The Kiddy Pool: Project Runway’s “It’s Fashion Baby”

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I’ve always been a big fan of Project Runway: I’ve seen every season, which is more of a commitment than I’ve ever made to any other reality TV show (and possibly any other show at all). I think my appreciation for the program has something to do with the contestants possessing skills that are actually creative and interesting, as opposed to say, being former D-list stars or having six-pack abs. In any case, in spite of my affection for Heidi Klum’s show, I started watching Thursday’s episode, “It’s Fashion Baby”, with a degree of trepidation. Designer babies? Really?

The challenge asked the designers to create a look for Heidi’s new baby-wear line at Babies ‘R Us. Making baby clothes required the contestants to shift their focus, i.e., taking diapers into consideration along with couture. I’m the sort of mother who buys most of my girls’ clothing used on ebay or at clearance sales, but I definitely like their clothes to be fun as well as functional, and my toddler, now three, is starting to voice her opinion — primarily in favor of tulle, winter hats, and lots of layers, so she looks like she’s wearing the entire contents of her dress-up drawer. I knew from the initial meeting that the designers would need to appease some squirmy toddlers and some opinionated mamas with higher standards for fashion-forwardness than I possess. As Dmitry summed up: “We’re all screwed. Those babies are really, really small. I’m not even sure how old they are, but I’m pretty sure they can’t talk. It’s like making an outfit for a cat.”

Back at the workroom, Heidi left the designers a “surprise”: mechanical babies whose cries would keep on interrupting the contestants with demands for bottles, fresh diapers, and cuddles. The workroom soon devolved into chaos, filled with wailing babies and frustrated designers trying to “make it work” while attending to the infants’ needs. Again, Dmitry tried for levity by naming his baby “Brandon” while Fabio (whom the others deemed “obsessed” with his baby) claimed — in my favorite line of the episode — “I’m polite. My kid’s polite. He’s just going through something.” As I watched the designers struggle to sew, sketch, travel to the fabric store, and hey, even complete a thought with their babies in tow, I couldn’t help but think “Hey! That’s my life on screen!” You know, but without the glamorous job or the cameras. It reminded me of earlier in the day: my husband and I had swapped the girls on campus, and I left work feeling like a sideshow, wearing a baby, pushing a toddler in the stroller, and feeling really thankful for anyone who held a door for us.

On the second day of the challenge, Tim Gunn entered the workroom to relieve the designers of their charges; Sonjia expressed her gratitude, explaining that she was planning on neglecting her baby to get some work done anyway. That attitude obviously only works with fake babies, as she seemed quite aware, but the prevailing tone of the show was that children make an interesting demographic as potential consumers (or consumers-by-proxy). Actual children are a different story though, their cuteness rapidly waning in the face of “real work.” In a competitive, task-oriented setting like a Project Runway challenge, the idea of babies-as-impediments makes sense. What does it mean, though, when that idea gets transferred to a larger cultural context?

I admit to feeling frustrated at not being able to do a lot of things alone anymore — like, say, use the bathroom. It’s easy for me to fall into the trap of favoring productivity (what, exactly, am I supposed to be producing?) or chores with visible results as opposed to the emotional, often invisible care work that goes into raising my children. That’s one extreme offered by our culture — that the only valuable and valid work is that which can be quantified and compensated. Parenting doesn’t usually fit, and surrogate caregivers are not generally paid all that well, either. The other extreme is to elevate children into idols, always putting them first in continual acts of parental martyrdom that only confirm their belief that they are, and ought to be, the center of the universe. The balance, children as neither impediments or idols, is much more difficult for me to strike. My daughters’ needs and desires are real and often passionate — but so are mine. It’s my job to nurture their creativity without sacrificing my own, to treat them as whole humans while demonstrating that even if I’m “Mama” first, I’m more than that, too. But I still wouldn’t mind peeing alone once in a while.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

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