Over the weekend the Duchess of Cambridge was widely reported making her first public appearance since giving birth, but was there an unhealthy media obsession with the post-pregnancy body shape of Kate Middleton?
The Daily Telegraph posted a full length picture on their front page, shoving the Syrian crisis to the side.
Their coverage was peppered with references to her figure such as:
“The Duchess, dressed in skinny black jeans, a fitted green Ralph Lauren jacket and patterned Zara blouse, appeared to have already snapped back into shape just five and a half weeks after giving birth. However, she suggested to well-wishers that she remained keen to shed any lingering baby weight and fancied doing some walking. Park warden Will Stewart said: ‘She seemed genuinely interested in doing some walking. Especially after the baby, she wants to get back into shape.'”
Media depictions of unrealistically thin females, has been blamed as partly contributing to an epidemic of body image problems. Ironically, Princess Diana was herself reported to suffer with an eating disorder.
Pervasive portrayal of the ‘thin’, ‘ideal’ physique might be influencing what it is to be healthy, successful and in control – if you are female, prompting ‘real’ women to develop unrealistic expectations of their own bodies, even after delivering a baby.
Academics from midwifery and nursing departments at two major Australian universities were so concerned by the way celebrity post-pregnancy body shape is reported in popular women’s magazines, that they conducted a formal investigation.
Their argument is that women primarily need to accept themselves and nurture their post-pregnancy bodies. But media coverage, as the UK press appears to have done with the Duchess of Cambridge, seems more concerned with putting pressure on women over their shape.
This analysis of popular women’s magazines found that coverage could be largely summarised as ‘Racing to bounce back’. The message is that the childbearing body ‘must quickly’ return to its pre-pregnant state. Reporting on celebrity child-bearing indicated that once pregnancy is over, all the signs of having carried and given birth to a baby, need to be eliminated immediately.
Heike Roth, Professors Caroline Homer and Jennifer Fenwick, who conducted the study entitled, ‘Bouncing back: How Australia’s leading women’s magazines portray the postpartum body’, found that the stories fostered a particular sense of urgency.
Some 25 recent celebrity stories about the childbearing postnatal body were analysed from Australia’s three leading women’s magazines over six months, and a key theme that emerged was how celebrities ‘raced’ to get their bodies ‘back’, while magazines competed with one another in seeking to publish the first pictures of the ‘new’, ‘improved’, post-pregnant body of the ‘yummy mummy’.
The academics from the Centre for Midwifery and Faculty of Nursing at University of Technology, Sydney and Griffith University, Queensland, concluded that the press glamorised speedy post-pregnancy weight loss.
The study, published in the academic journal ‘Women and Birth’, drew specifically on coverage of celebrities in the selected magazines, and found women were encouraged to strive towards regaining a pre-pregnant body shape, with the same effort one would employ when recovering from an illness.
An overarching theme of ‘exemplary women’ emerged. Childbearing celebrities are used by the press to create an image of the ‘ideal’ pregnant and postnatal body – the ‘yummy mummy’ – creating a benchmark to aspire to.
But the media didn’t just have an expectation that the female body should ‘change back’ quickly. Additionally the message was that these ‘exemplary women’ were not only able to have babies and be mothers, they were simultaneously shedding large amounts of weight in a short period, looking glamorous and retaining their image as a celebrity.
This represented a certain ultimate social status, the power of attractiveness, fertility and fame. As a result the ordinary post-pregnant women is led to feel that they must achieve this ‘bouncing back’ to the perfect pre-pregnancy body shape, in order to gain acceptance ‘back’ into society.
Many of the stories also provided the reader with the celebrity’s ‘secrets’ to weight loss. So there’s no excuse for the female reader not to achieve the same.
The authors of the study conclude that these stories suggest that character, mental well-being, and how one is adjusting to motherhood are less important than appearance. This finding appeared replicated in the way the British media handled the Duchess of Cambridge’s re-emergence into the media spotlight following giving birth. The press fed into the ongoing obsession with celebrity body-gazing, even though it should not be particularly surprising that the Duchess re-assumed her glamorous role so quickly. Her pre-natal weight gain appeared modest.
But do real women actually judge their own bodies against celebrities? As part of a larger study, Shahreen Bashir, Elizabeth Sparkes, Kubra Anwar from Coventry University and Ellinor Olander from City University, asked women about their views of Victoria Beckham’s post-partum weight loss. Their finding, also recently reported in the academic journal ‘Women and Birth’, revealed the majority of ordinary women interviewed claimed not to be bothered by celebrity weight loss.
Highlighting a celebrity mother famous for her expensive lifestyle and slender physique may have meant that Victoria Beckham was an extreme example, the authors concede. Perhaps the participants would have been more encouraged to lose weight fast post-partum by a celebrity with whom they were more able to identify.
The women interviewed commented that the famous and rich tend to have trainers and dieticians “and the rest of it”. Others’ remarks included “Well you know, if I had a million pounds, a personal trainer and a cosmetic surgeon I am sure I can do the same if I had the inclination”.
But one out of the 10 women interviewed for the study agreed that Victoria Beckham inﬂuenced her, motivating her to regain her pre-pregnancy size.
Media messages about a celebrity’s postpartum weight loss may not encourage all women to get back fast to their pre-pregnant weight, due to many conceding they don’t benefit from celebrity advantages of money, and other resources. But perhaps Kate Middleton might have more impact than Victoria Beckham for a host of reasons, not least the way the media has historically connived to portray her as ‘down to earth’.
The academics studying this issue concur that the media glamorises extreme weight loss after birth, promoting body shapes that would be unrealistic and unattainable for most. This at a time in a woman’s life where there are much more important health issues.
It’s particularly reprehensible if recent coverage of the Duchess of Cambridge promotes unhealthy messages, given Princess Diana’s own reported battles with eating and body image disorders.
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