An excerpt from Anne Helen Petersen's Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman.
There’s a picture of Kim Kardashian in a color-blocked black-and-white dress from February 21, 2013 — about five months into her first pregnancy. Her “bump,” as pregnant bellies have come to be called in the mainstream media, is visible, as are her white pumps, red lipstick, black wrist cuff, and perfectly made‑up face. It’s a look that E! News called “absolutely stunning.” But there was another photo from that same appearance — taken from the side as Kardashian turns her head back, presumably at the beckoning of one of the paparazzi who, at that point, were tracking her every pregnant move.
This image is cropped closer, ending before the hem of her dress; her legs aren’t visible, nor is the overall silhouette of the look — just black-and-white fabric hugging the growing curves that helped establish Kardashian’s famous, and incredibly lucrative, celebrity brand. That image was paired with a picture of a killer whale, whose black-and-white color scheme echoed the color-blocking of Kardashian’s dress, and the caption “Who Wore It Best?” The photo circulated swiftly across the Internet, but it didn’t stop there: Star magazine put it on its cover, along with the headlines “65‑lb Weight Gain!” “Binges on Pasta, Cake and Ice Cream!” and “Kim’s Pregnant Nightmare!”
The photo wasn’t the first image of the pregnant Kardashian, but it became the indelible one, encapsulating all that was “wrong” with her pregnancy: her weight gain (not cute) and her strategy for clothing it (not appropriate). From that point forward, the already Kardashian-frenzied paparazzi went into over‑drive. The ultimate prize wasn’t just a picture of Kim, but one of Kim eating, Kim looking fat, Kim looking miserable, Kim looking uncomfortable, Kim looking, in other words, not like Kim: a betrayal of the image of celebrity maternity that, over the last ten years, has become the norm.
Yet in transgressing the boundaries of the “cute celebrity pregnancy,” Kardashian effectively called attention to the constrictive, regressive norms of how women, celebrity or not, are now expected to “perform” pregnancy in public. When she writes on her blog that “for me pregnancy is the worst experience of my life,” she’s not just “keeping it real,” as she proclaims at the beginning of the paragraph; she’s working to mainstream the truly unruly idea that pregnancy — and, by extension, even motherhood — is not the pinnacle, or even defining purpose, of every woman’s life.
Kardashian wanted the cute little basketball bump. She wanted a “normal” pregnancy. But when her body refused to give her one, she became the unlikely means by which the cracks in the ideology of “good” maternity became visible.
If you were born after 1991, you’ve never known a time when pregnancy wasn’t performed in public: 1991 was the watershed year in which Demi Moore appeared naked, seven months pregnant with her second daughter, Scout, on the cover of Vanity Fair. The cover became instantly iconic, mocked and replicated and spoofed in the manner of meme culture decades before online memes existed. In some quarters, it was considered obscene: many supermarkets displayed it with the sort of paper wrap reserved for Playboy; others, like Safeway and Giant, refused to sell it entirely. “It’s tacky,” one twenty-three-year-old woman told the Los Angeles Times. She couldn’t imagine “why anyone would want to display her swollen stomach like that — and why people would want to look at it.”
The titillation was purposeful: Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, who would go on to serve as editor in chief of The New Yorker, made the decision to put the image on the cover, knowing how it would drive sales. The issue ended up selling more than a million copies — 250,000 more than normal circulation. “The Demi Moore cover is a radical statement of New Hollywood values,” Brown declared. “It breaks the mold of every stereotype of celebrity glamour. For too long, women have felt that pregnancy is something they have to conceal and disguise. It takes the courage of a woman as modern and innovative as Demi Moore to cast aside the conventions of traditional beauty and declare that there is nothing more glorious than the sight of a woman carrying a child.”
Moore, who was promoting her new movie, The Butcher’s Wife, obviously agreed. “I have no regrets,” she said. “Attitudes are changing. I feel beautiful when I’m pregnant . . . I was just on vacation in Mexico, in my bikini with my big belly hanging out and my low-cut top.” Even before the shoot, Moore’s attitude had been catching on: swimsuit designer John Koerner reported that his maternity bikini, released three years before, was now his number one seller. “Women’s whole attitude toward pregnancy is changing fast,” he explained. “It’s what we call a paradigm shift — none of the old rules apply.”
