Reality TV is Not Doing Wonders for Our Mental Health as Moms
Reality TV Doesn’t Accurately Reflect People or Society
For millennials around my age, reality TV is a fixture amongst entertainment options. The genre’s heyday across networks began in the early 2000s and has since grown into an immense televised circus of celebrity antics, competition shows, and voyeurism that dominates the ratings. Some of it bears enough self-awareness to keep us from taking it too seriously; on a rational level, we all know it’s far from an accurate representation of reality. And yet it’s not called “heavily edited and also surprisingly scripted” TV; the presumption – and the pressure – are baked right into the name.
By definition, reality TV aims to follow people who are billed as being “just like us” as they’re thrust into unusual social scenarios (The Bachelor, 2002-present), as they navigate competition (Survivor, 2000-present), or as they simply go about their lives (Keeping Up with the Kardashians, 2007-2021). The participants, we’re told, are completely relatable. But how often does that turn out to be true?
Evidence suggests that women have a greater tendency to engage in comparisons than men – particularly body comparisons – and a 2012 study noted that women’s comparisons are overwhelmingly self-critical. When we watch reality TV, we’re not an unaffected audience; we turn one woman’s “reality” (or whatever is deftly presented as reality) into a benchmark against which to measure ourselves. And, barring the unlikely possibility that we have an at-home makeup artist, hairdresser, nanny, nutritionist, and round-the-clock personal trainer, we believe we come up short.
Naturally, not all reality TV shows are created equal; some have truly brought well-deserved success to participants and productive inspiration to viewers. American Idol (2002-present) has given us multiple Grammy winners, an Academy Award winner, and an Emmy winner. The Great British Baking Show (2010-present) proves that reality shows don’t need ugly inter-personal conflict to succeed and that waiting for someone’s cake to rise can be the adrenaline ride of a lifetime.
Motherhood is Already a Vulnerable Time; Reality TV Doesn’t Help
In our proclivity to compare ourselves to others, we willingly pick ourselves apart, downplaying the unique gifts and strengths we do have and amplifying the importance of whatever we don’t. Add to this tendency the bombardment of millions of moms with the powerful messaging that women are “designed” to build and raise humans, that doing this most “natural” of things will empower us, that we need to look and feel radiant while providing perfectly plated nutrition and artfully designed brain-stimulating activities. Whether we’re seeing it on HGTV, the Food Network or TLC, a vision of idealized motherhood, femininity and home-making only hurts moms. We inevitably walk away feeling like whatever we’re doing is not enough.
It’s easy to take so-called “reality” with a grain of salt when Kim from Keeping Up with the Kardashians lets slip the $75,000+ price tag on Chicago West’s new crib. In no version of circumstances would I deem such an expense a necessity. But there are other moments in which the pressure feels a little subtler, a little more pervasive, and a little harder to separate from our expectations for ourselves.
Surely I’m not the only one who tunes into an episode of The Bachelor only to squint at the single mom of the season emerging from the hot tub with a flawless physique and wonder where I went wrong. Can’t I just believe in the quest for love on a Monday night without berating myself for not “getting my body back” fast enough? From whence did this biology-defying notion emerge, and why must I contend with yet another externally imposed standard with no bearing on my ability to be a good mom?