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The Pregnant Body Beautiful

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Nursing Clio is honored to have Carrie Pitzulo as our guest author again today. Carrie is an Assistant Professor of History at University of West Georgia, where she teaches courses in the history of American women, gender, and sexuality. Carrie received her Ph.D. from the City University of New York Graduate Center in 2008. Her first book, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011. Carrie’s current project explores the role of women and gender in the nation’s last public hanging.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, I journeyed to see pop goddess Tina Turner in concert. Her opening act was the equally fabulous Cyndi Lauper. I assume, and hope, that Cyndi sang “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and “Time After Time,” but I truly don’t remember the details, except for one. What I remember is that as one of the few out feminists in American entertainment, Cyndi preached to the crowd the necessity of acknowledging and respecting pregnant women. Indeed, even from my crummy seat, I could see that she was visibly pregnant. She bopped around the stage, and among her fans, seemingly unhindered by her baby bump. I distinctly remember her insisting that we not force pregnant women “into the basement,” hidden from society’s view. To paraphrase, Cyndi told us that pregnant women should be able “to walk in the sun,” just like the characters in her biggest hit.

Twenty years later, I think it’s safe to say that pregnancy – or more to the point, the pregnant body – is mainstream, even celebrated, in popular culture. Just google “pregnant celebrities.” There are countless magazine covers announcing the pregnancies of Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian. Paparazzi stalk movie stars such as Julia Roberts trying to decipher if their bellies are budding babies or just weight gain. Of course, there is nothing new about such celebrity spotlights. In Hollywood’s golden age, the big studios fed details of the (supposed) personal lives of actresses like Joan Crawford to the gossip columnists and fan magazines.

Rub a sculpture of Kim Kardashian's pregnant belly for good luck at the LAB ART Gallery in Hollywood.

Rub a sculpture of Kim Kardashian’s pregnant belly for good luck at the LAB ART Gallery in Hollywood.

But for previous generations, the pregnant body itself was kept under wraps, just as Cyndi Lauper lamented at that concert. Remember Demi Moore’s “culture-jolting” 1991 Vanity Fair cover? For most of the twentieth-century, the baby bump was not only not fashionable, it was often considered obscene, and expected to be hidden from view. Genevieve Koski, writing for AVClub.com, says of the famous I Love Lucy episode, “The script for ‘Lucy Is Enceinte’ famously had to dance around saying the word ‘pregnant,’ a term CBS deemed too vulgar for air, hence the French word for pregnancy in the episode title.” Maternity wear in the 1980s was big and billowy, a la Princess Diana. Contrast that with her daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, who made news last year not simply for having a royal baby, but for allowing her post-birth bump to be visible when she left the hospital – a move dissected by Nursing Clio’s own, Cheryl Lemus.

Of course, these are all beautiful, thin, usually white, celebrities. Whether Demi Moore in 1991, or the adorable Duchess of Cambridge in 2013, who could complain about how those women look, pregnant or not? For the rest of us (as I write I am seven months pregnant), we have websites and pregnancy books that lecture us incessantly about how to maintain attractiveness, particularly regarding “ideal” weight gain (you can track it here!). My favorite, though, is this stern directive from TheBump.com about managing your pubic area, “If you’re going into panic mode about what someone might encounter down there if you don’t get things taken care of, stat, you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope — it’s time to start shopping around town for a good waxer. Trust us, you’ll thank us later. (And we’re pretty sure your partner will, too.)” I won’t say much about the fact that this is a pregnancy website, and yet they still use terms like “down there” to describe women’s genitals. I do wonder, however, amidst buying diapers, onesies, and setting up the crib, in the middle of increasing obstetrician appointments, prenatal vitamins, and countless worries about potential health problems like preterm labor, preeclampsia, and gestational diabetes, who among us isnt panicking about our pubic hair?

To push back against this absurdity, there is an Internet trend of so-called average women blogging their pregnancies and births, and visually documenting their “real” post-baby bodies. This blog, by N’Tima Preusser, is “An Ode to My Postpartum Body,” and includes an absolutely inspiring account of one woman’s journey into motherhood and her balanced and sane perspective on her changed body. Personally, I found her words comforting and profoundly moving. The pictures that accompany the blog are lovely.

Or there is this, from the Huffington Post, “New Mom’s Uncensored Photos Reveal the Beautiful, Messy Reality of Home Birth.” This time, new mom Ruth Iorio wanted to offer “my unique experience, whether attractive or not and just to be honest about it.”

Another from HuffPo, a site that along with the ubiquitous side-boob posts, apparently also wants to empower women, profiled ballerina Mary Helen Bowers. Bowers documented her pregnancy with gorgeous photos and said, “The changes that your body goes through during pregnancy are so radical, I’ve really tried to embrace and celebrate my new body and hopefully I can encourage other women to do the same.”

