Taking a Pregnant Pause in Media Beauty Ideals

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I’m flipping through a back issue of a fashion magazine at the doctor’s office when a story about a popular model’s pregnancy catches my eye. I don’t have to read far before I realize that the full-page nude picture on the opposite page is not a racy perfume advertisement, but this model in her full, five-month pregnant glory.

Immediately, my hands move to the nearly supernatural girth that eight and a half months of pregnancy have added to my own frame. I scrutinize the photo and think that maybe, in comparison to the gauntness of the other models in the magazine, I can discern a slight bulge beneath her belly button, but nothing like the roundness my own shape had achieved by that stage.

Both the actress Demi Moore and the model Cindy Crawford posed nude in major magazines in mid-pregnancy, and every time one of these pictures appears, we are told that they are meant to empower women, to make us feel good about their bodies. Yeah, right. As if women were not already held to an impossible standard of media-defined beauty, now there is a pregnant ideal we’re expected to achieve, and it is an image of Cindy or Demi with their barely-there bumps. It may be the cruelest standard of all. As impossible as it will ever be for my body to resemble Cindy’s under normal circumstances, it’s a thousand times less likely — truly beyond impossible — in our respective pregnant forms.

These pictures are always accompanied by articles detailing the model or actress’s fitness and diet regimen. In the case of the naked model in my magazine, she was hiking and walking and surfing and practicing yoga and living on a wonderful regimen of green leafy vegetables. There is never any mention in these accounts of celebrity pregnancies of debilitating fatigue, unrelenting nausea, itchy skin rashes, water retention, indigestion, crippling back, leg and pelvic pain, runaway weight gain defying the most rigid diet, or the shut down of bowel activity so severe it could qualify as a disability.

I don’t know if these women have these pregnancies because they are superwomen, or if they are superwomen because they have these kinds of pregnancies. But reading about their surfing at five months and looking at them in bikinis at seven months doesn’t make me feel any better about my pregnant self. I can relate to pregnant Cindy about as much as I can when she’s on the cover of Vogue.

It’s not just the mainstream media publishing naked pictures of movie stars; pick up any pregnancy magazine, and you’ll increasingly see the same kind of images — very tall, very thin pregnant women wearing “maternity bikinis.” Shop at a high-end maternity clothing store, and be forced to squeeze your thighs into jeans and pants that most average women couldn’t wear in their best shape.

Don’t get me wrong. I know plenty of women who look fit and fabulous throughout their pregnancies and get themselves right back into shape. I love that maternity clothes are more stylish and slimmer fitting, and that the pregnant form is no longer considered something to be hidden. I think it’s great that pregnant women are now encouraged to exercise, eat healthy and stay active.  (Trust me, the only thing worse than being treated like an invalid in your fifth month is when you actually become one in your eighth.) I love watching my mother and mother-in-law recoil in horror at the sight of me snug and proud in my regular clothes at six months and ask, when, for God’s sake, am I going to start wearing maternity clothes.

Yet, any woman who has been pregnant recently will tell you that any movement to show the world that pregnant woman can be attractive and active, stylish and even sexy, has morphed into something else — an unrelenting pressure demanding that pregnant women must be, that we somehow make it through those nine months without filling out or slowing down.

What’s particularly cruel about this is that often, in pregnancy, you don’t have much control. Sometimes your body has ideas of its own, and it’s going to do what it’s going to do. You shouldn’t have to worry about looking heavenly when you feel like hell. A woman bloated with fluid or rendered sedentary because she’s in pain shouldn’t feel like a failure. I went on partial bed rest at 34 weeks, and the worst part about it is worrying about what everyone else thinks about me — that I’m a hypochondriac, that I’m just not tough enough.

Of course, women are the worst perpetrators of holding each other to impossible standards, both pregnant and non-pregnant. We think that with enough diligence, we can fit this ideal, and we’re not about to change this. But maybe we should. I’m not suggesting we return to the days of seclusion and immobility, tent dresses and the misguided eating-for-two that defined pregnancy for our mothers. But maybe we could cut ourselves a little bit of a break during the nine months that we ask our bodies to produce another human being.

After all, what really makes a pregnant body beautiful is what’s going on inside.