It’s taken twenty-five years to see just how right Koerner’s statement would be. Today, pregnancy and motherhood are one of the primary ways in which a female celebrity maintains attention. The baby bump has become, as Molly Jong-Fast declared in The New York Times, the new Birkin bag: it’s “cute” and “adorable” and “feminine,” something to dress up, to rub in photos, to have photographed as your partner leans down and kisses it. Celebrities model these behaviors on the red carpet, in selfies, and in paparazzi photos, and as a result, women across America have adopted them en masse.
It’s difficult to emphasize just how radical this attitude would seem to women experiencing pregnancy even thirty years ago. To be pregnant in public was in poor taste — unsophisticated, trashy, unbecoming, obscene. That sense of the pregnant body as abject goes back millennia, as the pregnant body is a woman’s body at its most fecund, but also in its most grotesque figuration: the body swells, expands, and oozes, the boundary between inside and outside permeable. New motherhood is often depicted as something darling: sweetly sleeping babies on all crisp white sheets and gurgling babies in the bath. But childbirth is a messy, primal process: consider the afterbirth, the leakage of breast milk, the caked gunk scraped from the newborn’s body, the blood and screaming, and the fact that for so long, so many otherwise healthy women died in the process of giving birth.
The pregnant body was also profoundly contradictory: as scholar Jane Ussher explains, pregnancy is, at its most essential, the most vivid proof of women’s sexuality — which is precisely why representations of mothers took on the opposite characteristics. The most significant mother of Christianity, for example, is the Virgin Mary: asexual, idealized, immaculate. Mary is rarely represented while actually pregnant, only afterwards, when the child is safely born, both mother and child clean and content. This beatific mother is contained, pure — the antidote to the abjectly pregnant mother.
Historically, the easiest way to contain that abjection was to keep the pregnancy out of sight. Women of a certain class often receded entirely from public view until after the baby was born and the visible signs of pregnancy had diminished. When the birth occurred, it happened in the domestic space and was managed by midwives. Like all things hidden for fear of abjection (women’s sexuality, menstrual periods, feces), it became societally unacceptable to even speak openly of pregnancy: according to historian Carol Brooks Gardner, in nineteenth-century America “talk of pregnancy was forbidden even between mother and daughter, if either hoped to claim breeding and gentility.” Colloquialisms were developed to refer tactfully to the obscenity of a woman’s condition: she was “with child” or “in a family way,” never “pregnant.”
Up until the 1950s, the word “pregnancy” was not even allowed on‑screen. In 1953, the Motion Picture Association of America refused to approve the script for The Moon Is Blue because it included the word “pregnant”; the MPAA’s list of “13 Don’ts and 31 Be Carefuls,” which determined what could and could not make its way on‑screen from the 1920s to the 1960s, included a ban on any depiction of childbirth, even “in silhouette.” In silent film–era Hollywood, most stars avoided motherhood in one way or another so as to sustain their marketability; those who did become pregnant removed themselves from public view, even as the studios offered access to all other parts of the stars’ homes and family life. As late as the 1950s, stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds were seldom photographed while pregnant — just during the blissful, bonding aftermath.
The attempt to erase pregnant bodies from the public sphere took place alongside women’s increased freedom to control when they became pregnant. In 1965, the Supreme Court upheld the right to privacy when it came to birth control; in 1973, it protected the right to access abortion services in Roe v. Wade; a year later, the court denied a Cleveland school the right to ban a pregnant teacher from continuing to work when the administration “worried that her pregnant body would alternately disgust, concern, fascinate, and embarrass her students.” As legal scholar Renée Ann Cramer points out, these decisions “set the stage for openness to the bump, and pregnancy, that we have today.” The idea that women shouldn’t work while pregnant, after all, is predicated on the fact that women would have some other source of income while absent from the workforce. In many ways, the decision of the court underlined that this was no longer, or could no longer be expected to be, the case.
Even after the Supreme Court ruling, pregnant women were largely exempted from having to perform the same sort of femininity and body surveillance that accompanied their non-pregnant existences — in part because they were not yet considered a lucrative market. Put differently, industries weren’t yet selling the idea of the “cute” pregnancy — or the products to maintain it.
There was no maternity yoga; no maternity Spanx. Maternity clothes were largely hideous and/or homemade, making “pregnancy style” an oxymoron: even Princess Diana, whose early 1980s pregnancies were arguably the most visible in history, still dressed in what might best be described as polka-dotted baby doll dresses. But the popularization of spandex and Lycra in the 1980s and ’90s changed all that: a fabric that could stretch was one that could be crafted into something (relatively) cute for the growing pregnant body.
