Here's Lookin' at You, Baby

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005


WebMD Feature

Demi Moore didn't invent the beautiful pregnant woman. Yet the image of her famously naked and ballooning body on a 1991 "Vanity Fair" cover was a watershed moment.

The message to women everywhere was that it's OK to be conspicuously pregnant. "We're out, we're proud and we're round," the rallying cry might go. Although a woman's body becomes a curiously protean thing when she's expecting, she isn't merely a vessel to whom pregnancy happens.

The matrix from which the confident, pregnant woman emerges is one of choice and control, education and empowerment. For at least 30 years now, we've been moving beyond myths and misapprehensions and feeling better about ourselves during pregnancy -- even if we're not Demi or Jada or Cindy.

Big Changes in a Short Time

Witness the greater visibility of the pregnant woman -- at the gym, in the office, at the park. They're exercising more and not hiding under baggy clothes, and they're definitely not in "confinement." Experts agree that for the woman, the baby and our culture, a positive body image during pregnancy is healthy.

But they also recognize that the power of pregnancy coupled with the complexities of female body image creates an intricate mix.

"What's difficult about pregnancy is that your body is changing extremely quickly," says Ann Kearney-Cooke, PhD, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and a scholar at Columbia University's Partnership for Women's Health, who specializes in body image, eating disorders and self-esteem. "You probably haven't had that kind of change since puberty. It's hard to have a stable body image when it's changing so quickly, especially in the second and third trimesters."

But if you do maintain a positive image, asserts Kearney-Cooke, "You're going to enjoy the pregnancy more. You're going to see this as more of a focus on how your body functions and what it can do. This is a unique thing. Only women can do this ... so far."

Body Image Trouble Signs

A pregnant woman might need help if she shows some of the signs listed here.

  • Social functioning: All the pregnant woman thinks about is her appearance, to the point where it keeps her from going out.
  • Dieting: She drastically cuts back on what she eats, without a doctor's OK, or makes poor food choices.
  • Dressing inappropriately: She wears clothing as if she weren't pregnant, or to hide the pregnancy.
  • Denial: She's not talking about the baby or making plans for it, or she talks about it as if it isn't real.
  • Little or no support system: She has few or no family and friends to help her through the pregnancy.

Lucy Living in Sin?

Even at the beginning of the 21st century, developing a good body image involves shedding Victorian Era modesties and strictures.

"From around the 1870s until the 1940s, a woman wasn't supposed to show 'her condition,' " relates Lana Thompson, author of "The Wandering Womb: A Cultural History of Outrageous Beliefs about Women." "That's why they called it confinement. She didn't go out in public because that brought to mind the act that caused the pregnancy, and that was the sinful part. There was this whole cult of pure womanhood -- they had pure thoughts and they would elevate a man. You didn't want to cause anyone to think any impure thoughts, so pregnancy was concealed."

Think Lucy Ricardo. This was not a woman having relations with her handsome Cuban husband. How could she? They had separate beds. And so the "pregnant" Lucy hid the forming Little Ricky behind shapeless tent dresses.

Also contributing to pregnant women's confusion about their changing bodies were, paradoxically, medical breakthroughs and advances in prenatal care. The whole process acquired a medicinal smell. Again, consider Lucy. When Little Ricky was born, it wasn't in an episode called "The Birth" or "Here Comes Little Ricky." It was called "Lucy Goes to the Hospital."

Diagnosis: Pregnant

Kelli Way, publication director for the Doulas of North America and a teacher at Birth Classes with Answers, has observed that firsthand. "I think most pregnant women still very much fall into the paradigm of thinking of themselves as patients, their conditions as diseased, and birth as a disaster waiting to occur."

Even so, women now have more options around pregnancy and birth. "There was a time when OB-Gyn was a male-dominated profession," says Barbara Haber, curator of books at Radcliffe/Harvard University's Schlesinger Library. "More women are in that field now, and I think that humanizes the experience more, as do the midwives and birth coaches. Before, there was a mystique, and only doctors knew, and women would be knocked out when their babies were delivered. I hate using the word empowerment, but you have the right to have control over your pregnancy. That's what's changed over the last 30 years."

How to Feel Better About Your New Body

  • Talk, talk, talk. Get information from your doctor or midwife about how your body is changing. Chat up your friends, your sister, your mother about how their bodies adjusted during and after pregnancy.
  • Get to the root of the problem. Some women feel guilty about being sad that they'll never have the same body again. They think they should be focusing on the baby instead of themselves. Acknowledge to yourself that you may not have the same body you had before, but that the gains are worth it.
  • Get support from other pregnant women. Because they're going through the same experience, you'll have someone to commiserate with.
  • Exercise. Pregnant or not, exercise helps improve mood. And an exercise class for pregnant women can double as an informal support group. (Check with your doctor or midwife first.)

Belly Up for Fashion

The most obvious place to see the changes is in maternity fashions. Magazines like "Fit Pregnancy" show women in stylish spandex and midriff-baring shirts. Designer Liz Lange, a former "Vogue" editor, does booming business out of her Manhattan boutique and mail-order catalog, and credits the interest to better materials and the revolution in how women feel about pregnancy.

Form-fitting clothes are "so much more flattering," says Lange. "There's no reason to hide. Women are too involved in the fabric of our society to sit out for nine months and wear a tent dress. Now it's like, 'I'm pregnant, I'm here, I work, I have an active social life. I'm going to look great, feel great, as I would if I weren't pregnant.' "

Family and marriage counselor Theresa Couture of East Greenwich, R.I., echoes this sentiment. Sitting on one of the specially designed bikes used in a prenatal "spinning" class, dressed in black shorty-shorts, she's not the usual icon of pregnancy. "Initially, as I was developing, I would look at myself, and say 'Oh my gosh, who is that?' " recalls Couture, now in her third trimester. "But now I'm used to it because I've been showing so long. I think I look pretty good!"

"People still tend to see pregnant ladies as somebody who might need to stay home and rest and maybe even shouldn't be out there exercising," she continues. "I have people wanting to carry my file folders, and I'm like, 'Believe me, I can handle this.' "

Nearly 10 years after Demi dared to bare, this is the voice of the pregnant woman not afraid to show her belly to the world.

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