But childbirth is a messy, primal process: consider the afterbirth, the leakage of breast milk, the caked gunk scraped from the newborn’s body, the blood and screaming, and the fact that for so long, so many otherwise healthy women died in the process of giving birth.
The pregnant body was also profoundly contradictory: as scholar Jane Ussher explains, pregnancy is, at its most essential, the most vivid proof of women’s sexuality — which is precisely why representations of mothers took on the opposite characteristics.
Yet in transgressing the boundaries of the “cute celebrity pregnancy,” Kardashian effectively called attention to the constrictive, regressive norms of how women, celebrity or not, are now expected to “perform” pregnancy in public. But when her body refused to give her one, she became the unlikely means by which the cracks in the ideology of “good” maternity became visible.
When she writes on her blog that “for me pregnancy is the worst experience of my life,” she’s not just “keeping it real,” as she proclaims at the beginning of the paragraph; she’s working to mainstream the truly unruly idea that pregnancy — and, by extension, even motherhood — is not the pinnacle, or even defining purpose, of every woman’s life. If you were born after 1991, you’ve never known a time when pregnancy wasn’t performed in public: 1991 was the watershed year in which Demi Moore appeared naked, seven months pregnant with her second daughter, Scout, on the cover of Vanity Fair.
As late as the 1950s, stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds were seldom photographed while pregnant — just during the blissful, bonding aftermath.
The attempt to erase pregnant bodies from the public sphere took place alongside women’s increased freedom to control when they became pregnant.Put differently, industries weren’t yet selling the idea of the “cute” pregnancy — or the products to maintain it. Maternity clothes were largely hideous and/or homemade, making “pregnancy style” an oxymoron: even Princess Diana, whose early 1980s pregnancies were arguably the most visible in history, still dressed in what might best be described as polka-dotted baby doll dresses.But the popularization of spandex and Lycra in the 1980s and ’90s changed all that: a fabric that could stretch was one that could be crafted into something (relatively) cute for the growing pregnant body.“It’s tacky,” one twenty-three-year-old woman told the Los Angeles Times.She couldn’t imagine “why anyone would want to display her swollen stomach like that — and why people would want to look at it.”The titillation was purposeful: Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who would go on to serve as editor in chief of The New Yorker, made the decision to put the image on the cover, knowing how it would drive sales.It takes the courage of a woman as modern and innovative as Demi Moore to cast aside the conventions of traditional beauty and declare that there is nothing more glorious than the sight of a woman carrying a child.”Moore, who was promoting her new movie, The Butcher’s Wife, obviously agreed. The baby bump has become, as Molly Jong-Fast declared in The New York Times, the new Birkin bag: it’s “cute” and “adorable” and “feminine,” something to dress up, to rub in photos, to have photographed as your partner leans down and kisses it.Celebrities model these behaviors on the red carpet, in selfies, and in paparazzi photos, and as a result, women across America have adopted them en masse.The cover became instantly iconic, mocked and replicated and spoofed in the manner of meme culture decades before online memes existed.In some quarters, it was considered obscene: many supermarkets displayed it with the sort of paper wrap reserved for Playboy; others, like Safeway and Giant, refused to sell it entirely.Women of a certain class often receded entirely from public view until after the baby was born and the visible signs of pregnancy had diminished.When the birth occurred, it happened in the domestic space and was managed by midwives.