Nike Makes the Case for Pregnancy and Motherhood as the Ultimate Athleticism

What is an athlete?

It is perhaps the least appreciated role, making progeny and raising children. Perhaps we are more conscious of that, now that so many people have spent months faced with the reality of juggling both kids and work at home, with almost no community help at all.

For Nike's latest film, "The Toughest Athletes," by Wieden + Kennedy London, 20 mothers appear in various stages of pregnancy and motherhood. These include Alex Morgan, Perri Edwards, Bianca Williams, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Nia Ali and Serena Williams.

The Toughest Athletes | Nike (M)

Williams makes the case for mothers as athletes in and of herself. She played a Grand Slam while two months pregnant, returned to play (and win) another Grand Slam eight months after her pregnancy, and triggered a WTA debate about maternity leave because she left the court pre-baby, ranked at No. 1 … and came back to find herself at No. 451.

Another athlete and mother, nine-time Olympic medalist and professional runner Allyson Felix, faced a similar narrative ... and this time, it actually involved Nike, which offered her 70 percent less than before after she gave birth, which incidentally involved an emergency C-section following severe, life-threatening pre-eclampsia. Though she accepted the paycut, Felix tried to cross-negotiate for more reasonable expectations of her performance following childbirth. Nike refused, which shattered Felix's sense of Nike as a brand that empowers women.

Felix's story, like Williams', later inspired other woman athletes to apply pressure to the industry, leading to a number of sports brands changing their contractual policies. After public outcry and a congressional inquiry, Nike also announced a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes, with a contract that guarantees pay and bonuses for 18 months around pregnancy.

But it is mostly everyday athletes who steal the screen in the new spot. It begins, "Can you be an athlete? You, pregnant. You, a mother. That depends. What is an athlete?"

The video goes on to describe many of the qualities we readily ascribe to athletes, but are more reluctant to offer mothers outside of fatuous, uncompensated praise: someone who moves, who gets it done, who listens to her body, defies gravity, deals with the pain, hits her limit, pushes past it, pushing, pushing, pushing … someone who earns every single win.

Motherhood is a different proposition from pregnancy; not all mothers get pregnant, and not everyone who is pregnant becomes a mother. Having arrived at the age when many around us are preoccupied with matters of descendance (whether they'll have kids, how many, how to accommodate them), there is much about pregnancy specifically that we have only now learned and come to admire: How aggressively your body and hormones change. The way birth can tear your body to shreds, after which you must heal, maybe serve as the primary nourishment of a newborn, and respond to pressures to pull your body back into a pre-pregnancy state.

And then there is motherhood: the sleeplessness, the endless and rigorous satisfying of demands, both visible and invisible. The strange task of both cultivating, and being responsible for, a person whose actions and agenda may increasingly be at odds with your own. The sometimes overwhelming knowledge that, on some level, you will never not be expected to provide when required to, even as you continue to juggle your own messy and complicated life.

The endurance demanded of pregnancy, and motherhood, is immeasurable, insatiable. (Then your kids grow up to mostly "hate you and steal your music," as one friend with children wryly observed.)

There are no trophies for this, no public victory laps. So the film ends, aptly, "Can you be an athlete? If you aren't, no one is."

In addition to the manifesto at its core, "The Toughest Athletes" is a promotion for Nike's first dedicated maternity collection, Nike (M), available in North America, Europe and Africa at nike.com, with releases in Asia Pacific and Latin America starting in late 2021. Pre- and post-natal exercise expert Jane Wake also worked with the brand to design four guided audio workouts for motherhood in the Nike Run Club app.

The film itself features mothers from all over the world, and juxtaposes pregnancy and motherhood images to similar exertions in sports, lending the effect of a collective ultramarathon. Over 22 hours of footage was shot, each shot directed via Zoom.

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Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.

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