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Dressing pregnant bodies

Last weekend I came across this article in the magazine of my Sunday-ly Observer on changes in the way pregnant women dress by ‘veteran magazine editor’ Emma Soames. Apparently, during the 80s and earlier, expecting women would wear big tent like contraptions to hide their bulging bellies, like so:

tent like
photo source 1, 2, 3

But now more people, and particularly celebrities, chose to show off their changing bodies through body con dresses and by posing naked. Like so:

pregnant celebrities
photo source 1, 2, 3, 4

Ms Soames (or should I call her Emma?) identifies as a reason for this the progress of equality at work. Because in the past, with no maternity leave, working women would have to resign when they had a baby, and chances were they would never go back afterwards. So they would want to hide their changing status as much as possible. And I suppose that does play a role, you do always hear of women working in city banks to hide the fact that they have families.

But in my mind, a much bigger factor is that having children is more of an extraordinary thing now than it used to be. A few decades ago, it was simply assumed that you had children in your early twenties. It was what you did. But now more and more women are chosing to stay childless, and the average age at birth is creeping ever higher (in Scotland it is anyway). People delay for all sorts of reasons: because it takes time to find the right partner, because they want to gain some life experience first, or because they want to advance their career to the point where they can provide for the kids in the way they expect.

So anyway, with people leaving having babies til later, through choice and circumstance, the likelihood of getting pregnant immediately after you start trying is smaller and smaller. Lots of couples I know have had real difficulties conceiving naturally. So when you do finally get pregnant after waiting for ages or having invasive IVF, who wouldn’t want to shout it from the rooftops? And that’s what dressing up your bump, or painting it and photographing it then tweeting it is, isn’t it, a big shout of ‘Hurray, I’m having a baby! Soon!’

But the weirdest thing about the article is that despite describing her own maternity wardrobe as ‘resembling a field at Glastonbury’ and coming from ‘depressing maternity shops that seemed to have no regard for the colours of the season or the trends coming down the catwalk’, Emma (I’m mixing it up, see?) is completely opposed to this idea that women may want to wear clothes that flaunt their bumps. Decorating the bumps with paint or such is held in particular disdain, while Victoria Beckham at the royal wedding is held up as a shining example of ‘conceal rather than reveal’.

She doesn’t ever explain what her problem is exactly, not even in a roundabout way, which of course makes it hard to discuss, but I’ve made a stab at some arguments that are alluded to in the vaguest possible way:

  • Celebrities are just out for the publicity. Referring to ‘mothers who are expectant of publicity as well as child’ is the closest she gets to providing an explanation. But that’s just celebrities, not ordinary women. Celebrities whose livelihood depends on (or in some cases, whose livelihood is) sharing and selling photos and stories of their lives. If you’re that kind of person, why would you stop when you got pregnant? I don’t really see what the alternative is – should Natalie Portman not have gone to the Oscars that she won? Should she have worn a more sacklike dress? I think it’s rather sweet when celebrities get excited about impending parenthood.
  • Naked bodies are private. Maybe there’s an element of generally not liking people posing naked. But again, does the pregnancy actually make a difference? If anything, pregnant bodies are less sexualised, which is probably why celebrities that wouldn’t otherwise do these kinds of shoots do them when they’re about to have a baby. While I’m sure there are people out there who have a thing for preggers women, in general it’s meant to only be the father of the child that finds the woman in question sexy. The naked picture of a woman with child is more of a celebration of health and life than an invitation to ogle. Which is nice, surely.
  • It creates a division between mothers and childless women. There actually isn’t a trace of this in the article, but a reason why you might be opposed to the celebration of bellies is to not hurt the feelings of women who have ended up childless. I do find this whole cult of motherhood where people go ‘my life wasn’t compete until I had my baby’ a bit weird, and I don’t like the implication that non-parents are somehow less than whole. But even if I do at some point end up in a situation where I can’t conceive and I get upset at the sight of a pregnant person, I don’t suppose whether this person was wearing a muumuu or a bodycon dress would make much difference.

Overall, Emma Soames’ opinion seems to reflect a distaste for (post)modern celebrity culture and a desire to return to a mythical land of good taste and breeding (hence her hopes are pinned on Kate Middleton) rather than anything specifically to do with pregancy. Or possibly something more sinister going on here and she actually thinks pregnant bodies are disgusting what with being all leaky and stretchmarked. For information, Emma Soames was born in 1949 and is the editor or Saga magazine, which may explain some of the views put forward in the article.

