Visualising the Pregnant Body
As women, we have become accustomed to the representation of ideal female forms in the arts, the media and, of course, in advertising. However, it has been widely acknowledged that such representations have contributed to body image disturbance and eating disorders, particularly among younger women. Traditionally, one of the few times that the rules surrounding ideal female bodies were suspended was during pregnancy and the postpartum period. This paper traces conventions in the representation of pregnancy from a period when pregnant bodies were rendered invisible by societal taboos, to the current moment when images of pregnant bodies abound and those bodies generally adhere to particular ideals. This, I argue, has led to the erosion of pregnancy as a period of grace, with a resulting increase in pressure on women to conform to ideal pregnant body types. As a result, the representation of the pregnant body in the media has a profound impact on how society regards the female body and how women experience their pregnancies.
Pregnancy and birth are not just a biological facts, they are events performed within the institutions of motherhood. There is, therefore, a constantly shifting ground of ideas about how pregnancy ‘ought’ to be experienced. Contemporary women understand and experience their own pregnancies against the backdrop of the ideals portrayed in expert books, maternity magazines, the popular press, Internet sites and advertising.1 Women experiencing their first pregnancies tend to rely rather heavily on external sources of information and evaluate their own experiences as ”normal” or “deviant” in so far as their experiences align with the ideals portrayed. Of all these potential sources of information, advertising in particular appropriates idealized images in order to render particular products and services desirable to its audience. The images that abound in contemporary advertising targeted to pregnant women and mothers include happy children, fulfilled parents, nutritious food, educational toys, stylish buggies, and sports utility vehicles. While the range of product categories that are targeted towards women in their mothering role are, of necessity, diverse, one possible link between them may be the portrayal of mothers as happy, healthy and fulfilled. However, advertising does not exist in isolation but is influenced by the wider cultural landscape. Thus, changes in societal conventions brought about by challenges to dominant positions inevitably result in new representations in the media.
This essay traces how perceptions of the pregnant body have shifted from the pregnant body not being regarded as a subject in its own right but as a container of new life, to the more recent fascination with pregnant bodies, particularly those of celebrities. My interest in representations of pregnant bodies and my treatment of the topic is influenced by my background as a marketing academic, but I also approach the topic as a woman who is currently pregnant. In terms of the latter, I am perhaps more attuned to representations of pregnant bodies than I might otherwise have been, and also perhaps more sensitive about them. I make no apologies for this.
I begin this essay with an example of how pregnant bodies were represented in the media before the 1990s, and then discuss how the highly controversial photograph of actress Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair challenged and ultimately undermined prevailing conventions. Drawing on this discussion, I consider the changes in maternity fashion wear that have occurred as a result of increasing confidence about exposing and celebrating our pregnant bodies. I then explore how such cultural changes are reflected in contemporary advertising, particularly in terms of how pregnant bodies are currently represented. Next, I trace how the strong taboos surrounding the representation of the pregnant body in visual culture have been eliminated and use more recent representations of Britney Spears to illustrate this. I conclude with the suggestion that the proliferation of representations of idealized pregnant bodies within advertising and the wider media influence not only how society regards pregnant bodies, but also how individual women experience their pregnancies. In particular, women are now compelled to manage their bodies during their pregnancy and in the postpartum period in order to create and maintain ideal body types. This is problematic because not only does...