Before Moore, the paparazzi generally respected the boundaries of the pregnant female celebrity (even Madonna, who’d so willingly embraced public documentation of her body throughout her career, remained largely unphotographed during her first pregnancy). All
that changed within the decade — when the combination of digital photography and Us Weekly not only created a market for pregnancy photos, but helped turn “bump watch,” and the cultivation of the “cute pregnancy,” into one of the female celebrity’s primary modes of publicity. Suddenly, the taboo of the pregnant body turned into a spectacle that could be stylized, exploited, scrutinized, and interpreted as emblematic of a woman’s overarching success or failure.
Janice Min dates the shift to around 2003, when she had just taken over the reins of Us Weekly from Bonnie Fuller, who’d turned the long-flailing magazine around. “Not only were an unprecedented number of top actresses suddenly pregnant ([Courteney] Cox, [Brooke] Shields, [Gwyneth] Paltrow, [Debra] Messing, [Denise] Richards, to name a few),” Min explains, “but they were — for the first time in history — well, flaunting it.” Min lists all the products that had become associated with pregnancy — the Bugaboo stroller, designer cribs, the Bikram yoga post-pregnancy workout routine — before declaring “the once frumpy bump industry was suddenly big business.” And with the availability of the means to create a “cute” pregnancy came the compulsion for all women, celebrity or not, to do so.
Min points to the ways other companies were making money off the “bump industry,” but it was huge business for her own magazine — in part because it fit its ethos of “Just Like Us.” Us Weekly had become a genuine competitor to People through its reliance on paparazzi photos — of stars doing mundane things like grocery shopping and pumping gas — that cost very little. In the process, it effectively created a market for photos of celebrities in all aspects of their lives outside of the home. Even more valuable, though, were shots of female celebrities performing these tasks while pregnant. The pregnant celebrity body is the perfect consolidation of “Just Like Us” and “Nothing Like Us,” the mundane and the spectacular: it doesn’t matter what the celebrity and her body are doing, because her body’s growing. And like the aging process or weight gain, that process, and how a celebrity chooses to embrace or conceal it, is one of the most perversely engrossing images to observe.
All of this — Us Weekly, Demi Moore, fashionable baby clothes, surveillance of celebrities that translates into their own hyper‑vigilant surveillance of self — funnels toward Kim Kardashian, the most important and influential celebrity of the twenty-first century. Paris Hilton understood that power (initially, through her sex tape; afterwards, through The Simple Life) at the beginning of the 2000s, but Kardashian — who established herself as part of Hilton’s circle by volunteering to organize her closet for her — was observing her closely. Then she beat Hilton at her own game: with the help of her “momager,” Kris, and her extensive, blended family, Kardashian transformed the banalities of “everyday” life, and the surveillance thereof, into a narrative far more gripping than most reality television.
Part of that watchability stems from the Pride and Prejudice–style plotting, in which a controlling mother attempts, in some ways more overt than others, to pair off her gaggle of daughters or otherwise ensure their success. There’s also an addictive quality to how rich people live so beautifully, with so little legitimate friction: their days are spent getting ready, talking on the phone, half paying attention to one another, deciding on clothes, eating salads out of plastic containers, and taking care of family drama, the vast majority of which gets solved by the end of each episode. But Keeping Up with the Kardashians is also a glimpse into what it’s like to live under surveillance. Kris and the sisters appear almost exclusively in full hair and makeup; their conversations, phone calls, and questions gradually become the sort that don’t even need editing to feel like the setup and resolution of a classic sitcom.
As the show and the Kardashian family grew in popularity, so, too, did their surveillance outside the bounds of the television show — whether at the hands of the paparazzi, who tracked their mundane activity (which functioned as a sort of “supplementary” narrative to the show itself), or, increasingly, by themselves, via social media. Boyfriends, children, fiancés, marriages, shopping trips, weight gains and losses, brands consumed, diet tricks endorsed, clothing lines launched — all of it was catalogued. And when you spend so much time acting for an audience, your entire life becomes a performance. The Kardashians became the apotheosis of what it means to be a celebrity today: instead of deflecting surveillance of the body and the personal, they embraced and exploited it.