Personally, when and if I get pregnant, I very much hope I’ll be taking the same approach to dressing I do now, i.e. feminine but bright and shouty and fun. I don’t make much of an attempt to hide me curves/giant bum now, so why would I want to hide my belly? I’m not ruling out the possibility that I’ll get into ‘tents’ for comfort reasons, but it sure as hell isn’t going to be because I want to hide the fact that I am pregnant! And certainly not because it offends the sensibilities of some media person or other. Women’s bodies are their own to dress and adorn as they please, pregnant or not.

What do you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Elly Snare 23 May 2011, 7:16 am

    I think both reasons (maybe hidden away because of a fear of becoming unemployed/displaying because of pride in, as you say, uniqueness of pregnancy) are sensible and insightful, but maybe Soames' disdain of those women overtly flaunting (?) their pregnancy is due to a much more old-fashioned outlook, as you point out.

    The problem is that dressing fashionably (for example, still dressing in body-con) while pregnant and posing naked while pregnant are vastly different things. It might be that Soames is taking her dislike of nude posing (in that it is distasteful) and transferring it onto what is perceived as a similarly transparent display of the engorged female form, even though they're miles apart! But then I also think there is a fear of pregnant women and the pregnancy shape (I for one am a little bit weirded out by it) because of what it represents and what we know it to be biologically – very powerful and overbrimming with life and danger and things like that. So dressing THAT as a whole is pretty hard.

  • poet 23 May 2011, 7:17 am

    I always thought what was going on with the dressing up and showing off of the pregnant body was that women were rebelling against the policing of their bodies, as in other areas of life. Certainly the fact that having a baby is a much more deliberate decision these days is both expressive of that change and an additional reason to celebrate it! And there would of course be conservative/"old-fashioned" forces who disagree with that movement… sigh. 🙂 

  • oranges_and_apples 23 May 2011, 10:09 am

    Yeah, you're right, they are such completely different things. I had sort of
    accepted tha in her mind they are on the same level, or at least symptoms of
    the same thing.

    It's also true that pregancy is an unusual thing and it is natural to feel a
    bit confused. For me it is the fact that pregant women are both super
    healthy, with the body throwing everything at making itself as strong as
    possible, but also pretty fragile and not as agile.

    This also reminded me of this psychological theory I learnt about as a
    undergrad – Julie Kristeva and abjection. Not sure if i remember this
    correctly, but I think it says that our whole world view is based on the
    idea that we have a self that is somehow separate from everything else –
    children learn to make that distinction when they become self aware.
    Everything that challenges this distinction and is between self and other
    (various bodily fluids, mainly) is taboo or abject, we think its disgusting,
    but are also fascinated. Being pregnant similarly blurs the boundaries,
    because its a person with another person (the other) inside them. And of
    course pregant women sweat and pee and vomit more. And I will stop here, in
    case people are clicking away in disgust!

  • oranges_and_apples 23 May 2011, 10:17 am

    That is definitetly something that i am hugely apprehensive about if I ever
    have a baby – EVERYONE feels they can tell you what to do and judge you on
    every little thing about how you act! Exercise. Don't exercise. Don't drink.
    Drink red wine. Play music to your unborn. Eat nothing but organic
    vegetables. Eat lost of meat so that the baby grows. And it just gets worse
    once the baby is born. Though I admit I have a similar judgemental reaction
    when I see pregnant people smoke. Telling pregant women how they should and
    shouldn't dress is just another aspect of this overall judging, though more
    transparently needlessly controlling than other things, for which there is
    at least health concerns that may motivate the judging person.

  • dear_sweetlings 23 May 2011, 12:06 pm

    This is an excellent piece Franca, I really enjoyed reading it!

    Personally I find pregnant women to be very beautiful, for that reason alone I don't mind seeing decorated bumps! I find it sad when there is that air of 'pregnancy is disgusting and needs to be hidden', yes it causes stretch marks and leaky bits as you say, but I definitely don't find that disgusting (it's just natural). I can get behind pregnant ladies wearing tents if they want to, hell when I'm pregnant I'm going to wear the most comfortable things I can find whatever that might be, but I don't think it should be mandatory, or ladies who choose to wear more figure hugging clothes should be looked down on. Just because you're pregnant doesn't mean you suddenly have a duty to stop dressing how you like and I don't see why you should have to let go of your personal style just because you're expecting.

