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14 August 2015

Kim Kardashian has shown us that pregnant bodies are political dynamite

At 37 weeks, I do not look like Kim Kardashian, nor Myleene Klass, nor Demi Moore. Nonetheless, I am proud of my pregnant body, what it stands for and what it does.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

That Kim Kardashian’s a bit of a show-off, isn’t she? Posting a picture of her naked self, pregnant, on Instagram. Still, it’s not the first time that we’ve had pregnant celebrities indulging in a “look at me!” moment: there was Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, then Myleene Klass on UK Glamour in 2007. Each time we get the chance to ponder what this means for body diversity (in addition to why, as each decade passes, the fame of each pregnant celebrity becomes increasingly reality TV-based, but that’s another story).

Personally I think Kardashian looks gorgeous. Moreover, accusations of showing-off aside, in an age when the ideal female body is as anti-maternal as possible – body fat ratio too low to conceive, breasts too artificial to nurse, body hair status pre-pubescent – there is something very special about recognising the gestating body as beautiful, too. According to Wired, We Need Kim Kardashain’s Pregnant Selfie More Than She Does: images such as this can be the start of a fight at grassroots level, showing that “the 99 per cent has as much agency to reshape the narrative around what is beautiful as the one per cent does.” Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Jones takes a more highbrow approach: Kardashian’s selfie is “a hymn to the female body that would have been more familiar in the Renaissance than today […] body shapes were celebrated much more plurally in the past than they are today.”

Diversity in our perception of beauty matters; it is a reflection of our culture and its prejudices. However, to me, as a fellow pregnant woman, there are even more specific questions we can ask about the importance of visibly pregnant bodies on the public stage. It is not just a matter of us “allowing” bigger bodies to be considered attractive (regardless whether or not it is because they are with child). The pregnant body is itself inherently confrontational. It undermines deeply held beliefs about power, wealth, the individual and male supremacy. While in many ways a naked Kim Kardashian putting a selfie on Instagram could not be more “symbolic of the contemporary Zeitgeist” if it tried, there is, embedded within each pregnant celebrity “look at me” message, a potential “fuck you”.

In the symbolic context of a neoliberal society, even the pregnancy of a wealthy woman is politically disruptive. As Barbara Katz Rothman writes, “we have in every pregnant woman the living proof that individuals do not enter the world as autonomous, atomistic, isolated beings, but begin socially, begin connected”:

And we have in every pregnant woman a walking contradiction to the segmentation of our lives: pregnancy does not permit it. In pregnancy the private self, the sexual, familial self, announces itself wherever we go.

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In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrin Marçal notes that “If the body was taken seriously as a starting point for the economy, it would have far-reaching consequences”; instead, a woman “is encouraged to see her body not as part of what it means to be human but as a ticking fertility bomb set to explode at the same time she’s going to be up for promotion.” The pregnant body – a person, but more than a person, the uncompromising embodiment of interdependence – poses the ultimate challenge to “there is no such thing as society”. We devalue it because its “sentimentality” is more real than our “rationality”. Only the former exists in the flesh, undermining our faith in the individual each time we dare to look.

I think this is a siginificant reason why now, perhaps more than ever, we approach the pregnant body with cynicism and dismissiveness. If we take it seriously, it highlights the selfishness and clumsy superficiality of contemporary political thought. This holds true in the realm of economics, but even more so when it comes to the politics of sex and gender. We don’t celebrate pregnant bodies because, from the moment they are born, half the human race is identified as not having the potential to gestate. We undervalue pregnant bodies because the dominant sex class cannot get pregnant at all.  

If men cannot be at the forefront of gestation, it is not for want of trying. Men have invested huge amounts of effort in making human reproduction all about them, reclaiming the lowly seed from the body that performs the transformation . It’s a tradition stretching back long before the age of Jeremy Kyle-style “who’s the daddy?” paternity tests. Aristotle believed that pregnant women merely supplied the matter with which to mould the active male principle. Greek mythology sees Athena popping out of Zeus’s head, while Christian theology has a patriarchal God create first Adam, then Eve from Adam’s rib. Late 17th century scientists convinced themselves they could see microscopic humans hidden in each sperm. Heterosexual marriage has been used to legitimise the patrilineal ownership of children. Anti-abortion activists claim that the foetus is already a person, as though the process of gestation means nothing at all. Time and again, pregnant woman are reduced to potting soil, mere recipients of that which has already been created by men.

Today’s devaluation of the pregnant body takes its own special form. Global capitalism, advanced reproductive technology and Internet porn have, for some, reduced the vagina to a hole for fucking, the womb to a room for rent. Contemporary debates over surrogacy take it for granted that if a surrogate has not provided the egg herself, the baby “isn’t hers”. A few years ago we were wringing our hands over “masculinity in crisis”, asking what, if women can have babies and economic independence, men were actually for. Now we’ve solved the problem with “sex is a construct”, erasing women’s more fundamental role just as effectively as patriarchal religion and philosophy ever did. Pregnancy is neither a miracle nor a fundamentally female experience; it is for sale to the highest bidder. Femaleness – the body, the process – is accorded no respect. The male body remains the only body that counts and the male experience of reproduction – disembodied, alienated – is meant to be the thing to which we all aspire (lest “biological essentialism” should sneak up and bite us in the fleshy, womanly backside).

And yet, if one considers both the mechanics and the aesthetics of the thing, one has to admit that the ultimate symbol of maleness, the penis, is ridiculous at the best of times. Set against the power of the gestating womb, it becomes positively pitiful. Freudian bullshit may tell us that everything — from skyscrapers to fast cars to Cadbury’s Flakes – subconsciously pays homage to the mighty phallus but it is all performance. Female bodies (well-fed, unshaven, unperfumed, free) are the truly powerful bodies. If they were not, men would not have created so many laws, institutions and doctrines aimed at controlling them and appropriating the work they do.

As I write this at 37 weeks pregnant, I am feeling less than goddess-like. For the past two weeks my bladder has been crushed, making me desperate for the toilet at all times. I can’t stand up or bend down without uttering an unglamorous “oof”. I waddle when I walk (and endeavour to do so as little as possible). I do not look like Kim Kardashian, nor Myleene Klass, nor Demi Moore. Nonetheless, I am proud of my pregnant body, what it stands for and what it does. I won’t be sharing naked photos on Instagram, but at this moment in time I know my own power. Pregnancy is a creative act like no other. Far from being passive receptacles, pregnant bodies are political dynamite. The least pregnant women deserve is the right both to name themselves and to show the hell off.