In 2013, Keeping Up with the Kardashians was entering its eighth season. The family had never been more popular: Kourtney had given birth to two children, the gestations of whom were incorporated into the show; Khloé was in her fourth year of marriage to basketball player Lamar Odom; Rob had launched a successful sock line; Kendall and Kylie Jenner had their own clothing line for Pacific Sunwear; Kendall was embarking on the beginning of her career as a model. And Kim — who had married and separated from basketball player Kris Humphries and started dating Kanye West, all within the span of two years — had never been more surveilled or valuable.
When Kanye announced Kim’s pregnancy on December 30, 2012, it felt sudden — largely because Kim’s divorce from Humphries had yet to be finalized. Yet in addition to whatever personal feelings Kim might have had at the prospect of becoming a mother, she also understood the pregnancy in terms of marketability. When your body and personal life are the source of not just your fame, but your income, that’s not callous so much as the new corporeal due diligence.
But Kardashian’s pregnancy refused to make itself marketable — at least not in the way she envisioned it. If, before, women had to hide from public view, today, the bump is imagined as “a new freedom” — not an “embarrassing or abject physical state,” as Imogen Tyler explains, “but an opportunity to have a different fashionable and sexy body shape.” But the actual liberating power of what Tyler calls “pregnant beauty” is dubious, in part because there’s really only one acceptable way for it to manifest. Min describes that model, demonstrated en masse by celebrities, as “one day you’d look as though you swallowed a basketball. The next day it would be gone.” There’s no swelling, no barfing, no hemorrhoids, nothing abject about this pregnancy experience: you feel great, and you talk about feeling great, and everyone knows you feel great. Kim herself admits to buying into this understanding: as she says, on camera, late in her third trimester, “I always envisioned [that] only my belly would get big.”
Yet Kardashian’s pregnancy failed to fulfill that vision of pregnant beauty on both a physical and an emotional level. In the first episode of season eight of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, when Kris accompanies Kim to a sonogram appointment, she exclaims, “I’m more excited than she is,” a point driven home when Kim doesn’t even want to see a picture of the sonogram. Kim avers that “once I start showing I’ll get excited.” Once the bump appears, or, in other words, once she’s able to style it and make it available for public consumption — that’s when she’ll start enjoying pregnancy.
Kardashian’s anxiety over the “in‑between” time — from when a woman knows she’s pregnant to when her body strongly signifies as such — is widely held. Few things in American society, after all, are considered as terrifying as getting fat, and with good reason: for most people, fatness means a harder time getting a job, garnering respect, or navigating the physical world; for celebrities, it means all of those things, plus incessant public ridicule. And as the cult of the baby bump developed, so, too, did the idealized post-baby body — one that, just months after giving birth, looks exactly as it did before pregnancy.
Which is part of the reason that Kim, who was thirty-two when she became pregnant, was anxious: “Our parents had us in their twenties and their bodies bounced back,” she tells one of her sisters. “My mom had Kendall and Kylie in her forties and she still can’t lose the weight.” She was not only nervous that her body would, in its early pregnant state, signify as fat, but that whatever weight she gained would haunt her in the future. It makes sense that women’s inclination toward disordered eating spikes so sharply during and after pregnancy: that’s how strongly weight gain of any kind, even related to pregnancy, is stigmatized.
But as Kardashian’s pregnancy became unequivocal, the rest of her body refused to conform to the cute ideal she’d internalized. Her feet, like the rest of her body, began to swell — early indicators of what would later be diagnosed as preeclampsia. She yearned for the body that hid beneath her pregnant one: when brother‑in‑law Scott Disick walked in on her in pregnancy Spanx, he exclaimed, “Your voluptuous pregnant body shouldn’t be in bike shorts around people,” to which Kardashian responded, “It’s less attractive than my skinny toned body . . . Can we just reminisce for a second?” Over the course of that one scene, Disick tells her: “You’re gonna get back there”; “Your boobs are getting a little big for you to do that”; “How big is that baby”; “You look like the Nutty Professor.” It’s the sort of contradictory messaging a pregnant woman receives: you’re hot, but on the border of obscene; you’re perfect, but you’re huge; don’t feel bad about yourself, but your thin body is better.
Early in her pregnancy, Kardashian also began experiencing sharp pains — so severe that her doctor initially believed it was appendicitis. Her body was making it impossible for her to revel in pregnancy — a thought that thoroughly distressed Kris. “It was the most wonderful time of my life,” she tearfully tells Kim, “and I want you to have the same experience”; “the fact that she can’t enjoy being pregnant breaks my heart,” she says in her one‑on‑one “confessional” interview. In episode three, as Kim writhes in pain, it’s again juxtaposed with Kris’s commentary: “I want her to relish in this pregnancy; I feel like it’s the most amazing experience, and she’s just not having that.”
