Monday, November 1, 2010

Kate McCann is right - just because she's slim and pretty doesn't mean she's a killer

Last updated at 00:30 18 October 2007

kate mccann In the media spotlight: Kate told her mother she has been persecuted because she is too skinny
Kate McCann looks exactly like most of the mothers I see waiting at school gates near where I live: casually-dressed, pleasantly dishevelled, with a lithe prettiness which is miles from made-up glamour.
Without the central tragedy of her life, would you give her a second glance in the street? If you did, you'd probably think in passing: 'She looks nice.'

Yet Kate McCann this week told her mother that she believes she has been persecuted because of the way she looks. That she has been portrayed as a bad parent because she is slim, and doesn't look like a comfortably rounded hausfrau cutting cookies with one hand while a baby is glued to her ample bosom.
Apparently she said: 'If I weighed another two stone, had a bigger bosom and looked more maternal, people would be more sympathetic.'

Can this be true? We live in the Yummy Mummy era, when glamour and mumsiness are allowed to stroll hand-in-hand down the high street, and countless columnists have called into question the old stereotypes of capable 'Fifties, pinnyclad motherhood'.
Hence the 'slummy mummy' who muddles along, makes mistakes and knows a dash of lipstick will make her feel better.
And for most of us, it's all just fine. We live in a tolerant age when we don't demand conformity to the stereotypes any more.
But perhaps - given Mrs McCann's comments this week - some of us do.
Certainly it's very hard to untangle the issue of looks and behaviour, since what we are like is partly expressed in how we look.
We have to analyse Kate McCann's heartfelt outburst in relation first to her experience in Portugal, and then to how it's been for her since she returned home.
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kate mccann Self-control: Kate McCann fears Portuguese police suspect her because she doesn't weep enough
I can't be the only one to think it appalling that Kate's own mother, Susan Healy, has been forced to defend her grieving daughter, asserting that: 'She is a very sensitive, caring person and one of the most maternal people I know' - as if somehow Kate was in the dock.

Yet she has felt the need, and it looks as if Kate herself suddenly saw an uncomfortable truth at the heart of the issue. That - fairly or unfairly - how she looks (both physically and in the way she behaves) has affected the world's view of her as a mother.

Right from the beginning, it is said, the Portuguese police suspected her because their wives were telling them she looked too controlled, did not weep enough.
Here we have the first cultural difference. In Mediterranean countries there is no tradition of the stiff upper lip. Yet it must have been more than that.

Anyone who has travelled in Spain, Portugal, Italy or Greece knows how young mothers quickly come to look like overblown roses, their child-bearing settling comfortably around their hips.

It's hard not to imagine Portuguese women murmuring to their husbands that this British woman is - yes - much too skinny. Unnatural.

They would be instinctively prejudiced against Kate for not looking like them, as well as because her self-control was alien to a culture which traditionally hangs its emotions out like washing on lines.

But did the Portuguese attitude insidiously affect the views of the wider world, tapping into innate expectation of how mothers are 'supposed' to be?
Looking at the way the story unfolded, you can't avoid the feeling that other women resented her, too.
Was this partly because men were clearly fascinated by her in a way that would not have been the case had she been plump and plain?
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Kate MCann Maternal: Kate takes her two-year-old twins Sean and Amelie for a walk. Only she can truly know what kind of mother she is
Bluntly, would her picture have appeared quite so often in the media had she not been easy on the eye?
In short, these powerful reactions to her - though they seem to be very different in men and women - have led to this situation in which she has become the story.

Many people murmur that they are tired of seeing the McCanns. Yet to blame Kate for that is utterly unjust.
Personally, I have always seen Kate McCann as almost withering away before our eyes, all her suffering contained in the hollows of her cheeks, the tension in the hand which grips Madeleine's precious Cuddle Cat, the stiff line of her shoulders which matches the crease that runs from nose to mouth, ageing her prematurely.
Even though she has a model's build, I simply can't see her as sexy.

But then, I'm not a man.

I was sitting in a hotel in August watching a discussion about the McCanns on Fox News. Three glossy, designer-clad, over-made up American harridans tore Kate apart - for leaving her children while she ate and drank, for looking so calm despite the fact that her child had gone, for having endured IVF treatment and then appearing to be as casual as Britney Spears.

It was so monstrous I found myself shouting abuse at the TV.

Would they - sitting in such harsh judgment - class themselves as perfect 'Moms'? Were their children left with nannies while they had their hair done and presented TV programmes?
No matter - I suspect it was indeed something about this English woman's demeanour which brought the knives out. Not the fact that she was slim, for they too were whippet-thin. But that the English blonde was too contained.

I simply don't believe they would have been so judgmental about the issue of eating tapas a short distance from where the children slept unwatched had Kate McCann been filmed beating her breast, shrieking her guilt to the skies, as if on American daytime TV.
Yet Shakespeare reminds us that we cannot 'find the mind's construction in the face'.
It takes us back to the question: what does a 'real mother' look like? A woman as intelligent as Kate McCann must know that plump women can be terrible mothers.
But I sympathise with her painful awareness of a prejudice that must bewilder her.
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Still missing: Madeleine McCann
I want to tell her, for a start, that many of us have left our children in situations which (with hindsight) could have been disastrous, and it's only the grace of God which saved us from what was surely a one-in-a-million tragedy.
I want to say that countless people (especially those of us who have thought our children near to death) admire that desperate, necessary self-control.
And as someone whose maternal qualities were once called into question because I worked in newspapers, liked a glass of wine and teetered about in high heels wearing lots of slap, I want to reassure her that in the end, only you can truly know what kind of mother you are.
And when she kisses her twins goodnight, I am sure they know it, too.

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