved in many ways over the generations. In the past, Bela Karolyi along with his wife, Martha, personally coached the majority of America’s top gymnasts. It was a notoriously strict, unsmiling atmosphere; O’Rourke speaks to this: “[The Karolyis], some former gymnasts have alleged, searched their bags for food and micromanaged what they ate in order to get them “in shape”; others felt they pushed them to train through damaging injuries.”

These days, Bela has long since retired. His wife Martha is not a personal coach; she’s the team coordinator—overseeing our nation’s best gymnasts at the once-monthly national training camps. This allows for the gymnasts to spend the majority of their training time at home with their own coaches. One of these top coaches is Kim Zmeskal, a former star pupil of the Karolyis, who in a recent interview, compared her coaching style to that of the Karolyis. “The environment, I think, is lighter than what it was for me growing up,” she says before relaying a story of how she and her fellow gymnasts—women she spent hours upon hours with almost daily—were not supposed to talk to one another while chalking up.

And perhaps time has softened Martha as well. According to O’Rourke: “Allegedly, [Martha] even ordered pizza for the national team once.” (Similarly, in a rare and radical act of self-kindness, one month after Isaac was born, I purchased myself a new pair of jeans that actually fit me!)

And yet, even with these improvements, O’Rourke reports to still finding herself “worried for tiny 19-year-old Madison Kocian” who seemed to her particularly fragile.

Likewise, even with the progress women have made over these same generations (I may hate pumping milk, but, hey, at least my health insurance covered the cost of my breast pump!), I’ve found myself worried not only for myself and the pressure I feel to do it all, but for young pregnant women everywhere.

In the words of acclaimed chef and owner of Tartine Bakery, Liz Prueitt: “Women in their early twenties don’t see it coming. It’s going to hit them… They think they’re hot shit in the workplace, and they’re going to suddenly discover that when they have a baby, everything comes to a screeching halt. The thing that these young women are going to find out is that it just keeps rolling along to the same conversation: How do women have it all? And it’s going to be in every magazine forever and it’s the wrong question.”


Referencing the sport’s inherent femininity and its simultaneous physical demand on the body, O’Rourke writes: “In being both those things at once, it speaks to all that remains unresolved in our ideas about the female body and its power.”

And while I agree that our ideas about the female body and its power are, indeed, unresolved, perhaps the gymnasts themselves have it figured out. Aly Raisman is performing world-class gymnastics; she looks good doing it; and (bonus points?) seems to have a really strong sense of self. As for me, as confused as I am—as torn between appreciating my body and criticizing it, between feeling endlessly grateful for motherhood and feeling trapped by it, between wanting to appear effortlessly pretty and wanting to literally put no time or effort into that aim—I remain hopeful for the future.

I don’t have any daughters, per se, but I’m hopeful for them to become mothers or to choose not to in a better, more evolved world; one with all sorts of women in all different sizes, ages, and colors, to look up to; a world with the option to be able to take time off from work to care for their babies as well as the option to be able to return to work the instant they want to. I wish for them partners who are able to help. I wish for them more affordable and better childcare. And of course, I also wish for them a future where all gymnastics competitions are given prime-time, NFL-style broadcast treatment.


Matthew said...

I give you a 10 in women's artistic motherhood! (I know they don't score it like that anymore.) xoxo

Unknown said...

Amen, sister! Such a great essay.

Unknown said...

Uh, and "unknown" above is EDAN LEPUCKI!

Petrone said...

I love this post. I don't have delicious babies but I feel the push and pull of this anyway, as an adult woman. Your sons (and husband) are very lucky to have someone who thinks so richly about life and asks hard questions. :)

GP said...

i am a working mother of two beautiful young women (one of them a budding gymnast) and the parallels between sport and motherhood were not only thought provoking but uplifting. we are in dire need of optimism and hope in today's world. thank you!

Unknown said...

what a great post. i had forgotten about all the gymnasts i used to follow. gymnastics was such a big important part of my life for so long, it was very nostalgic reading about it. and of course, all the commentary on motherhood and womanhood were so insightful. i love reading your stuff

Amelia Morris said...

@Petrone Thank you so much!

@GP Ahh, so glad you found it uplifting. This 24-hour news cycle is BRUTAL. Point being, thanks so much for reading!

@Carmen How is JUNOT?! xoxx

Linda said...

There is a new mystery out, I've only heard about it, not read it, called You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott about a young gymnastic star which, as a critic says, "transports the reader to the hyper-competitive arena of gymnastics where the dreams and aspirations of not just families but entire communities rest on the slender shoulders of one teenage girl". Other critics say it is an unnerving psychological suspense novel inducing equal parts dread and unease. I'm not sure if I will read it but it sounds interesting.

Unknown said...

This is a great post.

That constant battle between physically embodying one idea of how you want to look against how you want to look in relation to the life (lifestyle) that you have. I know this is a different situation, but I recently moved out of NYC to a beautiful town in Upstate New York. I'm slowly transitioning my career from the fitness industry to food & couldn't be happier BUT (there's always a 'but') I'm no longer working out for hours on end or counting and measuring my meals/calories. My new job has me tasting & eating much differently and some days I see changes in my body that upset me. I'm constantly reminding myself that this pressure, this guilt, this wish or will to be more disciplined, creative, domestic, active, fit, perfect, etc. is just downright silly, unattainable, and ultimately not what 'life is all about'.

Enjoy & embrace your body, your motherhood, your home, your family...these are the things that matter. And if it's any consolation, I frequently say to my boyfriend when getting ready, "Why can't I look effortlessly pretty in this drape-y dress like Bon Appetempt does?!" Yes, I refer to you as "Bon Appetmept", haha! You're always stunning in every video! Effortless, makeup-free, natural, billowy-dress beauty look absolutely perfected!!!

Amelia Morris said...

@Lindsey Yacobush ahh thank you so much for your thoughts (and compliments!). One thing i have realized in all of this is that it works for me, in a way, to have something to strive against--to push back against, you know? Like: the expectations on women are impossible and much of my inspiration in writing comes from this desire to "fight back." In that way, I realize that while it might not be "all easy," like Gwyneth's latest cookbook declares, it might be "all good." Point being, thank you for reading!! xoxx

Kat said...


Unknown said...

I love coming here for recipes and finding insightful essays! I'll add this note from a mama to two girls growing up in this beauty-obsessed world: At **cough, cough** 40 years old now, my post-baby body continues to change and not in the direction of my lean pre-kid days. When my girls point to my squishy middle, I tell them that I love how strong and capable my body is. I birthed two healthy babies, carry heavy stuff, run miles, and take care of loved ones. I hope they will keep these messages of self worth with them as they grow. Gymnastics classes are great outlet for my monkey-like kiddos; their smiles when they climb that gym rope to the ceiling are precious. Yet, I worry about the pressures this type of sport where beauty and form (very narrowly defined, I'll add) are valued above all else.

Booby and the Beast said...

For what it's worth, it took cancer to (mostly) get me to stop being critical of my post-baby body. CANCER! Which just goes to show we are entirely too hard on ourselves. Now, at least, I can look at all the scars and see how far I've come. I can appreciate my body for what it's still able to do in a yoga class despite tendon-inhibiting radiation and surgeries.

And then, some days, I still wish for fuller eyebrows/lashes, fewer creases on my face, and to wake up looking like Gwyneth (despite the fact that I'm 5'4" and a brunette). Cancer didn't erase all of my insecurities. It's not THAT magical.

Point being: thanks for being you, and for writing about the pressure we all feel from time to time. From one mama's perspective? You are rocking this life/balance thing. xoxo