In each example, the women hope to empower themselves and others as their bodies change with pregnancy and motherhood. They are pushing back against a culture that maintains dangerously strict standards of feminine beauty and physicality. This is a noble goal, and I support it. But in spite of their good intentions, these posts feed into that very culture. More to the point, the celebration of them, to the exclusion of other voices and bodies, promotes the standards that the blogs intend to challenge. 

165750244Each of these women are attractive, very thin, and white. In Iorio’s case, the “uncensored,” “messy reality” of birth is not shit or blood, despite her massive postpartum hemorrhage, but rather a collection of filtered, artistic images taken by her photographer husband. Bowers is a ballerina, and thus, by default extremely thin and athletic. Further, if we are supposed to look to dancers for empowerment, we might want to first note the high rates of eating disorders in the profession.

This is certainly not to say that these women don’t have a right to their own insecurities, empowerment, or baby blogs, merely because they are thin and beautiful. And I can personally attest that even Cyndi Lauper was skinny during her pregnancy. But my concern is that the elevation of these pictures and posts does nothing to challenge our culture’s view of women’s bodies, no matter what they purport. They still tell us that only certain women get to be beautiful.  And even those women are subject to scrutiny. “Fit Mom,” Maria Kang, drew outrage for posting pictures of her buff body, asking of other moms, “What’s your excuse?” Women are told: be thin, but not so thin that you have a right to brag about it.

Recently, Salon.com highlighted the “mission” of Taryn Brumfitt, another mother trying to “redefine and rewrite the ideals of beauty,” in response to Kang’s “fit shaming” challenge. Brumfitt was a bodybuilder, but after three children,  she shows off a healthy, but flabbier, body. She says, “I’ve had the (near) perfect body and it’s not all it’s cracked up to be….I don’t know about you, but I really enjoy hanging out with my kids, sleeping in on the weekends, eating what I want and when I want and having the occasional night out with the girls.”

Ultimately, we are left with yet another “mommy war.”  This time, it is not over the question of working or staying home, or breastfeeding vs. formula, but just how fit we need to be – or have a right to be – postpartum. And yet, still missing are the bodies of women of color, overweight, or disabled women. I’m sure those blogs are out there. The Internet is a big place.

114314545It took some digging, but I found this, www.theshapeofamother.com. This site is a clearinghouse for stories and images of all kinds of women facing, struggling with, and even celebrating, their baby-making bodies and experiences. The site’s editor says, “It is my dream, then, to create this website where women of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret. So we can finally see what women really look like sans airbrushes and plastic surgery. …How truly awesome would that be?” I doubt these images – of sagging boobs, scars, and stretch marks, on nonetheless proud, happy moms –  will end up on HuffPo, but it’s certainly a start.


Additional Image Credits:

Kim Kardashian’s Belly Sculpture: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images. 169972967
Silhouette: Mexamix/Getty Images. 165750244
Pregnant Belly with Stretch Marks: Don Bayley/Getty Images. 114314545
9 Comments Post a comment
  1. md #

    And yet, despite their desire to empower women, these websites are all still fixated on women’s bodies as sites for meaning. I imagine women still sit at their computers and compare themselves to the women on-screen, silently ranking themselves. Thought-provoking post, Carrie!

    March 11, 2014
    • Carolyn Herbst Lewis #

      I certainly do that comparing, md. I recently found the http://4thtrimesterbodies.com/. I found all the images beautiful, but I couldn’t help but compare my stretchmarks to theirs.

      March 12, 2014
    • Thank you! That’s such a good point. And yes, that’s what got me thinking about all this – feeling so inadequate comparing myself, my body, and my exercise routine, to a ballerina’s.

      March 12, 2014
  2. I think it is really hard for all women to accept and enjoy their own bodies, but I think it is especially hard for young women growing up in a world with so much exposure to “perfect” bodies and faces.

    March 12, 2014
    • Absolutely! And the question of age brings up another point. I couldn’t verify this, so I didn’t discuss it, but a friend pointed out that many of these posts are written by very young mothers. So their bodies do bounce back more quickly and with less change postpartum. At a time when there are more and more older mothers (like me), we are still being compared to young women as the ideal.

      March 12, 2014
  3. Ginny Engholm #

    I find the whole focus on postpartum bodies, and while I do compare my unfavorably to images of women like these, I also think that, as you reference in the your post, a lot of women are struggling with very real health and reproductive concerns (before pregnancy with issues like infertility), during (with issues like gestational diabetes) or after (with recovering physically from childbirth), and often they are dealing with the health problems of their fetuses and babies, and so their focus is on healthy physical bodies rather than aesthetics. For those women, these discussions seem to originate from a very different place than their pregnancy and postpartum experiences.

    March 12, 2014
    • Exactly. It seems to be yet another iteration of our popular culture’s focus on women’s attractiveness above all else. And it is hard to resist.

      March 12, 2014
  4. Reblogged this on The Catalyst Center and commented:
    A powerful reminder of the beauty and wonder of the female form during the miracle of pregnancy!

    March 31, 2014

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