Like so many other women, Kris has internalized a single understanding of how pregnancy should be, look, and feel, which is part of why Kim’s persistent dislike is so powerfully unruly. “I hate this so much,” she moans, in a clip shown multiple times throughout the episode. “I’ll never do this again.” Later in the episode, she admits that “the anxiety that I have is so ridiculous” — in part out of fear for the baby, and fear of the pain, but also because of an overarching fear that the experience of pregnancy was not what she had been led to believe. “This is definitely not the picture she painted for herself,” Khloé explains.
There was another part of the pregnancy picture that Kim hadn’t anticipated: ridicule at the hands of the press. The comparison to a killer whale soon joined pictures of her feet, swelling painfully out of her high heels. At the beginning of episode five, Rob greets Kim with “What’s up, fat feet?” clearly alluding to her coverage in the press. It’s one of dozens of moments, interspersed throughout the season, that highlight the ways in which coverage of their celebrity outside of the show disrupts the illusion of the hermetically sealed Kardashian world. It’s also one of the unspoken allures of the show: viewers are essentially watching celebrities react, respond, and oftentimes alter their behavior based on how they’re covered in the press.
It’s a window, in other words, into the highly reactive, yet usually invisible, production of celebrity. What’s fascinating about Kardashian’s pregnancy, then, is how she refused to allow her changing body to be policed by it — especially when it came to fashion. Maternity wear has become a $2.4 billion business, with thousands of options for every pregnant body, yet there’s still an unspoken demarcation of “appropriate” maternity fashion. It can be feminine and flirty, but shouldn’t be slutty or sexual; you can show your bare belly at the pool, but not in any other circumstance. And when you begin to show, you should wear clothes designed specifically for maternity wear.
Kardashian ignored each of those rules. She’d always worn clingy dresses, so she kept wearing them. She’d always shown skin, so she kept showing it — outfits with see-through mesh strips, short dresses that showed off her legs, low-plunging necklines that revealed her substantial cleavage, high-waisted pencil skirts that broadened, rather than hid, her girth. She kept wearing heels, and full makeup, and “body-con” dresses, performing femininity and sexuality the same way she had her entire celebrity career. Those decisions were met with disgust: “Would someone please tell Kim she’s pregnant!” the cover of the New York Post screamed, along with a picture of Kardashian in a high-waisted, flared dress. Us Weekly called her style “controversial”; People explained that the “tough and edgy” style of one outfit was “usually reserved for non-pregnancy moments.” “We give you a woman at the tail end of her pregnancy who refuses to ditch the Rich Bitch bodycon dresses, hose, and sky-high heels,” VH1 declared. “What is she trying to prove? And to whom is she trying to prove it? We’d love her more if she rolled out in yoga pants, toe socks, and pigtails. She’s eighteen months pregnant.”
What was Kardashian trying to prove? That there are myriad ways to clothe a pregnant body. That the way you feel sexy in your own body doesn’t have to change when you get pregnant. That even at “eighteen months pregnant,” she’d actually be shamed, in some capacity, for “rolling out” in yoga pants and pigtails. If she tried to keep the baby healthy, she was too fat. If she put on a dress that made her feel attractive, she was too sexy.
Take, for example, the skintight floral dress she wore to the Met Ball — which purportedly prompted Anna Wintour to cut her out of Vogue’s coverage of the event. Wintour’s move made sense, in a messed‑up way: Vogue is a fashion magazine, but it’s also a policer of class, and Kardashian’s pregnancy troubled the magazine’s trenchant distinctions between high and low. Not just in her body’s inability to hew to the ideal of the basketball bump, but also in Kardashian’s conception of how to dress it. Just look at the language used, across the press, to describe her style: “Kim isn’t shy about showing off her cleavage,” “never one to keep things simple,” “overly-opulent,” and “disastrous”; “illusion netting, feathers, leather leggings — any one of these items would be over the top,” OK! magazine declared, “but of course Kim feels no fashion fear.”
She spilled out of her dresses; she purportedly broke zippers: her flesh was too ample, too much. She tried too hard. Coded language, all of it, for a disrespect of the boundaries that separate class from trash — a distinction that has afflicted Kardashian from the beginning of her career, first because of her association with a sex tape (tawdry) and then for her affiliation with reality television (lowbrow). That’s why Wintour famously would only allow her on the cover of Vogue with Kanye. It doesn’t matter that Kardashian grew up rich, or that she currently pulls in more than $100 million a year: she’ll always be perceived as new money, and her fame will always be centered on her body and, as such, easily dismissed and delegitimized.
