The deeply tanned Patricia Krentcil became the latest Bad Mommy of news cycle fame yesterday, accused of putting (and burning) her six-year-old daughter in a tanning booth.
The New Jersey mom pleaded not guilty to charges of child endangerment, and insisted that although she loved to tan herself she knew better than to put her daughter under the UV rays.
But that did little to stem the nearly gleeful outrage at this latest example of beyond the pale (and yes, people used that pun) parenting. Talk show hosts tsk-ed tsk-ed, and quickly moved into making comments about Ms. Krentcil’s own appearance. (The 44-year-old, whose skin looks unnaturally dark, acknowledged that she is a tanning fanatic.) Even Snooki - that’s the Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, another tanning bed aficionado and apparently now a parenting expert - entered the fray, with some not very polite words to say about Krencil’s mom skills.
It was, all in all, a perfect mommy witch hunt. Which seems to be a favorite, and semi-regular, pastime these days.
There is a standard playbook for a case of the Bad Mommy. It can revolve around celebrity - Britney Spears is great, if she’s available - or just a regular, everyday mom. (Although preferably those Everymoms will be on a reality television show, and involved in something like toddler beauty pageants. But getting caught up in a criminal investigation works fine, too.)
Once the Bad Mommy has committed her outrage - tanning beds, extreme negligence, dressing their girls in tiaras, whatever - then the viewing public wrings its collective hands and wonders how any mother could be so... bad. Talk show hosts denigrate the woman. The Internet world buzzes with indignation. Experts talk about the state of motherhood today.
The problem is that if you look a bit more critically, these women’s actions tend to be pretty darn close to our own.
Journalist and author Peggy Orenstein explores this double standard in one of my favorite parts of her book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.”
As part of her research into the Disney Princess phenomenon, Ms. Orenstein spends some time getting to know parents whose young daughters are on the beauty pageant scene. Armed with her own sense of what kind of mom would doll up her prepubescent daughter to strut her little stuff for judges, Orenstein wrote that she fully expected to find these folks, well, crazy at best, disgusting at worst.
But it turned out that the beauty pageant moms and dads were really nice, loving parents, who just had a different (and maybe even not that different) way of looking at the world. Some of them were dealing with other siblings who had special needs. Some were trying to help their kids with confidence issues. Others just decided that rather than soccer practice or violin lessons, they would do this. She was surprised at her affinity with these families.
Since then, she has delved into the topic more critically. In one blog entry on her website, Orenstein posted photos of little girls all glammed up and asked readers to figure out which was from the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Disneyworld (where toddlers can get makeovers to “magically transform” them into princesses), which was from the Sweet and Sassy children’s salon (a popular birthday venue) and which from Toddlers & Tiaras, the reality television show following families whose young daughters are on the pageant circuit.
You should check it out, but I’ll give you a hint: you totally can’t tell the difference. Yet the first two venues are considered - among a whole lot of people, at least - fine and dandy and cute, while the other is a Bad Mommy Headquarters.
Krentcil’s situation is not much different. (And again, she - and the New Jersey salon owner - say she may have brought her daughter to the tanning salon but never allowed the girl to go into a bed.) The commentators are outraged that a young girl would be in a tanning salon, but... have you checked out advertisements for children’s clothes recently? A lot of the white girls are tan. Unnaturally so.
And often rather sexualized.
Meanwhile, mainstream stores are all about spray tan for tots. They sell padded bras for 7-year-olds. A company called Jours Apres Lunes sells “longerie” - which looks awful lot like lingerie - for girls 4 to 12, with suggestive photos of little girls (pleasingly tan little girls) modeling the items on its website. Birthday “makeover” parties give little girls pedicure and manicures and dust bronzer on their cheeks.
But the commentators are outraged by a tanning salon?
Oh that’s right, it’s because of the health implications! Of course. And the legality - in New Jersey, children under 14 are prohibited from using tanning beds.
And sure, kids shouldn’t be in tanning beds. It’s dangerous. And needless. But you know, kids also shouldn’t be sexualized – and taught at a really, really young age that “sexy” is cool – so companies can sell more products. There are health implications in that, too. Check out our earlier post about the rise in plastic surgery procedures for teens.
The Bad Mommy isn’t the problem here.
But focusing on her is tempting, because it lets us get away with the sense that other moms do these sorts of things, not us. It’s good old Salem style. We get to avoid complicity. And we never have to take a hard look at what we, as a society, are doing to childhood.