When Beyoncé released nude pregnancy photos to wild acclaim, the internet had to ask readers if they were still breathing. Indeed, it took only 11 hours for Beyoncé’s belly pics to break Instagram’s record for the most liked photograph on the photo-sharing platform. Such enthusiastic reception demonstrates how far we’ve come from the public outrage over Demi Moore’s iconic nude pregnancy shot on the cover of Vanity Fair, 25 years ago. Once considered an affront to our cultural sensibilities, the nude pregnant body is now held up as emblematic of all that women have achieved: the symbol that used to conjure body shame now signifies body empowerment. But is this imagery as empowering as we might have hoped?
Beyoncé certainly isn’t alone. This cultural willingness, nay excitement, to celebrate women’s pregnant bodies has resulted in the nude pregnancy photoshoot becoming a sort of celebrity rite of passage. Kim and Kourtney Kardashian have both shared full-body nude pregnancy portraits, as has Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Blac Chyna, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera; truly the list is endless. And while the pregnant body is a refreshing alternative to the waif to whom I have grown accustomed, I wonder whether enthusiasm for nude pregnancy imagery stems from their bump or their bareness? Would the naked preggy body be as wildly celebrated if women donned more than a strategically draped lock of hair or well-placed hand?
Do pregnant women have to be hot now, too?
“Is how a pregnant woman’s body looks more important than what it can do?”
Has womanhood become so synonymous with this sexual desirability that even when pregnant, women must be sexy? The come-hither look, the cleavage, the legs, the sheer availability transmitted in these images telegraphs a femininity so familiar and ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to imagine how we might otherwise depict pregnant women. Indeed even the rest of us are stepping in time, with the nude pregnancy shot quickly becoming the hallmark of one’s maternity photoshoot. Because what’s wrong with wanting to be hot? Who doesn’t want to be a sex object?
We live in a world where pregnant women are knocked-up knock-outs and where mothers are MILFs, momshells, and yummy mummies; being (and remaining) sexually desirable is now the long game. Certainly this adds another shift to the first shift of paid work and the second shift of domestic work that women already do. This third shift of body work (from makeup and hair to dieting and exercising to injections and cosmetic surgery) is quickly becoming a new norm. During pregnancy this hot body imperative seems particularly concerning, as the consequences of turning women’s pregnant bodies into sex objects seems to foreclose the possibility of those bodies being subjects in and of themselves. Is how a pregnant woman’s body looks more important than what it can do?
When we consider the herculean task of pregnancy and childbirth, it’s not hard to see why focusing on what your body looks like instead of what it can do would be A Bad Thing. Gestation and delivery would seem to offer a potential reprieve from worry about how you look, whether you are hot, your sex appeal – all the things that merge in my head (and maybe yours, dear reader) to form the ecosystem in which we swim. And such a respite is necessary, given that labor is, well, labor. It’s not always pretty. But women are increasingly worried that it should be. That it must be.
“When we hold up that next sexy celebrity baby bump, we end up celebrating the very objectification we had hoped to upend.”
Such a relentless focus on hotness means that new practices continue to be added to the body work women are expected to do. Take, for instance, the growing popularity of baldness during birth (and I’m not talking about the baby’s head here). Now – even for women who are expecting – pubic hairlessness remains a vital component of hotness. My research suggests that well over half of all women are now delivering sans bush. Women’s unwavering commitment to hotness has apparently resulted in pubic hair being largely banished: even from the delivery room. There now exists a substantial body of medical evidence decrying this practice as unhealthy, unsanitary, and unsafe… particularly during a woman’s pregnancy and delivery. One can’t help but wonder about the cost we all pay in unremittingly prioritizing women’s hot bodies over their healthy ones.
So when we hold up that next sexy celebrity baby bump as a nude emblem of women’s empowerment and of how hot maternity can now be, we may want to consider whether – in doing so – we end up celebrating the very objectification we had hoped to upend.