    As for the whole 'naked bodies are private', I've always had a problem with that. Yes our bodies are private, in the sense that we should be allowed to decide who sees them and who doesn't, but I have a problem with the idea that it is wrong to see a naked body, or that the body is innately perverse or something like that. Bodies are natural, if there's one thing we ALL have it's a body of some kind, this need to always have it hidden from view is silly to me, as if it's offensive to be able to see the natural body.

  • Clare B 23 May 2011, 12:20 pm

    As a first-time very pregnant woman I'm surprised at how hard it is to dress "the bump". After years of learning what looks good on my body I've had to learn it all again (several times in fact) as my body has changed shape over the last 6 months. It's been quite a frustrating experience. While I'd love to look fashionable everytime I step out of the house sometimes a sack is actually the most comfortable option (both psychologically and physically) – there's an aspect of "I don't have to think about how my boobs/bump/bottom have changed this week because noone will see." I think there is a lot of pressure on pregnant woman to remain fashionable throughout pregnancy and continue to look good and up-to-date without truly acknowledging that it's a little like being a teenager again and not knowing how to dress your new boobs/hips/legs/waist etc. Having said that I have one or two "pregnancy" dresses that I love. Both are my pre-pregnancy style, both show off the bump and suit my body. Ironically, neither are maternity dresses; just high street labels bought a few sizes bigger.

  • Cloud of Secrets 23 May 2011, 1:32 pm

    I love that women can (and do) dress to flatter their bodies and the bump now.  I don't get into -flaunting- the bump: baring it, dressing it too tightly, or painting it, any more than I'd like to see a woman flaunt, bare, sausage case, or paint a "normal" belly.  Or any other body part, for that matter.

    But it's a lovely, new, meaning-filled feminine curve to drape sensuously and flatter.  Natalie Portman's 2011 Oscar dress is a wonderful example of tastefully accentuating the bump and the fullness of other body parts.  I wasn't pleased with Victoria Beckham's grim, voluminous dark sack for the Royal Wedding, but maybe she was intimidated by the solemnity of the occasion.

    I haven't seen pregnancy dressing as a career statement or fertility statement, really.  I haven't thought about it that deeply.  Personally, I just felt really beautiful, curvy, and sculptural when I was carrying a bump, and it was fun to dress it in a tasteful but still feminine way.

  • Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen 23 May 2011, 4:21 pm

     As someone who has a 2-year old, I remember quite well what it is like to be pregnant.  Clare I fully agree with you about how there is now pressure for pregnant women to remain fashionable and it being like a teenager and not knowing how to dress the ever-changing body.  I respect women who flaunt the bump, but it's the same as other celebrity fashion – women feel the need to keep up with the trends.  Some women feel sexy or feminine when pregnant and wish to convey that with their dress, but many women feel as though they are living in a foreign land with this strange new body, and all these societal expectations to be beautiful and sexy and embrace the bump can be quite overwhelming and damaging to the already delicate psyche of an expectant mother.

  • Maria 23 May 2011, 5:33 pm

    i love that naked photoshoot, it's so beautiful. And I think anyone with any art/drawing training would love to draw pregnant women, it's not often we get the chance. 

  • oranges_and_apples 23 May 2011, 5:39 pm

    thank you!

    You know, I would agree with that, I don't see naked bodies as inherently
    dirty/offensive/sexual, and I would go with the naked = natural thing. I was
    brought up in a relaxed house and i think it's a shame that so many people
    will never even look at themselves/let themselves be seen naked. But I do
    appreciate that most nudity in the public sphere is almost always
    sexualised, and objectifies women, which is why I think pregnant nakedness
    is so interesting, because its not like that.

  • oranges_and_apples 23 May 2011, 5:48 pm

    Thank you to both of you, I had not really thought of it in that way, but I
    completely understand what you're saying! Telling people they must 'dress
    up' their bump is as bad as saying that they must hide it. And I can see
    that airbrushed, highly styled pictures of celebrities create pressure for
    everyone to follow suit. It's that eternal thing about choice to do
    something turning into pressure to do something. But overall I'm pretty
    positive about seeing more representations of pregnant women even if the
    details are pretty unrealistic. I like the idea that if I fancy making
    myself look stylish/interesting/nice when pregnant I have that option. Even
    if I probably will end up just wearing any old thing.

  • oranges_and_apples 23 May 2011, 6:01 pm

    I was very surprised Natalie Portman was cited on the 'overdoing it' side of
    things (in the caption of a picture in the paper version of the magazine).