It was easy to code Kardashian’s pregnancy in the same manner as her career — especially when it played out in near-synchronization with that of the Duchess of Cambridge, popularly known as Kate Middleton. As novelist and cultural critic Hilary Mantel explains, “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.” She was, plainly put, incredibly, wonderfully, perfectly palatable. Fashion scholar Maureen Brewster points out that Middleton’s style “relied heavily upon knee-length dresses cut in A‑line with Empire waistlines” that “also displayed her as very clearly slim despite her growing bump, further establishing her pregnancy as a fit and fashionable performance.”
No matter that her slimness was due to her hyperemesis gravidarum, also known as acute morning sickness, for which she was hospitalized early in her pregnancy — Middleton’s classy, contained bump incited approving commentary from People’s “Style Watch” Facebook page: “Very classy & pretty”; “Simple and elegant!”; “Pregnancy suits her very well! She looks beautiful.” The opposite, in other words, of Kardashian. If Middleton’s body was impossible to interpret as fat, Kim’s always threatened to be read as such; if Middleton’s style was feminine and classy, Kardashian’s was whorish and trashy. The contrast was made explicit in photo spreads throughout the pair’s pregnancies: “often, the slimmer star was portrayed as the most able to police her desires to eat and grow large,” Cramer explains, as “the press valorizes the women most able to exhibit self-control while pregnant.”
It didn’t matter that Kardashian was carefully monitoring her diet: the tabloids claimed not only that she “couldn’t stop eating,” but that she was doing it on purpose so as to then strike a deal with a weight-loss company after the birth of her daughter. One magazine said she’d gained “65 pounds” through “binges”; another put her at more than two hundred pounds through “waffle cones and fries.” Keeping Up with the Kardashians features a handful of scenes in which Kim “indulges”: in one, she eats mozzarella sticks; in another, she eats fries with her brother. But the vast majority of the time she’s filmed eating the same boxed green salads and chef-prepared meals as the rest of her family. “All I eat is carrots, and celery and ranch, and like, protein bars, gluten-free stuff, sugar-free stuff,” she told Maria Menounos in an interview on Extra. “I am waiting for the moments when someone’s like, go to McDonald’s and Taco Bell [but] that’s not happening for me.”
If she were to go to those places, the paparazzi would be waiting for her. After the “whale photo” went viral, unflattering images — any shot of Kim eating, looking fat, or in situations that could be construed as overindulging or disgusted at her own body — were at a premium. When she arrives at a frozen yogurt shop to meet with her stepbrother Brandon and his wife, Leah, in a midseason episode, the paparazzi swarms the windows, forcing Kim to hide behind Brandon as she attempts to get a taste of yogurt. “I’ll get like a sample and they’ll be like, ‘she’s five hundred pounds, she’s trying like a million yogurts!’” she explained. When, later in the scene, Kim calls the actions of the paparazzi “bullying,” she is referring to their physical presence in her life, but it applies equally to their purpose: making it as difficult as possible for her to appear in public in a way that won’t be construed as a pregnant body out of control.
Most of the paparazzi policing was published in “unsanctioned” gossip outlets — the tabloids and gossip blogs that don’t rely on cooperation from the celebrities they cover. But there was an opportunity for a counternarrative, and Us Weekly took it, publishing photos of Kardashian on vacation in Greece with her family, with the caption “You Call This Fat?” next to her clearly pregnant stomach. Kim looks relaxed and unpretentious, her hair in a loose braid; her makeup replaced by a bronzed glow. Instead of “stuffing” herself into inappropriate maternity wear, she’s wearing a bikini that frees her body. It was easy to frame the photos as an embrace, on Kim’s part, of her pregnant form: “She’s loving the seventh month,” a source told Us. “And she thinks pregnancy is so cute.”
It wasn’t until months after the issue hit newsstands and the footage of the family in Greece aired on E! that the discordance of that claim became clear. In her seventh month, Kardashian found pregnancy distinctly miserable. “I feel like I’ve turned into a different person,” she said, just before putting on the bikini captured on the cover of Us. “I just feel like a huge roly-poly . . . It’s like an alien inside of you.” In the next episode, the rest of the family discusses Kim’s inability to enjoy herself at the breakfast table: “She’s so not happy,” Kris says. “I mean pregnancy isn’t for everyone,” Khloé responds. “It doesn’t seem like she’s enjoying hers.”
