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The Post-Pregnancy Weight-Loss Obsession

First we obsess over stars’ “baby bumps,” then we shame the new moms into squeezing back into skinny jeans as quickly as possible. Katie Gentile on the double standard that hurts women.

01.23.10 6:36 PM ET

Sarah Michelle Gellar is back in her “skinny jeans” just four weeks after giving birth to her daughter, reports Us Weekly. Ditto Ellen Pompeo, I read in People. Twice, Heidi Klum walked the Victoria Secret runway just six weeks after having a baby. Natalia Vodianova topped them all, taking to the catwalk a mere two weeks after giving birth.

In 2010, God help the celebrity who fails to shed the baby weight immediately, as she may end up on the wrong side of one of those ubiquitous “best and worst post-baby bodies” pictorials. It is chilling to watch the culture become more and more obsessed with babies, while the evidence of how these babies are created is removed from public view. The supermarket tabloids obsessively scope out “baby bumps,” cooing each time a C- or even D-lister conceives. But the second the bumps become bouncing bundles of joy, the pressure is on for the new mom to squeeze back into her skinny jeans. The post-baby body must banish the bump, or risk ridicule.

It’s as if we should actually believe the baby dropped from the stork, from the sky, from anywhere but that toned, buff body.

It used to be that People magazine confined news about pregnancy and babies to its “Milestones” section. Now baby obsession has changed the very structure of the magazine, giving us features such as “Mommy and Me Fashion,” “Celebrity Family Albums,” and the ever-popular rush to publish the first photos of celebrity spawn. Similarly, celebrity gossip magazines and blogs now devote entire sections to bump patrols, moms and babies (only occasionally dads), and a parade of post-baby body photos. In this “new” culture that seems to mix domestic ideals of the 1950s with the expanded opportunities of the 21st century, baby bumps—expanding breasts and bellies—are celebrated, photographed, tracked, and made an endless source of speculation. But we ignore the less attractive, yet all-too-real aspects of pregnancy: There are no swollen ankles, plump thighs, or puffy faces allowed on the red carpet.

Of course, intense scrutiny of women’s bodies is not new, and celebrity antics have long made for profitable media fodder, but the obsession with postpartum weight control is something new. These days, we rarely see a picture of a pregnant celebrity without the requisite estimation of weight gain, called “baby weight,” as if it is somehow separate from the mother’s body. The best way to get rid of it is breast-feeding, the tabloids tell us, claiming that lactation magically and effortlessly melts away pounds.

Yet as The New York Times recently noted, research is conflicting as to whether breast-feeding actually promotes weight loss. Breast-feeding may burn calories, but it also stimulates appetite, leading many women to eat more. The Mayo Clinic advises normal-weight, healthy women to exercise moderately and eat about 300 more calories per day while pregnant, gaining between 25 and 35 pounds over the course of the nine months. And Mayo advises women to lose only 1 postpartum pound per week in order to maintain solid nutrition. La Leche League advises that women not diet for the first 2 months after delivery to help their bodies recover and establish good milk flow.

Contrast this information with Us Weekly celebrating Ashlee Simpson-Wentz for sticking to her 1,500-calorie-a-day post-pregnancy diet, People discussing Liv Tyler’s postpartum fasting and colonics, or Ok magazine’s “Baby Weight Secrets,” which advise women to stick to fat- and carb-free diets and spend hours exercising daily.

It would be easy to see this obsession with post-baby weight control as just part and parcel of the usual misogynistic obsession with women’s weight. Female celebrities are under constant pressure to stay thin. But look at it another way: When women shed the baby weight, they are not merely getting back their pre-baby body, they are obliterating all the evidence of ever having had a baby in the first place. This means the one thing that only women’s bodies can do is expected to be immediately erased. The post-baby body is wrung of its recent life-giving feat. Sagging milk-filled breasts must appear perky; the once-swollen abdomen is made concave. It’s as if we should actually believe the baby dropped from the stork, from the sky, from anywhere but that toned, buff body.

Sure, we could say it is “empowering” for a woman to regain her youthful body after it’s been taken over by a baby. And the last thing we should do is make women feel guilty about wanting to do so. It’s just so frustrating that once again women’s “empowerment” boils down to weight control and making the body smaller. Not to mention how unrealistic it is to pressure all women to achieve the stunning post-baby weight loss that the famous can afford: This process requires nannies, housekeepers, personal chefs or pre-ordered diet food, personal trainers, and a phenomenal amount of self-control and denial. Most of this is ignored in the media in favor of the standard excuses that “breast-feeding alone” or “chasing after toddlers” keeps the pounds off. The message? When the non-celebrity mom can’t look perky, happy, and thin after delivery, she has only herself to blame.

Even more disturbing is the trend of postpartum cosmetic surgery, which some celebrities have described as a form of “reconstruction,” as if pregnancy is an illness from which medical intervention is needed for recovery. In a 2005 interview with Allure, Gwenyth Paltrow admitted she was considering plastic surgery because of the toll breastfeeding had taken on her body. "I think women who have breastfed understand what I'm saying—that if you get a boob job it's more reconstructive surgery, actually, than cosmetic surgery,” she rationalized.

But lifting mature breasts or banishing the baby bump erases the evidence of having created life in this world. The body that proclaims its reproductive feat is shamed into starvation and submission.

I write this with some trepidation, not wanting to further romanticize pregnancy and babies. In many ways, our culture has reverted to the 1950s. Women are suspect if they haven’t had a baby or pulled out all the stops to create one through artificial technology. Magazines and celebrity blogs are structured around bold headlines about how award-winning, multimillionaire celebrities have only now found fulfillment—through motherhood. As women have more access than ever to the public world of business and politics, the importance of babies and weight control is drilled into our heads, lest we forget and proceed to take over, well, everything.

But the rush to banish the baby bump should not be taken lightly. It plays into the old story of keeping women in their place, confined to our skinny jeans, too consumed with how we look to feel good about ourselves or make much trouble.

Katie Gentile is an associate professor and the director of the Women’s Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC. She is the author of Creating Bodies: Eating Disorders as Self-Destructive Survival from The Analytic Press.