The ‘baby bump’ as public property

What is it about a pregnant woman’s belly that inspires strangers to stare at it, touch it (sometimes without asking permission), and comment upon it? On Slate today, Jessica Grose is creeped out by our obsession with celebrity pregnancies, pointing to a recent New York Times article about pregnant celebrity fashion entitled Pregnancy Takes a Turn on the Red Carpet. Her views are doubtlessly shaped by her own experience:

People I passed on the street wouldn’t meet my eye, they’d stare right at my stomach. Once, a man leered at me, which felt much more invasive than cat calls did before I was with child. I suppose it’s because I had no control over the way my body looked, and I felt much more vulnerable than usual because I had a helpless baby I was supposed to be protecting.

Grose finds the flaunting of bellies — or at least the media’s treatment of it — to be extremely objectifying.  The NYT article relates the history of celebrity demi-moorepregnancies, mentioning Demi Moore’s famous Vanity Fair cover from 1991 as a turning point that brought bellies into the open. It talks about a “revolution” that empowered celebrity women to appear at award shows when they were visibly pregnant and seems to take the position that this is universally liberating, especially now that there are more fashionable options. Grose points out that an essay by Renee Ann Cramer cited in the article draws a very different conclusion. In that essay, “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin“, Cramer writes:

Tabloids and glossy magazines watch and judge these pregnant bodies. Given that celebrities provide models of fashion that everyday women try to emulate, the sexy new baby bump establishes standards of pregnant and post-baby female beauty that are unattainable — perhaps even undesirable — to most. What’s more, press coverage of celebrity moms predictably replicates tired tropes and existing power gaps in class, race, and gender.

Looking at a media culture that reeks of TMI and TMZ, I’m inclined to say, “Who cares?”, but the answer seems to be “almost everybody but me”. Baby bump speculation sells magazines and raises hit counts, encouraging us to evaluate the celeb as a mother-to-be, not as woman, a person, or on the basis of whatever qualities brought her to the public eye. Let me throw in a plug for a professor at my alma mater, Erin Meyers of Oakland University, whose recent book Dishing Dirt in the Digital Age: Celebrity Gossip Blogs and Participatory Media Culture analyzes the digital obsession with celebrity gossip and who has looked at the “bump watch” in particular.

Celebrities aside, some of the comments on Grose’s article suggest this is part of an oversharing trend that extends to posting photos of urine-sensitive pregnancy tests with positive results on one’s Facebook page. Think of Janelle Taylor’s The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram: Technology, Consumption, and the Politics of Reproduction. It’s not uncommon to get a first glimpse of a friend or relative’s child long before birth as a shared sonogram image. When I researched the social construction of pregnancy in the virtual world Second Life, among the phenomena I considered were products that give the fetus a more active role. These include transparent belly or uterus add-ons that show the growing baby (giving the pregnancy a whole new level of visibility) and some known as “tummy talkers” that simulate monologues by the fetus reminding the mother to eat properly and rest, expressing love, or warning others nearby to be careful not to push into Mommy. Though these are not universally used, they’re common enough that dozens of brands exist.

Celebrities set trends but they also follow them; if they reveal their pregnancies in ways that ordinary women might, the scrutiny and judgment they receive is magnified. Grose felt that she garnered unwanted attention when she was visibly expecting. I can’t guess whether she shares that feeling with the majority of today’s American  mothers, though signs point to women inviting others to bear witness to their pregnancies earlier and earlier in their progression. The female body remains a battleground for agency, no matter how famous one happens to be.

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