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On Monday, July 22nd, England’s beloved Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to a son—Prince George Alexander Louis. This child, dubbed the “Royal Baby” by news sources across the globe, garnered an enormous amount of media attention and sparked world-wide conversations. Reporters—and a few independent enthusiasts—have already traced the monarchial origins of the name. Jo Frost, widely known as the “Supernanny” from her reality TV show, publically offered the royal parents her child-rearing advice. A small, vociferous internet group has argued that the Duke and Duchess shouldn’t assign their child a gender, but wait until s/he chooses a gender for him/herself.
But throughout this newsworthy affair, the public spotlight has not strayed from Kate: in fact, media scrutiny of the new mother has intensified. Before she had even left the hospital, the United Kingdom’s edition of OK! magazine published a “Royal Baby Special,” which included bright, punchy headlines promoting “Kate’s Post-Baby Weight Loss Regime." With a quote from Kate Middleton’s personal fitness trainer, the cover claims that “her stomach will shrink right back."
This woman’s body just produced a tiny, squirming human being—we should celebrate it for this incredible feat! Instead, the media chooses to focus on presumed “flaws" of a person's body post-pregnancy, encouraging Kate—and women like her—to return (and immediately: do not pass go, do not collect $200) to the body she inhabited before she gave birth.
The implicit message behind OK!’s headline is clear: a new mother’s first concern should be her appearance.
The tabloid obsession with women’s figures is, of course, not unique to Kate Middleton, nor is it specific to new mothers. Every year, Star Magazine publishes a “Best and Worst Beach Bodies” issue. This year, seven female celebrities (and a single male celebrity) graced the cover, their photos accompanied by exclamatory captions such as: “bye-bye, baby weight!”, “jelly belly!” and “falling behind!”
These types of headlines illustrate a disheartening phenomenon: the pervasive belief that a woman’s physical attractiveness (a trait dictated by an increasingly narrow beauty ideal) determines her value. Because of this, female celebrities -- and, for that matter, any women in the public eye -- are expected to maintain a certain, unyielding standard of attractiveness, regardless of circumstances such as age, pregnancy, illness, or work.
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly clear that this type of harsh body negativity isn’t limited to women* in the public eye, either.
Young girls raised in an overly critical culture, who observe our unending reverence of thinness and condemnation of non-thinness, will and do internalize two harmful messages: first, that physical beauty is determined by a specific set of “ideals," and second, that attractiveness—by these standards—is directly equivalent to personal worth.
Clearly, these beliefs have a strongly negative psychological impact on women and girls. In a 2010 study of “Ideal Body Image Perceptions”, Dr. Jeanne B. Martin reported that, of young (six- to eleven-year-old) girls who read magazines, 69% feel that the photos influence their idea of “ideal” body shape, and 47% say that these images make them want to lose weight .
Anecdotally, I recently grew up (and, in all honesty, continue to grow up) surrounded by a constant bombardment of media messaging. As an older child and as a younger teenager, I instinctively believed that a great deal of my self-worth hinged upon my appearance. I spent many frustrated years wondering why I was never satisfied with myself, regardless of how secure I felt in my relationships or how well I performed in school.
After months, if not years, of difficult reflection, I now realize that I spent a large portion of my youth trying to mold myself into an unattainably narrow beauty ideal; I have no doubt that I internalized the types of messages that appear on grocery store tabloid covers.
No wonder I felt so discontented in my own skin.
On the flip side of this issue, I think about how teenage mothers can be perceived when they spent as much time and energy on weight loss as tabloids encouraged them to. Young women — already stigmatized as “bad mothers” just by virtue of their age and the age at which they have engaged in sex — are judged harshly for nearly any minute they are not devoting all of their effort and energy to their child, as are low-income and single mothers.
But, as women, they are still not immune to body negativity in the media or to the body criticism of their peers and acquaintances. This contradiction places many women in an impossible position: if she loses weight, she’ll be deemed an unfit mother; if she doesn’t lose weight, she’ll be judged as unattractive. To me, this disparity is one of the most troubling consequences of an unattainable but mandatory standard of beauty.
Still, I find it hopeful that, despite the history of harsh criticism in these magazines, Kate Middleton unveiled both her child and her still-round belly to the world on the day of the birth . Due to factors such as water retention, increased blood flow to the uterus, and hormonal changes, a person's uterus tends to stay swollen for a few weeks after birth, which can make them look as though they're still pregnant, regardless of eating habits or exercise. Although this has been the case for every new mom ever, Kate’s post-birth figure still received a surprised—and, in some cases, extremely cruel —public reaction. No wonder so many celebrities hide out for months after having a baby.
Whether she sought to make a grand feminist statement, or simply didn’t bother to conceal her figure, Kate showed none of the shame we have come to expect from a woman whose body has so drastically changed to accommodate another human being.
Perhaps this action, or non-action, is a step back from our culture’s fixation on women’s appearances. The duchess, who has been lauded time and time again for her thinness and physical beauty, stood before the entire world, child in arms, and pushed her appearance—more accurately, her adherence to the media’s beauty ideal—off the stage. Her belly simply wasn’t relevant to the début of her child.
I hope more women will follow in her footsteps, deciding that their jobs, achievements, and values take center stage over their looks. A culture in which every woman is valued for her character, and not for any aesthetic trait, will empower girls to believe in themselves, creating a society with more compassion, more advancement, and much more audacity.
*Note: I understand that unrealistic expectations are similarly placed on men and their bodies, and that many males suffer with self-image issues as a result. My intention isn’t to trivialize or dismiss this problem. This post focuses specifically on the objectification of women’s bodies because, in my anecdotal experience and in my research, women receive the brunt of the media’s body criticism—an occurrence which is oftentimes unrelated to the harsh expectations placed on men. Please let me know in the comments if you disagree.