As Kim Kardashian and Kate Middleton prove, pregnant stars sell magazines. But how does that exposure affect non-famous women who are also pregnant? A recent study from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand provides an answer, and it's not positive.
The researchers found that when a pregnant woman exhibits an interest in pregnant celebrities as well as a high concern for her physical appearance, she is likely to experience reduced levels of prenatal attachment. Translation: Those "baby bump" headlines are not only hurting your body image; they also might be severing the natural bonds between women and their babies-to-be.
"If you look at pregnant celebrities, they're shown wearing bikinis late in pregnancy, and they've still got a beautiful figure with just this little kind of pregnancy 'bump,'" Dr. Jayne Krisjanous, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study from the School of Marketing and International Business at Victoria University of Wellington, told The Huffington Post.
Krisjanous, a former midwife, and her research partners, James E. Richard and Aaron Gazley, surveyed 468 women during their first pregnancies to examine their pre-existing values, attitudes and lifestyle behaviors as they related to pregnant celebrity media consumption. The researchers were inspired by the notable rise in cesarean rates after all of the "Too Posh To Push" headlines during Victoria Beckham's four pregnancies, and they wanted to formally look at how pregnant celebrity culture affects expectant women.
"People look at celebrities and say 'Why am I so much bigger? How can they just have this little bump and my hips and waist are changing?'"
In the study, they honed in on body image, using the survey answers to measure five factors: usual concern for physical appearance, pregnant celebrity attraction, pregnancy weight worry, pregnancy body image dissatisfaction and, of course, prenatal attachment, defined as a relationship in which the mother seeks "to know, to be with, to avoid separation or loss, to protect, and to identify and gratify the needs of her fetus." This information allowed Krisjanous and her co-authors to look at each woman and determine the "extent to which respondent is excited by, anticipates and enjoys the process of being pregnant and the changes happening to her body."
Ultimately, the study showed an alarming link between attraction to celebrity pregnancy and disruption in prenatal attachment. This effect was seen in those concerned about appearance and gaining weight during pregnancy.
People internalize 'bump-watching' more than they think.
When pregnant women draw comparisons between their bodies and the bodies of those with a mere "bump," the harmful effects start with self-image before manifesting as a lack of connection with the baby.
"People look at celebrities and say 'Why am I so much bigger? How can they just have this little bump and my hips and waist are changing?" Maggie Baumann, a psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, who specializes in treating people struggling from eating disorders, told The Huffington Post. "It's unrealistic and negative feedback to the normal population of women that are pregnant."
Baumann is a recovering "pregorexic" who now runs a web-based support group for moms with eating disorders. She wrote about her struggle with "pregorexia" for MomLogic.com in 2009 and has been an advocate for the cause ever since. During her second pregnancy, her eating disorder kicked in as she felt her body changing, albeit naturally. This intense self-scrutiny led her to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as over-exercise and diet restriction, and caused her to disassociate from her unborn child, much like the respondents in Krisjanous' study.
"I had this internal negative dialogue that I was losing control of my body," Baumann said. "I know this sounds horrible, but at the time, because I was sick, I thought of my baby as this alien taking control of my body. I'm thinking that this thing is taking control of my body -- I'm not attaching to it, because I didn't sense that it was a baby until it was born. That was when I was able to think, 'Here's my baby; I can hold my baby; I can feed my baby.' All of those things that are important for attachment really didn't happen until after I had had my baby."
Art by Noelle Campbell
Celebrity culture is a common topic in Baumann's support group, as moms and moms-to-be bemoan the media's focus on pregnant celebrities who manage to squeeze into bikinis, bandage dresses and skinny jeans all the way into their third trimesters.
"They talk about how it seems unattainable when you look at these women when you're pregnant," Baumann explained. "[Celebrities] have personal chefs, personal trainers and you really don't know what's Photoshopped. Then they emerge right after they have their baby, and they look like they've never even had a baby."
Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to these messages, said Krisjanous, since many of them are experiencing these body changes for the first time or don't have access to proper medical advice. One of the hardest things for women to hear, she explained, is talk of the celebrity "baby bump."
"You see all of the time that it's described as a 'bump' -- you know, the 'perfect little bump' or the 'pregnancy bump,'" Krisjanous said. "A pregnancy is much more than that. It's a complete body change. For most women, just maintaining that little 'bump' is unachievable."
But where does the obsession with pregnant celebrities start?
Krisjanous said that stars are at the peak of their beauty during their fertile years, which plays into society's fascination with aesthetics. To this day, Demi Moore's 1991 Vanity Fair cover, featuring the star posing naked and pregnant, is considered one of photographer Annie Leibovitz's most recognizable photos. Not to mention, many subsequently pregnant celebrities, such as Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears, have played homage to the iconic image with their own nude pregnancy covers.
While cover lines like "My Body After Baby" and "98 Lbs. & Pregnant" weren't as prevalent when Baumann was expecting in the late 1980s, she received her fair share of positive feedback for her svelte maternity body, which echoed the idolization put toward today's pregnant stars. All of these accolades were given as she nearly miscarried at 11 weeks pregnant and had her fetus diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction, as a result of poor nutrition, at seven months. By the time she went into labor, she was 5 feet 8 inches and weighed just above 135 pounds.
"People were commenting, 'You have such a good body and you're pregnant. How do you do that?'" Baumann said. "When I went in for my cesarean in 1987, two of the OR nurses were pregnant at the time and they were looking at me going, 'Oh my gosh, you look so good. How did you stay so small?'"
Bottom line: Avert your gaze from the expecting 1 percent.
It's worth noting, however, that even Krisjanous doesn't think all celebrity attention or even body focus is bad -- it's merely when coupled with insecurity that prenatal attachment was negatively affected. She said that most women aren't concerned with staying small while they're with child. They look at these headlines and think, "Well, I can't look like that," and have perfectly normal attachments to their fetuses.
But for those who are affected by celebrity culture, low prenatal attachment can open the door to a slew of problems, such as postpartum depression and a low level of attachment with the baby post-birth, according to previous research.
"The media is showcasing this pregnant celebrity that's thin and bikini-wearing, but keep in mind that that's not necessarily the full picture."
And since it doesn't seem the media will be shifting its focus away from celebrity pregnancies anytime soon, both Krisjanous and Baumann said it's up to women to stay above the pressure to maintain small pregnant bodies. They suggest getting information from credible sources, such as websites that are recommended by health practitioners, and taking body image concerns directly to doctors.
"Women just need to be sensible about what they believe is true through the media in terms of celebrities and maintaining their appearance," said Krisjanous. "The media is showcasing this pregnant celebrity that's thin and bikini-wearing, but keep in mind that that's not necessarily the full picture."
As for Baumann, she instructs the women in her group to understand that, although thin pregnant bodies might be healthfully achievable for some women, they shouldn't feel compelled to emulate these ladies' behaviors or try to achieve their bodies through unhealthy means, even if magazines are holding them up as paradigms of pregnancy.
"We're looking at a very, very small segment of the population that are being shown in the media, but we have to remember that maybe 1 percent of the population are celebrities. And who are usually celebrities? People that have attractive bodies," she said. "I'm trying to let them look at the whole picture, because what we're seeing in the media is really a very small picture of what's really out there."
Until websites and magazines start showcasing a range of pregnant bodies, it looks like women will have to use their imaginations to see that full picture -- or they can simply take a look around at all of the beautiful, diverse, non-celebrity pregnant bodies walking the streets each day.