    I think there are many parallels with attitudes to fat people's dress, e.g.
    fat people shouldn't wear short skirts or sleeveless things which i find
    equally unacceptavble. I'm pretty sure Ms Soames is pretty intolerant on
    that front too – her twitter handle is 'editor at large. still a size ten'.
    But the difference I suppose is that most people's aesthetics are anti big
    bellies and most fat people do not see their belly fat as a positive thing
    (though they (I!) might feel good and love it as part of themselves) whereas
    clearly a lot of pregnant women do see their belly as something to be
    actively celebrated. I love the idea of drawing smiley faces on my bump,
    should I ever have one!

  • Oddsocksandprettyfrocks 23 May 2011, 8:06 pm

    Just out of interest, was Natalie Portman used as an example in the article and photos?  I think she dressed really well at all the award shows this year.  Unless I've missed out on seeing some photos, I'd have classed her towards the end of the scale that the article's author would probably approve of as quite tasteful and appropriate. 

    I wonder if any of it is to do with stages of pregnancy and the choice of clothing available?  One of my friends is 6 months pregnant and is dressing very much as she always did, but another friend who was in the same position a few months back found it incredibly difficult to track down non-tent like clothing in the latter stages of her pregnancy.  Everything was black, grey and utterly shapeless.

  • Lyddiegal 23 May 2011, 9:22 pm

    I think dressing a pregnant body should be just the same as dressing every other body – highlight the parts you love the most, be comfortable, and always aspire to be chic (in whatever manner you define chic as being).

    I cant stand those floral muumuus, nor do I care for the partially see through polka dot dress that doesn't look fit for a street walker much less a woman about to become a mother.  I don't think a baby bump should be hidden, and i love that people want to celebrate it, they are bringing life into the world and that is a wonderful thing.

    Really, all I'm saying is, keep it classy.

  • jacqueline 23 May 2011, 10:29 pm

    I do completely agree that it is a woman's right to choose how she dresses, pregnant or not, however I do feel that some of the objections that Emma Soames raises are, to me at least, understandable, even if I don't feel strongly about women's maternity clothing choices.
    However much one longs for a child, pregnancy is not a joyous experience for all and I think the subtext of the article, that the pregnant body should be hidden and is somehow disgusting, is most probably a reflection of the authors feelings about her own pregnancies.
    I have two children, one of whom is almost old enough to vote and as wanted as they were, I loathed being pregnant, yes, it's a miraculous thing to create and grow a life inside of you. But the control freak in me hated the thought of having to share my body with another human being, even one as important as my own child. Of course, this is compounded by the fact that people start to view your body as public property and suddenly feel no compunction about putting their hands on your belly, which I found especially hard to deal with.
    Having said that, I am a little in awe of those women who are so in love with being pregnant that they proudly display their bumps, I wish I'd have felt that way about mine.

  • MrsBossa 23 May 2011, 10:59 pm


    I think you're probably right that people have a problem with 'exposed' pregnant people – remember the furore when that lingerie shop had a 'pregnant' mannequin? It seems to be part of a bigger problem to me – that porn and page 3 are fobbed off as 'natural', whereas pregnancy (and nudity generally) – which are as natural as it comes – are somehow offensive or potentially damaging to vulnerable people. Nowadays it's as though people can't bear the thought that women might be pregnant and sexually attractive, or at least comfortable in showing off their bodies. It's such a shame, because every friend who's ever been pregnant has found it a time to be proud and shed all the daft self-consciousness that comes along with being a woman.

    Such a good post, Franca. What will you write in August?! 😉

  • Sophie - Country Girl 24 May 2011, 9:33 am

    This made for a really interesting read. Not having had a baby I don't know how I would dress with a bump. I have to say Victoria Beckham's concealing dress was so classy. I suppose a woman may want to make the most of her new body shape and dress in a different way to normal.

  • oranges_and_apples 24 May 2011, 2:54 pm

    Natalie Portman's Imgae was used to illustrate the quote that was pulled out
    (I'm sure there is a journalistic word for this,m but can't think): 'The red
    carpet is put to good use by clebrities expectant of publicity as well as
    child' (or somethig like that, I don't have the paper with me now). So I
    suppose that may have been the picture editors choice rather than the
    authors. There's also an image of Pink wearing a sort of onesy towel
    suit one a beach, which compared to a swimsuit or bikini is extremely
    covered up.

    I'm sure it is really difficult to find good clothes, especially when you're
    a bit bigger to start off with. Topshop has lovely maternity stuff, but is
    also aimed mainly at skinny fashion conscious teenagers, so I don't imagine
    it's terribly real world proof.

