Dear Kate Middleton,
Congratulations on the birth of your beautiful and healthy baby boy, George Alexander Louis! It really is a joy to wake up after you give birth and realize that you are a mother. However, it also a bit disconcerting to walk to the bathroom afterward (or waddle, like I did), and look at the mirror, and say “Holy crap I look like hell!” Yeah birth is awesome, and it sucks all at the same time because your body goes through this change afterward that no one ever tells you about, not even your mother or friends who have gone through the same experience.
I’ll be honest, I saw your appearance the day after you gave birth and smiled. Your body looked, well, like mine after I gave birth to both my children. I was though, fairly impressed that you looked so alert, when I shuffled like a zombie for days after. Although my mind was going five million miles an hour, my body really did not go faster than inches per second.
Since you have no clue who I am, let me give you a brief introduction. I am a historian of medicine, gender, and women’s history, and my main concentration is the 20th Century U.S. My current work examines the rise of the modern pregnancy during this period. Also, I am the mother of two, so between my work and the kids, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood are usually on the brain. So, I guess it is no surprise that the editor-in-chief of Nursing Clio clued me into an article published by the New York Magazine that examined how celebrities have skewed our perceptions of the normal postpartum body.
To read that people are shocked, SHOCKED, that you still looked pregnant when you walked out with little George was not surprising. The real pregnant and post-pregnant body makes us uncomfortable. New York Magazine was partially correct to argue that celebrities are responsible for unrealistic expectations of the pre and post-pregnant body, but they are not alone. We can thank retailers, designers, advertisers, the diet industry, the medical community, and yes, ourselves for thinking the pregnant body is supposed to look like this:
And it is supposed to look like this right after we pushed a bowling ball out of our vaginas or had our abdomens sliced open:
When during the whole pregnancy and postpartum period it will most likely look like this:
I won’t go into the whole history of pregnancy in America (but whenever I get the book published, I’ll send you a copy), but in short, pregnancy, as a biological and cultural event, underwent a major transformation from the beginning of the 20th century to now. During this time the ideal pregnancy emerged with the help of obstetricians, retailers, and advertisers. What was the ideal? Well, it was healthy, active, and under the care of a physician. But while obstetricians medicalized pregnancy, retailers commercialized the nine months. The happy mother-to-be shopped diligently for herself and her “heir.” (I am not kidding.)
By the mid-twentieth century though, a new voice emerged within the multiple discussions on maternity: the female celebrity. Her identity provided credibility, and her pregnancy made an impression on thousands of fans. This woman embodied the advice that obstetricians and retailers had given since the early twentieth because she always took care of herself and made sure her appearance was perfect. Magazines and newspapers covered everything from the type of maternity fashions famous women wore to how they developed a three-day hot water diet to lose the extra postpartum pounds that they foolishly gained.
By the 1990s, a celebrity’s pregnancy (and postpartum period) had developed into a culture of its own, heightening and even twisting the established expectations of medicalized and commercialized pregnancy. This has had a damaging effect on the perceptions of the pregnant body. The normal pregnant body was never celebrated (or considered beautiful). Well-designed maternity clothes helped disguise its misshapen form. With the celebrity pregnancy however, the pregnant body became beautiful and flaunt worthy, but only if it was perfect in shape and size.
In many respects, this explains why the postpartum body makes us nervous (or why you showing your belly confused so many). Celebrities do not have postpartum bellies because they blow the cover off of the perfection crafted so precisely during the prior nine months. We can accept the bump during pregnancy, but the bump afterward is a no, no. Post-pregnancy bellies make us squeamish. Though we might roll our eyes when a pregnant women calls herself fat (which happens more often than not), we are less inclined to do that with a mother of a 3 month old. No baby, no belly.
Yet, with all this attention on pregnancy as of late, the response to your “transgression” also demonstrates that there is a deafening silence within all the chatter about the postpartum body. Women still have no clue what a real pregnancy, from conception to the postpartum period, is like. Instead of talking to one another about our experiences, we expect to learn about pregnancy from our obstetricians, books, magazines, and, no offense here, from women like you. We ignore each other because we would have to face that we have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to pregnancy. If we confronted the truth, pregnancy might cease to be dewy, skinny, glorious, and a billion dollar business.
Your decision (whether it was deliberate or not) to “show” the normal post-pregnancy body was too much reality for some. Why is the Duchess of Cambridge, a woman of beauty and means, not instantaneously skinny the day after she gave birth? What does this mean for the average woman? It could signal that we will begin to acknowledge that pregnancy does change a woman’s body, and that we will accept that the celebrity pregnant and postpartum body is a fantasy (even for them). But I have a feeling acceptance is an illusion too. Unfortunately, you’ll be expected to start working with your trainer and nutritionist next week. You have six weeks to lose that gut.