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sarah hampson

Welcome, one and all, to what has become the world's most popular and lurid entertainment! The Female Body as Art Project is on display everywhere right now.

Right now, we have two perfect examples who are showcasing the most remarkable, heightened state of femininity at the same time. Yes, they're both pregnant! On exactly the same schedule – due to pop in July. What luck! These fascinating carriers of bumps are different sizes and shapes and have different ways of "dressing" them (as many describe it).

Get out your notepads to make comparisons! Get ready to vote on which you think is better and hotter! This is an exercise in the iterations of femininity, that complex, powerful state that half the world inhabits and all of it judges. (It might even be a subconscious expression of the current cultural anxiety about the merits of motherhood and whether that bump is worth having or not.) Whatever is at play, the whole bump business has been ratcheted up a notch in recent months, and our prurient gaze into the mechanics of the female body brings no opprobrium. It's open bump season, baby.

First, let's reacquaint ourselves with the two studies currently in the gallery of popular culture. You know who they are. (US magazine recently devoted six pages and the cover to a discussion about their differences.) Exhibit A: The Duchess of Cambridge, she of the demure, barely-there bump. Exhibit B: Kim Kardashian, she of the in-your-face bump.

By way of background on bump culture, let's give a nod to the Pill and modern medicine, which made pregnancy less perilous.

"Pregnancy wasn't celebrated in the way that it is today because so many women died in childbirth," Elizabeth Abbott, a Toronto author and historian and the author of A History of Celibacy, says on the phone. "Before birth control, many women – perhaps most women – had babies they didn't want."

And of course, we once lived in a time when we didn't like to admit to thinking about sex. (Hard to imagine, I know.) And there's nothing like a bump to remind you that the body that carries it had sex however many months before. Even a duchess with her prince. The bump is, in some ways, invisible pornography. While we gaze at it reverentially, we automatically, somewhere in our heads, imagine how it came to be. And that's why for the longest time maternity clothing cloaked women in tents and infantalized them with cutesy bows and large, bib-like collars.

"Pregnancy was the result of sex but had nothing to do with sexuality," Abbott says. There was a time when pregnancy was described in euphemism – as "confinement" or "interesting condition," she reminds us. It was to be hidden.

Well, we all know what happened to that era of modesty: sexual liberation and Demi Moore with her naked pregnancy portrait on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991.

And now, here we are, more than 20 years later, and the discourse has progressed (regressed?) from celebrating female sexuality to calibrating it as a reflection of character, class, purpose and integrity. (No one ever said feminism would move smoothly in one direction.) How pregnant women dress is a reminder of the social insistence that female clothing should at all times appropriately reflect age, profession, position and status.

"You actually see Kim's panties through the dress, just what every child wants to look at when they peruse old pictures of their mother expecting," The Daily Mail recently tut-tutted like a nursemaid. Meanwhile, the Duchess of Cambridge, who appeared in her "first true maternity dress" at an appearance at London's National Portrait Gallery, is the "epitome of elegance ... in a bespoke powder blue 50s-style Emilia Wickstead cocktail dress." Same paper, but this time the prose reads like a treacly note from a wannabe friend.

Thank goodness the Duchess happens to have a bump as neat and tidy as the rest of her accessories. It's a stiff-upper-lip bump, a quiet and polite bump, not a pushy one that inserts itself loudly into every room and conversation. Her bump speaks as quietly as she does. The media frenemies have whispered that she's "mommyrexic"; some have even wondered if there's a baby at all. The Kardashian bump, on the other hand, is attention-getting and over-exposed – too "out there" in all ways. For a woman whose fame is largely centred around her shape, her bump is one more "curve" for us to ogle. It's OTT (or over the top), as the Brits would say, the other end of the feminine spectrum.

"We are always looking at the female body as public property, and the judging of the body goes hand-in-hand with 24/7 media culture," explains Phoebe Baker Hyde, author of The Beauty Experiment. "The female body becomes a product and as such it's consumable. When you judge the Duchess versus Kardashian, you're saying, 'Here's the classy product, and here's the trashy product.'" (There, let her say it.)

And if part of the subtext to these fertility watches is about modern expressions of femininity, there's also some unspoken interest in the merits of pregnancy itself. The Duchess, after all, wanted to get pregnant and her role demanded it. The purpose of her bump is to provide an heir. How lofty! The purpose of Kardashian's pregnancy is less clear. Was it for love? More attention? To produce another character and plot line for her reality show?

If women are of two minds about the reproductive role of their bodies, and whether it's worth the sacrifice (in time, money, lifestyle and body shape) to fulfill it, the Prim Princess and the Reality Queen are avatars of impending motherhood. They are yours to play with in order to work out your anxieties. And you don't even have to ask permission.