This week, Kate Middleton made her first public appearance since the official announcement was made that she is pregnant.
As with her previous two pregnancies, the announcement was made early and in haste after Kate became seriously ill with hyperemesis gravidarum—a particularly acute form of morning sickness that saw her hospitalized first time round when she was unable to keep any fluids down—and a series of engagements had to be canceled.
So one might have thought, then, that her appearance this week at an awareness-raising event for the Heads Together mental health charity, although she is still suffering to some degree from the condition according to palace sources, would have been the occasion to offer a few positive remarks.
Instead, the British media (and some of the American tabloids) chose to focus on critical remarks about Kate’s allegedly too “perfect” appearance made by random members of the public on social media.
“Is she pregnant?” wondered one “vile social media troll” quoted by the Sun while another commented: “I can’t believe she’s prego, she looks too thin.”
Another Instagram user whose remarks were deemed worthy of repetition by the Sun said: “Doesn’t even look pregnant. Ugh—why is she so perfect?”
For the media, running offensive social media commentary such as this while simultaneously criticizing it is a convenient way to have their cake and eat it.
They get to air the “Kate is so perfect it makes you sick” line, while pretending they are not.
In this case, the coining of the term “bump-shaming” for the remarks, marks, perhaps, the nadir of suffix-culture.
Women’s bodies have long been at especial risk of objectification during pregnancy (no, you can’t touch it).
For royal women carrying heirs, the objectification passes itself off as constitutionally-appropriate concern, and can be shockingly intrusive: Princess Diana, when pregnant with Prince William, was heard to remark, “The whole world is watching my stomach.”
Diana had a particularly terrible time during her first pregnancy and felt completely ignored by Charles; at one stage she threw herself down the stairs at Balmoral in what she admitted was an attempt to try and get his attention.
“When I was four months pregnant with William I threw myself downstairs, trying to get my husband’s attention, for him to listen to me,” Diana said. “I had told Charles I felt so desperate and I was crying my eyes out. He said I was crying wolf. ‘I’m not going to listen,’ he said. ‘You’re always doing this to me. I’m going riding now.’ So I threw myself down the stairs. The Queen came out, absolutely horrified, shaking—she was so frightened.”
It’s apparently impossible for a royal mother to be to have the “right” kind of pregnancy bump.
Kate is being criticized for being too thin, but Sarah Ferguson was criticized for putting on weight—she gained more than 30 lbs during her pregnancy and said: “I looked like an elephant and felt fat and ugly.”
Queen Victoria is said to have referred to being pregnant as an “occupational hazard” of being a royal wife, and indeed the obsession with royal women as breeding machines is as old as the monarchy itself.
Most particularly, of course, the obsession with pregnant royal women finds its zenith in the life of Anne Boleyn.
As Hilary Mantel, in her remarkable lecture Royal Bodies, which forensically dissected the British fascination with pregnant royals, said: “Long before Kate’s big news was announced, the tabloids wanted to look inside her to see if she was pregnant.
“Women, their bodies, their reproductive capacities, their animal nature, are central to the story. The history of the reign is so graphically gynecological that in the past it enabled lady novelists to write about sex when they were only supposed to write about love; and readers could take an avid interest in what went on in royal bedrooms by dignifying it as history, therefore instructive, edifying.”
Anne Boleyn, Mantel said, “was a power player, a clever and determined woman. But in the end she was valued for her body parts, not her intellect or her soul; it was her womb that was central to her story.”
Reading the British newspapers’ obsessive musings about Kate’s stomach this weekend, one might justifiably question whether, in the intervening 500 years, all that much has changed.