Gwyneth Paltrow and Oprah have trumpeted their Lycra charms. And thousands of less famous women have wedged themselves into Spanx, the "body shaping" garment (your grandmother might call it a girdle) that crams hips, thighs and buttocks into a bike shorts/undies contraption, like a sleeping bag being beaten into its sack.
In one image on the Spanx website, the other side of a compressed butt features a large, circular, very pregnant belly. This ad for a product called Mama Spanx ($28) is a jarring juxtaposition: the unfettered space needed to grow a life tethered to an apparatus whose sole reason for existence is fettering.
Yet the company that enjoys about $300-million (U.S.) in sales will likely do well with its recently expanded maternity Spanx line, part of a new wave of maternity "shapewear" also offered at stores like Motherhood Maternity and the online company Blanqi. There's profit in the fact that anyone who has endured nine months of energy-leeching pregnancy eventually adopts a whatever-it-takes attitude to feel good about the morphing body, whether that means sweatpants or Spanx. The company claims there is no compression in the stomach area of its maternity products and online converts have praised the garments' back support.
Yet maternity Spanx are squirm-inducing - and not only because of the promotional Mama Spanx image of a creepy, disembodied torso in stockings and stilettos with a huge belly, much like a living, pregnant version of that fishnet-legs lamp in A Christmas Story.
The erasure of the pregnant belly is yet another brick atop the body-image pressure carried by women. A British TV host named Amanda Holden admitted last week that she used Spanx successfully for six months to hide her pregnancy from the public: "Spanx served me well!" The one time in a woman's life when fat is encouraged and in fact is a sign of health can now be as joylessly controlled as every other time in her life. There's not even a nine-month reprieve from the unwritten rule that the female body must be contained, strapped down and minimized, baby be damned. On the feminist website Jezebel, Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote: "You're not allowed to have a gut that big, even if there's a fetus in it."
The pregnant body has always, to put it mildly, freaked people out. Ancient Egyptians believed that the womb could actually "wander" inside a woman and occasionally even set forth outside the body. A pregnant woman as some kind of manifestation of the wandering womb is much scarier than Saw. Neither mother nor childless woman, the pregnant body is in some liminal zone, as cultural theorists would say. It's a sign of invasion as much as femininity, an occupied territory. After two pregnancies of my own, I still find myself staring at pregnant women. Is pregnancy beautiful? Yes. Miraculous? Yes. Weird? Hells yeah.
This base fascination allows tabloids to dine out on pregnancy. In the past few weeks, a new flood of celebrities has entered the ranks of the "baby bump" watch. Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard and Kate Hudson can all enjoy several months of unwanted stomach scrutiny. And then something will happen that's (usually) not shown in the tabloids: a birth. Until the baby can go on shopping sprees, it's usually of less interest to the glossies and gossip sites than reporting how quickly the famous mother can lose the dreaded "baby weight." Recently, Kendra Wilkinson, the reality-TV star and former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, was lauded on the cover of OK! for losing 25 pounds in eight weeks post-baby. This seems positively healthy compared to Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel, who lost 30 pounds in three weeks. Pregnancy-weight-loss as competitive sport is a cruel climate for real new mothers who dare to leave evidence of birth on their bodies. Perhaps they can take solace in the fact that Wilkinson recently confessed on ABC's Primetime that she was airbrushed back to "normal."
So rather than being "normal" in and of itself, a pregnant or post-childbirth body is an anomaly, urgently shed in exchange for Hefner-pleasing proportions. But for most women, pregnancy is not just a cute mini-basketball that sits perfectly in the oval nest of a gigantic pair of pantyhose and then vanishes with a glass of Fibretrim. Some women even luxuriate in their new, unfamiliar curves. Burying the reality of a woman's maternal body could be dangerous: Women who don't eat enough during pregnancy are at risk for having sick children. One wonders if the rise in scheduled C-sections is part of the great shaming of the maternal body.
Those who swear by maternity Spanx have a right to feel a little sexy during pregnancy. But when will the definition of sexy include a heavier body, one that's en route to motherhood or even bruised and a little wiser from childbirth? When can a woman be both a mother and a lover, at any size?