When Vanity Fair published its photos of a pregnant Serena Williams at the end of June, the magazine was participating in a tradition it began in 1991 with its iconic Demi Moore cover. Pregnancy was widely considered to be too unsightly and unpleasantly fleshy to be a focus of celebrity coverage in the ‘80s, but the Demi Moore cover changed that. The image of a celebrity in tender black-and-white, cradling her naked belly on a magazine cover, was groundbreaking in 1991, and today has become de rigueur.
As author and BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen has chronicled, celebrity pregnancy today is a favorite topic of the gossip press, and as such it is expected to meet certain standards. Celebrity pregnancy should be cute. Maternity clothes should be feminine and frilly, or perfectly tailored to put one’s “baby bump” in the spotlight. The pregnant celebrity’s belly should swell while the rest of her stays slim and toned. There should be no signs of visible discomfort.
The demands of the aspirational celebrity pregnancy, meanwhile, transfer themselves to non-celebrity women who consume gossip coverage: If Demi Moore looks like that when she’s pregnant, I should, too. If Kate Middleton is so skinny just months after giving birth, I should be, too.
With its Serena Williams cover, Vanity Fair was projecting the idea of an aspirational celebrity pregnancy onto the body of a black woman, which is a groundbreaking act in and of itself. But it was also adding a new beat to the narrative, one that has been slowly gaining ground over the past few years, most recently with the coverage of the pregnancies of Beyoncé and Wonder Woman star Gal Godot.
Now, pregnant celebrities aren’t only expected to be cute and well-behaved and of a particular body type. They are also expected to be startlingly athletic well into their pregnancy.
The gossip industry is growing more and more obsessed with celebrating pregnant acts of athleticism
The Williams cover issue comes with a story by Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger about Williams and her pregnancy and her relationship with fiancé Alexis Ohanian. Most of the article is framed as a love story, but its climax is focused entirely on the remarkable feats of athleticism Williams performed while pregnant:
The Australian Open presented a new challenge that Serena had never faced before in her career. Because of the pregnancy she did not have the same endurance. She could uncharacteristically feel herself getting tired between points, particularly long ones. If a match went to three sets she knew she would lose, so she was determined to make every match two sets. She also had to deal with the Melbourne heat, which can be vicious on the court in the late afternoon: despite hating playing in the morning, Serena, because she had the option of choosing the match time in the early rounds, played as many as possible at 11 A.M.
You had to win seven matches to win the tournament.
Serena won them all in straight sets.
To be clear, this is an enormous achievement that it is well worth celebrating. To win the Australian Open while under the incredible physical stress of a pregnancy is astonishingly difficult — and Williams’s pregnancy was unannounced at the time, which made the subsequent reveal even more surprising. Williams’s victory is worth recognizing and probably would be recognized regardless of the cultural atmosphere. But the emphasis on the athleticism of Williams’s pregnancy is part of a growing tendency to zero in on the athleticism of other celebrity pregnancies.
It’s the same trend we saw earlier this year when EW reported with awe that Gal Gadot was five months pregnant during Wonder Woman reshoots. “Gal Gadot may not actually be Wonder Woman,” it concluded, “but there were days on the set of Warner Bros.’ newest superhero film when she certainly came close.”
And it’s the same interest that drove a slew of stories in this year alone about high-achieving athletes — like Olympic gold medalist swimmer Dana Vollmer and USA Outdoor champion runner Alysia Montaño — who are competing while pregnant.
The desire to celebrate the athleticism of pregnant women is certainly laudable. It comes, in part, from the recognition that pregnancy is extremely physically taxing: Can you imagine being so energetic while your body is literally building another person? Women like Alysia Montaño and Serena Williams are freaking superstars who deserve all the recognition they get.
But pop culture has a way of normalizing the things it celebrates as exceptional in one person into the things that it expects from everyone else. And that means this trend also comes with a potential dark side.
When Beyoncé decided not to headline Coachella at eight months pregnant, the backlash was vicious
When Beyoncé announced her pregnancy in February, fans were quick to do the math: that meant that she would be headlining Coachella while eight months pregnant with twins. “I’m excited to see Beyoncé perform with twins,” Vanessa Hudgens mused. “I mean, she’ll kill it, because she’s Beyoncé. So her.”
The idea that Beyoncé is so effortlessly flawless and superhuman that she could headline a major music festival while heavily pregnant was exciting and validating for her fans — and when Beyoncé later announced that she would have to drop out of the festival after all on her doctor’s advice, the backlash came fast and furious.
Some declared that Beyoncé must have known she was pregnant before she signed onto Coachella, and that by announcing the deal anyway she was scamming both her fans and Coachella organizers.
Others opined that the cancellation just went to show that Beyoncé wasn’t that special after all. “Just proves how overrated of a person she really is,” one wrote. “She doesn't have that ‘IT’ factor.”
The backlash wasn’t limited to bitter fan tweeting. USA Today interviewed a doctor who scolded Beyoncé for not acting as “a poster child for pregnancy,” explaining that "there is no medical reason for not being active unless there are concerns about the pregnancy” and adding, “She should be out there doing her thing."
Pregnancy already comes with a slew of enormous cultural expectations. It should be cute; it should be properly accessorized; it should not affect any part of the body besides the iconic swollen belly; it should be feminine and glowing and emotionally meaningful.
And now, there’s a growing expectation that it should be athletic, too. It should be accompanied by physical achievement. And if pregnancy slows a woman down, we are beginning to think that means that she’s doing her pregnancy incorrectly.