There are many things in this world that are simply a given - the moment you get comfortable in bed is the moment you’ll suddenly need to go to the toilet, anytime you actively refuse to take a jacket to an event it will inevitably be the coldest night on record in two hundred years, and as soon as a celebrity or influencer gets pregnant there will be commentary about their body.
A fundamental part of pregnancy is weight gain.
You can’t grow a small human in your uterus and not expect your body to expand to accommodate this.
On the surface, it just seems a simple fact of life, and one that really requires no further thought or discussion.
In a near-perfect world, the body of a pregnant person during and after pregnancy would be off-limits for discussion (I say “near perfect” because in an actual perfect world there would be no commentary on anyone’s body ever, but this utopian vision seems a depressingly big reach to even contemplate).
So why then is there so much conversation about pregnant and post-partum bodies?
And why are the different narratives, in my opinion, still lacking in their approach?
Let’s first begin with discussing the ways in which we approach pregnant and post-partum bodies.
The first, and what most people view to be the most damaging, is the idea of the “cute pregnancy” and the subsequent “incredible bounce-back.”
What is a “cute pregnancy” you might ask?
A 2017 article in Cosmopolitan by Anne Helen Peterson used the example of the then-current pregnancy of Serena Williams – a pregnancy made famous by the fact that Williams was eight weeks pregnant when she won the Australian Open.
Further commentary that Peterson highlighted in their article included tabloids calling William’s legs “long slender pins” and the social media comments stating that pregnancy “looks good on Williams.”
A “cute pregnancy” therefore, usually involves a body maintaining its svelte shape, save for that “adorable” little bump that is grown and cradled, whilst your skin glows and your hair thickens.
Great – except for if you happen to be someone who’s pregnancy results in swollen ankles, stretchmarks, overall weight gain and breakouts, all of which the general narrative is telling you isn’t “cute.”
A “cute pregnancy” is often accompanied by the “bounce-back” – those pregnant people who appear to immediately shed the remaining pregnancy weight and return to their former figures.
Whilst some might be genetically blessed, others are succumb to the enormous and unrealistic pressure to whip their body “back into shape.”
They’re back in the gym weeks after pregnancy, they’re undertaking diets, they’re telling everyone it’s just breastfeeding that’s helping them shed the weight (which transforms the act of breastfeeding as some sort of way to lose weight rather than what it actually is which literally feeding a newborn).
So, I’m sure we can all agree those are some damaging narratives– and naturally, there has been backlash.
This moves us onto the next story that we tell about pregnancy and post-partum bodies - the mantra: “every pregnancy body is different.”
The reassurance that there is no pressure to bounce back, that every pregnant person’s experience is unique.
The rise of pregnant people speaking about the truth of pregnancy – the morning sickness, the swelling, the uncomfortable bowel sensations.
The nitty gritty and the real.
This is the “reclaiming” of post-partum bodies.
Take for example, Australian fitness influencer Tiffany Hall being praised for a “refreshingly real” post-pregnancy photo, applauded as being “raw” and “relatable.”
Or photos of stretches marks and post-partum excess skin captioned as “beautiful.”
This movement extended to those who do have the “incredible” post-partum bounce back – for example, people were quick to jump to the defence of influencer Tammy Hembrow following Australian comedian Celeste Barber’s slamming of her post-pregnancy selfie as “dangerous.”
The general consensus was – if we are saying that all pregnancies are different and we can’t judge anyone on their journey, then we can’t only apply this to those who don’t lose weight immediately.
And this recent narrative seems a nice change – a refreshing progression from the previous pressures, right?
In a way, yes.
I am of course glad that we are no longer telling pregnant people to remain small throughout and after a pregnancy.
I’m glad that we’re dismantling these pressures.
But we’re still talking about how pregnant people look.
Let me first explain a little context before I clarify what I mean.
I am not currently pregnant, nor have I had a child. You might then wonder what stake I have in the game: for me, I have an extensive history of disordered eating and suffered from anorexia nervosa until mid-way into my twenties.
I still struggle constantly with accepting my body and regularly fall into unhealthy patterns of behaviour, particularly during times of stress in my life.
I’m working on it with a therapist, and one of the reasons (aside from wanting to get well) is because recently I decided that I might want to have a child, but I realised that I have internalised the narratives surrounding the pregnant body and post-partum expectations that I was terrified of what this might mean for my eating disorder.
Would I be able to cope with my body changing?
Would I be able to handle all eyes being on my figure during the pregnancy, the comments of “getting so big”?
And then the way that this “bigness” immediately becomes something unspoken, something bad, once the baby has left me?
I have been reading and looking at “real” post-partum and pregnancy bodies.
Reading about the changes and the movement of “all pregnancy bodies are different!”
So much about bodies, so much about the shape of them, how they look, and so much of how everything is beautiful, it’s all beautiful.
And I just feel like I would really prefer it if the narrative around pregnant bodies and post-partum bodies was… non-existent.
It wasn’t celebrating everything as beautiful, it wasn’t telling us to bounce back – it wasn’t telling us anything about our bodies at all.
The bottom line is, even if the narrative is changing to say that “every pregnancy body is beautiful” the fact remains that the focus is still on how the pregnant person’s body looks.
That person just gave birth to a human being – who cares how their body looks!
It seems to me as if society looks to a new parent who just gave birth and rushes to pat them on the head and say, “it’s okay, you’re still beautiful though! You’re still raw and beautiful!”
As if that’s the most important thing in that moment.
A passage in Pandora Syke’s 2020 book, “How Do We Know We’re Doing it Right?” speaks to a 2018 marketing campaign that featured new mothers in their underwear in an attempt to present a raw version of motherhood and sums it up:
“It… frames a post-partum woman in the context of how she looks, rather than what she has achieved (birthing a bowling ball and then staying up all night with it, for months on end).
In that sense, heart-warming thought it was, the advert is not in the least bit radical: it still adheres to the idea that beauty is currency for women.
Rather than shift that narrative, the advert merely attempts to shift the definition of what is beautiful.”
The narrative around pregnancy and post-partum bodies is still heavily focused on beauty and appearance – it is merely, as Sykes highlights, just trying to reframe what these terms mean.
It feels to me akin to anti-ageing ads that tell us that getting old is a beautiful thing, but also try to sell us creams to help erase wrinkles in the same breath.
This sort of double-edged sword of telling us all pregnancy bodies are beautiful, but still making it about our damn bodies in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for assurance – it is deeply ingrained in us the longing to feel desired and much of that is tied up with feeling beautiful.
In the toughness and sleep-deprived state of being that is post-pregnancy life, I can understand the draw of seeing others – particularly celebrities and influencers, from whom we take many of our cues – who look just like us, alleviating that burden that society has placed on us to conform to beauty standards.
But I do wonder if my panic about my pregnancy body would be eased if there was less conversation about bodies in general.
If the state of my body was a non-issue during this time.
I’ve wondered how my mind might go during pregnancy – will I crave the validation of someone acknowledging my bump, or will I desire the “you’re still so small” commentary?
And, again, would this even be an issue if being pregnant didn’t seem to automatically give people the right to comment on someone’s body?
The more I look into this topic to ease my own mind, the more it feels that it might not be something I can articulate until I experience for myself.
I understand the limitation of my perspective from the outside.
My bottom line, however, remains: I still do think the narrative around pregnancy and post-partum bodies has a long way to go.
Perhaps we need to think deeply to address why someone who has literally just grown and birthed a child still needs to be validated by the word “beautiful” when I can think of a million better ways that the achievement can be framed.