  • oranges_and_apples 24 May 2011, 3:07 pm

    Everyone has opinions on what is and isn't appropriate, I'm not advocating
    any one style at all. I guess I just don't see how pregnant changes
    anything. My guess is that you're not hugely keen on Christina Aguilera's
    usual pretty sexualised/tarty/whatever you want to call it style (and in
    fact neither am I) but that photo is her dressing the way she always
    dresses, the only difference is that she's pregnant. She's not dressing like
    that in front of small children, she's on a night out. Basically, I believe
    as long as people stay within what is legally allowed everyone can dress the
    way they want, and anyone that doesn't like it is entitled to their opinion,
    but should basically keep it to themselves unless asked. Just because the
    person is pregnant doesn't give critics any more of a right to voice their
    disapproval is all I'm saying.

  • oranges_and_apples 24 May 2011, 5:17 pm

    Oh totally, no doubt its hard! Especially that invasion of private space
    that is the uninvited touching and advice giving. Which I am probably more
    apprehensive about re having kids than even the actual giving birth part.
    This 'cover yourself up, for god's sake' article is a part the unwanted
    advice in my mind. I guess I'm not saying anything about how people should
    dress or behave, just that I like that people are positive about their bumps
    and if they feel they can show them off, I think that's great.

    It must be hard for people who greatly value thinness to change shape so
    dramatically. The opening couple of paragraphs of the article sort of hint
    at that for Emma Soames, and I imagine it plays a part for Victoria Beckham
    who is so known for her skelletalness too.

  • oranges_and_apples 24 May 2011, 5:23 pm

    Haha, I hadn't even thought of August. I just couldn't hold ontp it i was so
    baffled and pissed off by the Observer printing this sort of guff. If i can
    think of a way of linking paternity leave and fashion, you'll all get
    subjected to a post on my no.1 favourite ranting topic!

    Such a good point about people taking pregnancy as a time to shed body
    insecurities! I often hear pregnant people say that they love eating what
    they want – though I suspect it's more 'as much' than 'what' because of
    wanting to make sure the baby gets all the nutrients it needs. There's also
    a whole other issue around the pressure to lose any baby weight almost
    immediately, but that's another thing!

  • Elly Snare 24 May 2011, 8:39 pm

    That also sounds a bit like Lacan and the mirror stage stuff…although I am only reciting that from a friend, I don't know that much about the feminist-psychoanalysis jobbie! The boundary-blurringness of pregnancy is an interesting one though.

  • Marie Nord 27 May 2011, 7:00 am

    wzup ol' g… but really, this is a really good business idea. I don't know about any maternity clothes that are made to flaunt the bump 😉 

  • Stef 30 May 2011, 7:47 pm

    IMO bumps are beautiful. Nothing wrong with showing them off at all 🙂

    It's not seeing pregnant women flaunt their bumps that I find a little jarring but hearing parents tell me over and over how "childless couples are like this" and "childless couples are like that". Apparently all childless couples are the same. I am tired of being told in a roundabout way how I am doomed to become more and more self centered because I am not having children. Oh well, maybe that means blog posts will become more and more frequent as I ease into childless freakdom. 😉

    Awesome post!

  • Lorena 30 May 2011, 8:13 pm

    Very interesting Franca.

    It was quite a good read and it totally got me thinking.
    If I were ever pregnant I would not be an exhibicionist (or at least I say now) – like I am not now…. so I would pretty much wear the same type of clothes. In fact I have a lot of loose and oversized tops so I am pretty sure I'd only buy bottoms .) 

  • oranges_and_apples 31 May 2011, 7:57 am

    I think there are a few high end ones. My old boss went to a wedding when
    she was almost 8 months and I think she ended up getting a massively
    expensive fitted dress from this shop called curves.

  • oranges_and_apples 31 May 2011, 8:19 am

    It is a weird one, all this discussion and animosity about whether or not to
    have kids. Like parents say that childless people are selfish, but then some
    people talk about the ethical choice not to have kids to save the planets
    resources. And if you're straight its It's like noone can

  • oranges_and_apples 31 May 2011, 8:22 am

    Aargh, should not do this on bus! If you're straight its selfish not to have
    kids but if you are gay its selfish to want to have them. It's such a loaded
    subject and for sine reason noone can just accept other peoples choices

  • westwood 7 June 2011, 10:34 pm

    "I don’t suppose whether this person was wearing a muumuu or a bodycon dress would make much difference."