Perception vs. Intention as Demonstrated by Facebook ‘Hot Mom’ Backlash

By now, you’ve probably seen this picture of fitness enthusiast and mother of three Maria Kang, complete with the line “What’s your excuse?” printed above her trim, toned self. The image has garnered more than 16 million views on Facebook and over 12,000 comments. While a fair amount of those comments are positive and supportive, many accuse Kang of contributing to the culture of “fat shaming”, and call her a “bully” and worse.

It’s not news that Americans have an obsession with our bodies, especially those of women, and any supermarket magazine can demonstrate our hyper-focus on the ways in which women’s bodies change with pregnancy and motherhood; every other headline is about someone ballooning up while growing a human being inside them, or about the remarkable speed at which a celebrity mom “got her body back.” Given the unrealistic expectations that women are exposed to every day, Kang told Yahoo’s Shine that she could understand why some women reacted as defensively as they did.

“I think people struggle with their weight…When you add on being a mother — and the pressures we face to have it all and be everything, including fit — the expectations are so high. I think some moms saw the picture and just said, ‘This is ridiculous.’”

But what she intended, she said, was something else entirely.

“I wanted to inspire people,” she said, explaining that “What’s your excuse?” is a common phrase borrowed from other “fitspiration” campaigns. “I wanted to say, ‘I know you think you don’t have time if you have kids. But if I can do it, you can do it, too.’” And in many cases, this sort of tough love inspiration is just what women are looking for.

From a general PR standpoint, re-affirming intentions this way is a pretty good plan. It stops just short of apologizing for her own success or for her attempt to do something positive, but politely explains that she meant no harm, and demonstrates that she understands and respects the feelings and opinions of her fellow women and mothers.

What’s generally not such a good strategy is blaming your audience for their perceptions, which is essentially what she did in a recent Facebook post, which read in part:

“I’m sorry you took an image and resonated with it in such a negative way. I won’t go into details that I struggled with my genetics, had an eating disorder, work full time owning two businesses, have no nanny, am not naturally skinny and do not work as a personal trainer…What I WILL say is this. What you interpret is not MY fault. It’s yours. The first step in owning your life, your body and your destiny is to OWN the thoughts that come out of your own head. I didn’t create them. You created them. So if you want to continue ‘hating’ this image, get used to hating many other things for the rest of your life.”

While this non-apology drew even more ire (and also support), considering some of the very personal attacks that were being lobbed in her direction, it’s not a surprise that her urge to defend herself took over.

Our bottom line is this: Does she deserve to be proud of her accomplishments and commitment, and strive to help other women attain their own goals? Absolutely. Does her audience have a right to their own perceptions and reactions? Absolutely (though those who accused her of being a bully and then hurled cruel, personal insults at her are admittedly raging hypocrites). But therein lies the PR risk of making your private life public via social media the way many of us do — you can send your message out there, but once it’s out of your hands, it belongs to the audience, and in the world of PR, public perception tends to count more than initial intention — if it were the other way around, PR as an industry would barely need to exist.