Kim’s family at once bemoans her inability to enjoy the pregnancy and reinforces the very anxieties that’ve made it difficult: the obscenity of her body, and her fear of it. When Kim comes down to breakfast, for example, she’s the most disheveled she’s been all season — no makeup, her hair tied up in a truly messy, not performatively messy, bun. “I just don’t care right now,” she says. Kris starts commenting on the size of her breasts: “I don’t know how she goes day to day with those boobs,” she says, to no one in particular. “Shit, you’ve got some big fucking boobs. I’ve never seen anything like them; it’s two watermelons.” “There’s not even milk in them yet,” Kim replies. “Which is the scary part.”
The three episodes in Greece offer a portrait of a pregnant body so thoroughly surveilled that it begins to discipline itself: while her siblings are goofing around and jumping off the yacht, Kim stays out of sight, typing on her phone and lying in bed. She wears long dresses in the hot sun; she acts as family photographer. She tries not to scratch her stretch marks, for fear that the scratching will make them permanent. She holds up her feet at dinner and pushes into the flesh to demonstrate just how swollen they’ve become. She says, “I’ve been really scrutinized my whole pregnancy, about what I wear, my weight, which is ridiculous, and it’s so frustrating that the paparazzi are here,” and “I just want to fulfill a craving without a picture of me stuffing my face.” In other words, Kardashian wants to defy the expectations of pregnant beauty, but she’s been so steeped in its rhetoric that she can’t help but feel shame, and anger, at her inability to do so.
Kim’s family urges her to engage further in the public spectacle of her pregnancy — even when, as Kim admits, “to say that all the scrutiny doesn’t get to me, I would be lying.” When they return stateside, Kim tells her sisters she doesn’t even want a baby shower, because of all the “negative attention” she’s already garnered. But Khloé and Kourtney keep planning one behind her back, and Kris insists Kim watch footage from when she was pregnant with Rob to see just how meaningful a shower was to her. Kim’s family ultimately wins the argument, in part because a baby shower — and the inclusion of one’s friends and family in the anticipation of a child — is now compulsory: to refuse a baby shower is much more unruly than to have a lavish one filmed by a host of cameras.
And while Kim eventually comes around to the idea of the shower — and the shower itself comes off as loving, inclusive, and emotional — it only solidifies her anxiety over how the rest of her pregnancy will be documented. “I just want to make sure I’m doing it all right,” she says while discussing her birth plan. “I just wanna be perfect.” That perfection includes being in “full glam” for the birth — her face made up, her hair done, her nails done in a shade that will look good, as Kim explains, when her daughter Instagrams the photo in twenty years.
She also starts planning what she’ll do the instant she reinhabits her old body: “The first thing I want to do is some nude shoot,” she tells her sisters. “I just want to walk down the street fully naked,” but only “when I’m skinny again.” Everyone thinks Kim’s being ridiculous, but her behavior is simply the next level of the ideology that’s been policing her all along: if her body can’t “be perfect,” she wants everything else — the look on her face when she gives birth, the composition of the Instagram her daughter will someday post, the body that she’ll return to — to be as close to ideal as possible.
With an official diagnosis of preeclampsia, Kardashian ended up giving birth nearly six weeks early. After the delivery, she suffered from a condition called placenta accreta, which meant the doctor had to reach his hand inside her and physically scrape the placenta from the uterus. Her delivery, like the rest of her pregnancy, was not “perfect.” But that’s only if you believe there’s such a thing as perfect: ultimately, both Kardashian and her baby, North Kardashian West, survived the labor in good health. North was treated overnight for jaundice, but everything was just fine.
The takeaway from Kardashian’s very public pregnancy, however, was that “just fine” just isn’t enough when it comes to the contemporary pregnant body. Even if the concept of “perfect” is wobbly and contradictory, it remains the pregnant woman’s goal. A perfect pregnancy style, a perfect weight gain, a perfect attitude toward pregnancy. When a woman is unable to achieve that perfection, or refuses its pursuit altogether, she’s shamed: if not by her immediate circle of friends and family, whose shaming is often cloaked in the language of “advice,” then by the representations of “ideal pregnancy” that, over the course of the last thirty years, have become regular fixtures of our media diet.
