“Unapologetic and sassy, beach baby Lisa Haydon has got her own brand of feminism down pat. Behold, the proudly pregnant Lisa Haydon Lalvani headlining our Love Your Body issue in a Missoni bikini, shot by Farrokh Chothia with hair and make-up by Namrata Soni. The mum-to-be shows off her glowing skin and baby bump in the season’s hottest offerings, donning frothy cover-ups, lycra bikinis and crochet jackets with all the enthusiasm of a teenager” – From Elle, May 3, 2017
The above quote launched the 2017 summer edition of Elle, one of the top fashion and lifestyle magazines globally, along with a cover photo featuring a heavily pregnant Lisa Haydon flaunting her “bump”. As such, the visual ascendance of celebrity pregnancy and motherhood in print and social media is hard to miss. Pregnant bodies packaged in photoshoots, advertising campaigns, fashion shows, magazine covers, calendars and t-shirts. Pregnancy has never been so visible and so spectacularly exhibited for the public gaze. In this reconfigured maternal market, Instagram profiles of celebrities, as well as other women, are replete with photoshoots of “belly shots” adorning stylish lingerie and breezy kaftans. Ostensibly, a pregnant Dia Mirza’s flowing kaftans from her sultry Maldives vacation is redefining maternity fashion goals for women, declares Femina-India. In this new visual vocabulary, pregnancy is no longer an embarrassing state that needs to be hidden or confined to the private spaces of homes and hospitals. Rather it is imagined as a pleasurable site of exhibition and a reassurance of heterosexual companionship. I argue that this representational shift with its putative celebration of the female body is unwittingly subjected to aesthetic and sexual scrutiny that demands (self) surveillance and self-regulation. More generally, I contend that while fertile fashion is proffered in the language of freedom, body positivity and consumerist hedonism, it ironically creates a new kind of confinement for women.
Maternity wear into maternity fashion: sexualising pregnancy
The emergence of this glamorous pregnancy enterprise has marked a commodification of pregnancy and more generally, the maternal experience. Market strategists note how pregnant celebrities are increasingly desirable candidates for brand endorsements. For instance, recently the fertility care brand Crysta announced Kareena Kapoor Khan as its brand ambassador, while a pregnant Anushka Sharma featured in an advertisement of the Standard Chartered Bank reassuring expectant women the ease of contactless, digital banking from the comfort of one’s home (#TechItEasy). “Why can’t a woman be pregnant and still lead a glorious life?” asks a brand strategist emphasising how these endorsements by pregnant celebrities reverberate a changing and a “progressive mindset” of the audience. While it is not immediately clear whether this visual aesthetics necessarily marks an erosion of cultural taboo around pregnancy, two forces seem to be at work.
First, academics examining visual cultures have noted that pregnant bodies are not only marketed to a male sexual gaze but also to the female consumer. Noteworthy in this connection is HOTmilk, the New Zealand-based fashion-conscious maternity lingerie company that changed the visual imagery of pregnancy globally. The company, that takes pride in its “provocative and powerful campaigns” is all about making the pregnant woman feel “empowered”, “sensuous” and “feminine”. In one of its early campaigns titled “Seduction” (2008), as British sociologist Imogene Tyler observes, HOTmilk, in a sensuous black and white stock image, featured a blonde woman dressed in black lingerie straddling an unrobed male torso. In this sexualization of pregnant bodies, consumerism is imagined as a new form of freedom with a forceful abandonment of older ideologies of concealing a pregnant body. Although advertising campaigns around pregnancy in India are far less sexually dramatic than HOTmilk, it is clear from the numerous online sites selling maternity related merchandise that retailing companies in India have played a significant role in (1) tapping the ever-growing maternity market, (2) and creating a sexualised “pregnancy chic” by turning maternity wear into maternity fashion. These e-commerce platforms include stores such as Nykaa (specializes in maternity athleisure and lingerie for “stylish mamas”) or Clovia – that ensures pregnancy fashion to be “uncompromisingly chic yet comfortable”. Notably, fashion executives, Cherie Serota and Jody Gardner’s popular 1998 non-fiction Pregnancy Chic: Fashion Survival Guide had long undergirded the maternity fashion movement by offering handy tips to several expectant mothers in the United States to “get dressed without compromising your style” while looking naturally chic. While not entirely on pregnancy fashion, our own Kareena Kapoor Khan’s recently released Pregnancy Bible (or previously Karisma Kapoor’s “My Yummy Mummy Guide” (2013) on tips to lose the pregnancy fat) capitalises on this burgeoning pregnancy and new-parent market by focusing on a range of products from diet, fitness, pregnancy wear to preparing the nursery. Put together, these developments show that pregnancy is no longer a means to an end but rather pregnant bodies are constructed as market-friendly subjects that are appropriately sexed up and at the same time, are on a moral vocation.
Fertile Anxieties: Creation of the “perfect little bump”
The logic of the maternity market doesn’t stop at just creating pregnancy as a fetishised consumerist lifestyle, but stays beyond the gestational span. While on one hand maternity fashion has to some extent effaced negative stereotypes about pregnancy body image, it reinforces the norms of a consumer society that insists on creating an idealised body project through consumption of appropriate diet, nutritional supplements and active lifestyles. As mothers are increasingly expected to remain taut, fashionable and sexy while minimising weight gain, this new-age pregnancy doubles up as a site of feminine performance anxiety. Advertising and media are rife with relentless documentation of post-partum celebrity bodies that are capable of shrinking back to pre-pregnancy shape and size. To be sure, dieting products, fitness and yoga regimes signal the compulsory plasticity of a pregnant body that is successfully able to ‘discipline’ or ‘correct’ itself. The cultural adulation involved in “you don’t look like you just had a baby” and shaming women otherwise (celebrity post-pregnancy body-shaming is not rare either), confirms the post-feminist anxiety of having-it-all. Glossy magazines, online blogs and advertising campaigns that endorse the high-pitched cliché of having-it-all peddle a belief that women can juggle pregnancy, motherhood, high-powered careers and high-heeled sexiness, in equal measure. Thus, while fertile fashion opens up lucrative possibilities of experimentation, the performance of a ‘pregnancy chic’ presents a new set of pressures that heighten feelings of anxiety and guilt-hallmark traits upon which consumer culture is known to be predicated. Seen this way, fertile fashion is both a form of resistance to the more traditional notions of a modest, private and stoic experience of pregnancy, as it is a new kind of confinement for women.
Finally, it is important to note that the creation of sexually desirable fertile bodies is deeply entrenched in one’s social class position. As such, pregnancy photoshoots and advertising campaigns construct certain types of pregnant bodies as beautiful and desirable- upper middle class, taut, youthful bodies in predominantly heterosexual partnerships. Often, Instagram pregnancy galleries and vlogs feature male companions/husbands in fond entanglements with their female spouses in bare/half-clothed bumps. While these images evoke sensuality and tenderness for urban, upper-middle-class women, the possibility of celebrating pregnancy through the language of liberal sexual aesthetics remains foreclosed for rural, lower-income women. Academics have noted that while middle-and upper-middle class mothers are granted a social position ‘safe from sex’ (and hence perceived as morally sacred), pregnant bodies of women from marginalised social groups can be met with disgust, shame and promiscuity (and by that extension, morally flawed). Undoubtedly, this uneven cultural reception of a visually rich pregnancy culture points to the existing hierarchies of age and social class. Overall, for women, the cultural weight of appropriately living fertile fashion as sociologist Tyler aptly notes “has made pregnancy itself an unbearable weight”.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.