Guilty of murder or seeming unmatronly?

The media speculates on Kate McCann's guilt in the disappearance of her daughter. The evidence: Her small hips and breasts.

Published October 18, 2007 11:00PM (EDT)

In the wee post-midnight hours I made the mistake of wandering into the media circus surrounding Kate McCann and the disappearance of her daughter, Madeline. Since I have a daughter about the same age as Madeline and we traveled to Spain just a couple of weeks after she went missing in Portugal, I've resisted the whole story like a contagious flu. Not only do we not know what happened to the little girl and should therefore hold our tongues, even tangential chatter around the subject carries the potential to damage lives.

But then McCann -- the mother whose physical beauty, successful medical career and three children embody a certain unattainable ideal as a woman who managed to "get it all" -- became the focus of scrutiny and suspicion and I thought: Here we go again, another "bad mother" on the pillory. Her clothing and makeup inspired analysis, her looks prompted constant mention, her image instigated replication ad nauseam. I couldn't resist wondering what was really driving the obsession -- actual facts about a tragedy or the cultural white noise created by a mother who looks so perfect.

Now, quite apart from the heart-wrenching reality of a little girl gone missing, the commentary about a woman and her body, her mysteries, her fatal mistakes is spinning its own web of words in a way that might have inspired a sequel to "The Scarlet Letter." Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported that Kate McCann's mother said that Kate feels persecuted because of her looks. "If I weighed another two stone, had a bigger bosom and looked more maternal, people would be more sympathetic," McCann reportedly told her mother." The story cites "claims that Portuguese detectives first suspected she was involved in her daughter's disappearance because their wives said she looked too controlled and did not weep enough to be the distraught mother of a missing child."

Yesterday, another editorial with the mind-numbing headline "Kate McCann is right -- just because she's slim and pretty doesn't mean she's a killer" essentially confirmed that McCann is getting an especially harrowing treatment because of her appearance. Fair enough. But then the piece explains bias against McCann by spewing more bigotry: Portuguese women's reported suspicion of McCann was really a result of their hip measurements. "Anyone who has traveled 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," writes Bel Mooney. "It's hard not to imagine Portuguese women murmuring to their husbands that this British woman is -- yes -- much too skinny." WTF?

Two weeks ago, Booker Prize novelist Anne Enright wrote an essay for the London Review of Books, titled "Disliking the McCanns," about her own dark obsession with the case. Yesterday, various papers made a story out of Enright's "amazing attack on the McCann's." Today the Daily Telegraph manufactures another story about the story. Although her essay focuses most on the husband, and what Enright characterizes as his corporate-speak, she acknowledges that her fixation is the exception: "Most of the animosity against the McCanns centres on the figure of Madeleine's beautiful mother."

Enright's piece is about media crime stories and the way they work upon us, driving us to distance ourselves from those in the limelight through petty criticisms. As she traces her descent into the maw of McCannery, the story holds a mirror to her own mothering and her own fears: "I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction." Now Enright is attracting a familiar kind of vitriol. Readers are calling her a "selfish mother" with references to her "petty thoughts" and "ugly face." So I'd hazard that Kate McCann is wrong -- it doesn't matter precisely what she looks like. As a mother in the limelight, she'll get criticized not only for her words and actions, but for the bloom of her hips and her face.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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