THE BLOG

The Pregnancy-Industrial Complex

Jan 08, 2013 | Updated Mar 10, 2013

On Christmas Day, Jessica Simpson revealed via Twitter that she was pregnant with her second child. The next day, she announced her pregnancy in a Weight Watchers commercial, saying she feels like she's "on top of the world." The following Sunday, Kanye West surprised the crowd -- and his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian -- at his concert in Atlantic City when he asked them to cheer for his baby mama. These two very public announcements, on the heels of Kate Middleton's hospitalization for severe morning sickness, usher in a series of rituals familiar to a culture accustomed to pregnancy voyeurism.

In fact, the public has already been watching these celebrities (and countless others) for any signs of pregnancy. There were rumors Kim was pregnant with twins, and bloggers were looking for a belly bump during Jessica's commercial shoot months ago. We have become celebrities' surrogate mom, watching over their every move (Is Kim eating sushi? Is Jessica still on Weight Watchers?).

Media will battle for the first pictures of a visible baby bump. Jessica has already pre-empted some paparazzi from getting rich by tweeting her own picture with the tag line "Bumpin' and Proud," and Kim's mom supposedly is shopping her daughter's baby bump pics to a magazine willing to pay a premium. After their announcements, we will look for the first "baby" pictures. Tom Cruise bought his own ultrasound machine to prevent Katie Holmes' sonograms from leaking to the press. The maternity fashions, the baby showers, the birthing plans and the baby's room and wardrobe will all be turned into elaborate spectacles.

Pregnancy used to be simply a means to having a baby. Now, it's a life phase all its own. The hyper-focus on the celebrity pregnancy turns the pregnancy experience into a commodity for everyone. Without belly bump shots (it's hard to believe that women once tried to hide pregnancy with bulky clothing), ultrasounds and elaborate baby showers, pregnancy was once a time of internal reflection for the expectant mom. Women felt both hope and fear in the pre-20th century, when survival rates for mothers were not always that promising. Today, with the assurance that women will likely live through childbirth, big business and celebrity culture have given rise to the pregnancy-industrial complex.

Pregnancy has been re-imagined from a period of natural waiting to one when, each month, there is something else to do (and buy). Gender reveal parties have replaced the birth announcement to publicly share the surprise of whether the baby will be a boy or girl. The pregnant body is no longer simply a vessel for the baby, but its own art project to be decorated and preserved through tattoos, belly molds, and pregnancy photos. The celebrity experience invites mimicry. While Demi Moore paved the way in making the belly bump socially acceptable with her 1991 Vanity Fair cover, these days, you do not need to be famous to have your own photo shoot, yet another way to glamorize the nine months of waiting.

When pregnancy becomes another over-hyped, over-romanticized, over-marketed product, the experience itself is bound to be a let-down. Jessica Simpson's Weight Watchers ad tells viewers to "expect the amazing." While it explicitly is referring to weight loss, the implicit message is that women can purchase the same on-top-of-the-world feeling Jessica has. Expectant moms face an enormous amount of pressure to determine what kind of pregnant woman they are going to be. Are you fashionably pregnant? Are you ready to be a yummy mummy (whatever that means)? Do you have a cute belly bump? Yet, as Kim Kardashian has wisely put it, "Pregnancy is not easy. It's a little painful."

With this expectation of conforming to the amazing, those who are not able, interested or willing to join in may be disappointed. Post-birth, women are left with only the pictures of their pregnancy glow and a newborn in need of constant care. In contrast to other countries which provide support to women post-birth, women in the United States mostly are left to fend for themselves to "enjoy" their newborns. In our outing of pregnancy as a public, glamorized and commoditized experience, we are sacrificing the reflection and introspection that nature once gave us to prepare for motherhood.

Laura Tropp, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication Arts Department at Marymount Manhattan College. She writes on pregnancy and motherhood and is the author of the forthcoming book A Womb with a View: America's Growing Public Interest in Pregnancy.