Meghan Markle, newly wedded wife of Prince Harry, is pregnant, and the so-called “bump watch” has begun. In fact, as is so often the case, it began weeks ago when tabloids and celebrity magazines started parsing every fold and wrinkle of every garment she wore to determine whether she was pregnant. The Daily Mail was the first outlet, in the wake of the announcement, to analyze all the ways Markle “hid” her bump in the previous weeks. Now that the news is public, however, she can begin, in tabloid parlance, to “flaunt” it.
Look back at the coverage of any of Kate Middleton’s pregnancies, or any celebrity’s pregnancy, or, indeed, any female celebrity who is walking around with body parts (most often cleavage, abs, or the dreaded “gams”) and you will find stories about them “flaunting” themselves. The word itself is loaded, in that it implies an element of braggadocio.
“It’s as though the women are unreasonably proud of their pregnancy — are showing off — when really, they’re just living,” writes Renee Ann Cramer, a professor in the department of law, politics, and society at Drake University and author of the 2015 book Pregnant With the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, in an email to Vox. “‘Flaunting’ has an undertone of disapproval, as though these women are flaunting their sexuality as much as the pregnancy itself. It is old-fashioned and judgmental.”
Sure, “I had sex with Prince Harry at least once” is an admittedly reasonable thing to brag about. But all kidding aside, framing pregnancy this way shows that we as a society still think that women should inhabit and display their own bodies in a certain prescribed way. In this case, the thinking goes, they should not be showing off. As with aging, women really can’t win. Get a facelift and you’re not aging gracefully; don’t and you look bad for your age. Show your cleavage and you’re “flaunting”; wear a sack dress and you’re dowdy.
Then there’s the “bump watch.” It’s a fact that for many women, pregnancy and its outward signs are rarely limited to the belly. Ask anyone who’s gained 30 or more pounds while pregnant how that weight gets distributed; it’s definitely not just in a cute little belly. A focus on the bump comes with an implicit understanding that the rest of that person’s body will continue to look the same as it always has and the way society dictates is ideal — skinny. This continues into the postpartum period, when celebrities “bounce back” to their pre-baby selves seemingly instantaneously. It sets up unrealistic expectations for pregnant women.
We saw this cycle play out in all three of Kate Middleton’s pregnancies.
Journalist and royals reporter Victoria Arbiter notes that royals really want to keep the focus on their work and not their changing bodies. “[Kate Middleton] dressed quite conservatively because I think she didn’t want the focus to be on that. It’s a very personal thing, being pregnant, and any royal wants to keep the focus on the charity that they’re highlighting, the cause they’re championing, as opposed to everyone talking about their impending birth,” she says. “But of course now at the start of a tour, that’s pretty much all anyone’s going to be talking about.”
You see, this pregnancy news coincides with a trip Meghan and Harry are taking to Australia and three other Commonwealth countries, where they have 76 official engagements. That’s a lot of outfits and “baby bump watch” potential. The news will almost certainly eclipse the reasons, like youth leadership and environmental conservation, that they’re embarking on the trip in the first place.
Ultimately, the way we read coverage about famous people affects normal women. “Just as women are taught, from early ages, about how to look, eat, and act by consuming media that highlights celebrities, women are taught that their pregnancy is similarly something to perform in particular ways,” says Cramer. “This isn’t all insidious, and it isn’t totalizing. But it does have the impact of valorizing certain ways of being pregnant and parenting, and denigrating others.”
When Demi Moore posed naked with her pregnant belly out on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, it was shocking at the time. Now portraits like this are all over Instagram. The messaging has done its work: You should flaunt it!
But during pregnancy, a woman’s body changes so much on a daily basis and is one of the most surreal and disconcerting things you can experience. Not everyone wants to highlight it. Plus, women are more than just vessels for pregnancy. Let’s let Meghan Markle flaunt her intelligence on what is essentially a business trip, and leave her bump out of it.