It’s hard to imagine now, in the era of mommy bloggers, gender-reveal parties and extravagant maternity shoots, but there was once a time where showing off one’s pregnancy was considered culturally taboo. No photos exist, for example, of a pregnant Queen Elizabeth—the idea being that pregnancy was a health issue to be hidden from the public and not discussed. It’s why those era-defining shots of a naked and resplendent Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair were so era-defining: In the 80s, Hollywood sex kittens didn’t show off their rounding bellies to the public and they certainly didn’t do so naked.
Things have, of course, changed in the era of Instagram, when you can’t swipe for longer than a minute without seeing at least one carefully crafted #bump shot, and where communities dedicated to dissecting every element of childbearing and rearing are a dime a dozen. Motherhood has become yet another form of digital performance—diluting one of the most complicated and messy parts of a woman’s life into a handful of pixelated squares. Where, within this new, flattened world, is there room for the contradictions inherent in a woman’s transition to motherhood?
Women like Chloë Sevigny, Emily Ratajkowski and Jodie Turner Smith are among the A-listers embracing a kind of public pregnancy that feels quietly subversive. Sevigny gave birth to her son in May, but a photoshoot emerged this week of the 45-year-old actress naked and heavily pregnant on the cover of the newly-relaunched Playgirl magazine. The images, lensed by Mario Sorrentini, evoked something utterly different from those taken of Moore in Vanity Fair—this wasn’t so much about celebrating the natural glory of noble motherhood as it was a showcase of Sevigny’s enduring, androgynous sex appeal. Her pregnancy was, if anything, incidental.
The same could be said for Emily Ratajkowski, who this week traded the oversized puffer jackets she’d been wearing to conceal her pregnancy for unabashedly sexy ensembles. She wore a figure-hugging black dress with drastic midriff cut-outs during her first outing post-reveal. The following day she wore a silk shirt, unbuttoned to show off her bare, growing belly. And she’s already sharing on-brand nude selfies, this time with the addition of a baby bump. The statement she is making is bold and unequivocal: Motherhood will not dim my relationship with my own sexuality.
Actress Jodie Turner Smith made the same statement when she hit the press tour for Queen and Slim in January, when she was heavily pregnant with her first child. She was criticized for wearing a bump-baring crop top while speaking to Graham Norton, later tweeting “I I give zero fucks about your disdain for pregnant women’s bodies on British television”. On New Years’ Eve she shared a self-proclaimed “thirst trap” of herself, naked and heavily pregnant on a beach in Jamaica.
gives zero fucks about your disdain for pregnant women’s bodies on british television 💅🏿 pic.twitter.com/lZ8Jqs1QQi
— Jodie (@MissJodie) February 1, 2020
Our society still tends to embrace the ancient ‘madonna/whore’ binary when it comes to women—female celebrities tend to be seen as sex symbols performing for public consumption or as virtuous mother figures embracing a hyper-feminized vision of female domesticity (think pre-pregnancy EmRata vs. Kate Middleton emerging from the hospital with a perfect blowout, wearing a Jenny Packham midi dress). Women who don’t adhere to our notions of ‘appropriate’ motherhood are quickly criticized: Meghan Markle was constantly ragged on for ‘touching her bump’ too often; Kim Kardashian was mocked for trying to retain her sexiness, even as her body swelled; and lest we forget the vile backlash against Chrissy Teigen as she revealed the pain and grief surrounding her stillbirth.
Something Sevigny, Turner Smith and Ratajkowski are also acutely aware of is the inherently political nature of being with child in 2020. Sevigny was lobbying for abortion rights while heavily pregnant. Ratajkowski penned an op-ed about her plans to raise her child in an environment free from stifling gender expectations. Turner Smith spoke to The Times about the difficult conversations she and husband Joshua Jackson have had about raising a mixed-race child in America, given the current state of race relations.
Following the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, a Supreme Court Justice who is likely to help overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that protects American women’s access to abortion, the politicized nature of pregnancy and motherhood is more apparent than ever. The comments of Emily Ratajkowski’s pregnancy announcement post were filled with Polish women, begging the outspoken feminist to criticize the abortion ban their country’s conservative parliament enacted last week.
Treating motherhood like a sacred, God-enshrined duty—one which stands at odds with posing naked for Playgirl, for example—is the exact kind of quasi-religious thinking that leads governments to make laws that dictate what women can do with their own bodies. Our cultural obsession with motherhood can place expecting mothers in a kind of infantilized, sanctified state—one which strips them of their complicated, messy identity in favor of a single, limited image: the ‘mom.’ Women like Emily Ratajkowski and Chloë Sevigny are, likely unintentionally, bristling against this phenomenon.
Over the next couple of years we are going to see many questions about a woman’s right to choose dominate headlines. And when those questions pop up we need to remember that female autonomy is not just the question of whether or not a woman chooses to become a mother—it’s also how she decides to be a mother, should she wish to.