With her first baby due in less than three months, Laura Peyton had a problem, a slight one, that many pregnant women might envy: Her belly wasn’t big enough.
Definitely, she looked pregnant, but Peyton was still wriggling into regular clothes. She wanted a large, voluptuous belly before she posed for her maternity photo shoot or preserved her maternal silhouette with a plaster cast. She wanted a baby bump that announced itself to onlookers: I’m Growing New Life Here.
Call it belly pride, or maybe the veneration of pregnancy. With form-fitting maternity clothes, belly painting and maternity photo sessions, more women these days are redefining pregnancy, celebrating and showing off almost from conception to birth.
They announce the impending birth with an ultrasound photo on Facebook, then throw a gender-reveal party, where both guests and parents learn the baby’s sex. There are more rituals than ever, and most – the reveal party, the baby shower, the birth – get documented, often by a professional photographer.
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All this may strike you as:
A. A fitting response to life’s biggest miracle.
Your answer likely depends on your age – whether you grew up with Facebook, or you had your kids in simpler times, before Demi Moore’s famous belly graced Vanity Fair’s cover, before Internet oversharing became a national pastime.
Edna McMillan, for instance, is all for celebrating, but draws the line at the bare-belly photo shoot. “I don’t see any need to show the navel,” the 88-year-old retired nurse says.
McMillan expresses this opinion while attending her first gender-reveal party. She’s at the Charlotte home of her grandson, Doug Scott, and his wife, Christine. They’re about to pull a pinata string and learn, along with guests, that their second child, due in June, is a boy. Christine, by the way, is planning a maternity shoot, but she won’t be bare-skinned. “I’m not a belly exposer,” she says.
A different world
McMillan’s own 1952 pregnancy illustrates how much the culture has changed: She had a baby shower. It’s likely someone at the party photographed her. As far as celebrating and documenting, that was about it. Also, she notes, it was the woman, not the couple, who was pregnant. “We’re pregnant” was not a phrase you heard.
It was a different world then, a world where the pregnant belly – and pregnancy itself – were considered unseemly.
Nowhere is America’s unease with reproduction better demonstrated than on a 1952 episode of “I Love Lucy.” The TV comedy made the bold move to incorporate Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy into its storyline. The actors, however, weren’t allowed to say the word “pregnant.”
“Pregnancy said you had sex,” says University of Tasmania sociologist Meredith Nash, author of “Making ‘Postmodern’ Mothers: Pregnant Embodiment, Baby Bumps, and Body Image.” Cultural discomfort also played out for decades in maternity fashions – loose smocks, tent-like dresses – that functioned to camouflage a swelling belly, not show it off.
So what changed? Why are we inundated with celebrity baby-bump photos? And why are there more than 160 ideas on Pinterest for announcing your pregnancy?
For starters, the sexual revolution loosened America up. Another turning point: The 1991 Vanity Fair cover featuring actress Demi Moore, seven months pregnant and naked, proof that the pregnant female body was beautiful, even sexy.
Add medical advances, which have made pregnancy real to women much sooner. Before ultrasounds became common, “it seemed the pregnancy didn’t get going until you felt the baby moving,” at around four months, says Medora Barnes, a sociologist at Cleveland’s John Carroll University.
Now, you can learn your baby’s sex at seven or eight weeks. Some couples remain cautious about spilling their news in those early weeks, when miscarriage chances are greater, but for others, Barnes says, “it does feel like one big, long celebration.” She once interviewed a mother who had twins following in vitro fertilization. Her first baby photo: A shot of the zygote in the petri dish.
The media stoke these rituals with countless photos of celebrities with child. Google “Blake Lively and pregnancy” and you can view what appears to be the “Gossip Girl” star’s entire maternity wardrobe, complete with form-fitting gowns.
Social media fuel the frenzy, too. If you’ve got lots of breeding friends with disposable income, it can feel like maternity photos and gender-reveal parties are everywhere. “We’re getting messages from the media that pregnancy is a special, important time in life and you want to do everything right,” says Avital Norman Nathman, editor of the anthology “The Good Mother Myth.”
The University of Tasmania’s Nash agrees. Recently, after asking Australian women to document their pregnancies with cameras, she learned some were “feeling insane pressure to put up a beautiful photo on Facebook while pregnant or post-birth.” She’s even seen Facebook pages for unborn children. “It’s about women trying to be the good mother,” she says.
The belly cast
For Laura Peyton of Concord, however, these tasks aren’t pressure. They’re pure fun.
Peyton, who’s due in April, announced her pregnancy at 12 weeks with an ultrasound photo on Facebook. In October, she and husband Derek threw a gender-reveal party featuring an antique chest. When they opened it, pink balloons emerged. And there, inside the lid, was their daughter’s name: Macie.
In March, Peyton plans to pose both bare-bellied and in a flowing gown for her pregnancy photo shoot. Also, her friend Andrea Sersen, owner of Charlotte Belly Casting Co., will make a plaster cast of her belly. It will be painted – Peyton’s not sure how yet – and eventually displayed in the nursery.
Meanwhile, Peyton’s belly grows. “I always just thought it was a proud thing. I can sustain a life,” she says. “I love to show off my belly.”
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New rites of pregnancy
The announcement: Not of the birth, but of the pregnancy. Often done with a clever Facebook photo: A plastic Easter egg captioned “Guess what’s hatching?” or a hand-holding couple captioned “And then there were three,” or a distraught toddler captioned “Only child expires April 2015.”
The gender reveal: These parties feature pink- and blue-themed food and a creative announcement, perhaps with a pinata, balloon release or icing-covered cake that’s pink or blue inside. Often, parents assign a family member or friend to learn the sex from the doctor, then set up the reveal with appropriately-colored cake, balloons or confetti. A side note: Though most partygoers don’t seem to care, the “gender” reveal is misnamed. What’s being revealed is sex – the biological characteristics, not the gender, which refers to socially constructed roles and behaviors.
Photographing and posting your pregnant silhouette on Facebook: Month by month, or even week by week.
Belly casts and belly painting: Both produce keepsakes. Belly painters, such as Charlotte’s Weezy Jones, create a design of the expecting mom’s choosing with safe, washable paint, then photograph it for posterity. The belly cast, made with plaster, can be painted after it dries. It’s sometimes displayed on a wall, or as a decorative bowl. Avital Norman Nathman, editor of “The Good Mother Myth,” keeps hers in her office, to the delight of her 8-year-old son. “He says, ‘I was in there.’”
Maternity, birth and newborn photos: Professional photographers now specialize in all these areas. Brandy NicCole Inkelaar, owner of NicCole Photography in Lake Wylie, S.C., says maternity shoots are the bulk of her business. Her customers generally fall into two groups – working mothers-to-be, often in their 30s, and younger stay-at-home moms, many of whom have several children.