Kardashian’s unruly pregnancy punctured that ideology. By speaking about her discomfort, by airing its minutiae on television, even by continuing to wear clothing that compelled the press to shame her, again and again, it sent a message: if one of the most beautiful and valuable women in the world can’t have a perfect pregnancy, then maybe we can rethink what “perfect,” and its connotations of docility, femininity, containment, and good taste, might mean. Granted, Kardashian was rebelling not by choice, but out of necessity: her body forced her to. If she had the choice, she would’ve loved to reinforce the norm — a posture borne out by her second pregnancy, in which she was more circumspect in how she dressed and dealt with far less press scrutiny, in large part because her body wasn’t dealing with preeclampsia and, as such, didn’t provide the same spectacle.
But an accidental activist is an activist nonetheless. In August 2015, Kardashian Instagrammed a selfie of her naked pregnant body, ostensibly as a means of silencing speculation that she’d hired a surrogate to carry her second child. “First they said I’m too skinny so I have to be faking it,” she wrote. “Now they say I’m too big so I have to be faking it . . . Some days I’m photographed before I eat & look smaller, some days I’ve just eaten & I look bigger. It’s all part of the process. I think you all know me well enough to know I would document the process if I got a surrogate. Everyone’s body is different; every pregnancy is very different! I’ve learned to love my body at every stage! I’m going to get even bigger & that’s beautiful too!” The more representations of the ways in which “everybody’s body is different” and “every pregnancy is different,” the less pregnancies like Kardashian’s — or Jessica Simpson’s, or that of any woman who doesn’t have a Kate Middleton–style pregnancy — will feel unruly, or deserving of censorship, or ashamed.
The pregnant woman has more “freedom” in the public sphere than ever before — and yet women are experiencing the largest war against their reproductive freedoms in more than fifty years. It’s contradictory, of course, but that’s the guiding structure of any ideology: no matter how emancipatory it might seem for the pregnant body to be visible, that visibility means subjugation to regimes of respectability and regulation under patriarchy. As Cramer points out, it was no coincidence that as audiences watched Kardashian’s preparations for labor, Wendy Davis was filibustering against anti-choice laws in the Texas state legislature. When the body becomes public property, as the pregnant body has indubitably become, it not only liberates the populace at large to comment and cast judgment on it, but the (male-dominated) legislature to institute legal controls over it.
Kardashian may have felt bullied, saddened, and otherwise hurt by the reception of her pregnancy; she was certainly disappointed in her own failure to live up to the ideal. But when things didn’t go as planned, she planned differently: watching the season, you get the sense of a woman figuring out how to navigate, on her own terms, a world that’s told her not only that she’s “too pregnant,” but that she’s also been too fat, too superficial, too
fake, too curvy, too sexual. The anxiety over Kardashian’s body is, of course, actually over her power: that a woman whose primary skill is the way she lives life could so effectively market that life. That even if she’s married to the best rapper in the world, she’s still the most influential person in the room.
It’s easy to mistake Kardashian for a falsely empowered woman, so thoroughly enmeshed in the ideology of self-surveillance and the performance of docility and submission it implies. Yet she has spent the last decade of her life, and her first pregnancy in particular, being labeled as too much of something. She may not own the label of feminist, averring that she’s not a “free the nipple” type girl — but that doesn’t mean that her work to make the labor of femininity visible or reduce the stigma around the “non-beautiful” pregnancy isn’t, at heart, a feminist project.
It will take years for the cultural influence of Kardashian’s particular brand of unruliness to become clear. But just as Demi Moore’s appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair has become a pivot in attitudes toward pregnancy in public, Kim’s pregnant body, likened to a whale, excised from Vogue, pursued specifically at its worst angles, might mark another era: in which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional those same anti-choice laws that Wendy Davis filibustered against, in which the most famous woman on the planet declares that every body, every pregnancy is different — and in which the business of being a woman in public, even with an audience of millions, still remains that woman’s business alone. ●
From TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman by Anne Helen Petersen, on sale June 20th, from PLUME, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Anne Helen Petersen.
Anne Helen Petersen received her PhD in media studies from the University of Texas, where she studied the industrial history of the gossip industry. Today, she writes about culture, celebrity, and feminism for BuzzFeed News. Her first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, was featured in The Boston Globe, Time, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Bitch, the New York Post, and The Rumpus. She lives in Brooklyn.
To learn more about Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, click here.