When What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the film adaptation of the puritanical pregnancy bible, opens in theaters this Friday, at least half of the pleasure will surely come from watching the A-list cast members—Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, and Elizabeth Banks—transformed from their usually lithe, elegant selves. In other words, as anyone who has even glanced at a tabloid in the last decade or so could tell you, we will be staring at the baby bumps.
Back when Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel’s pregnancy classic was first published in 1984, the term “baby bump” wasn’t yet in use. But nearly 30 years later, the phrase is ubiquitous. Nearly every week there’s a new cover story speculating about the existence of a “baby bump” on the frame of an otherwise slender actress who might be pregnant or might have made the grievous error of eating a big lunch or skipping her monthly enema. For pregnancies that are confirmed, the magazines launch “bump watches,” which chronicle the growth of a female celebrity’s stomach just as a storm-watch observes the progress of a hurricane.
Bonnie Fuller, the Canadian tabloid editor who pursued photographs of pregnant celebrities in action with a missionary zeal, is credited with coining the term “baby bump” while at the helm of US Weekly in 2002. Some news reports claim the term is much older and originates in the U.K. But it was Fuller who made “baby bump” a pop-culture idiom.
Older pregnancy euphemisms generally focus on the forthcoming “blessed event.” “Pregnancy in English has to do with [what] is going to happen,” explains sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman. “A pregnant pause, something is pregnant with. Bun in the oven. Something that isn’t here yet.” The “baby bump,” however, is about the here and now. It refers entirely to the landscape of the woman’s body and preserves the idea that she is a single, autonomous person who can still, say, go out late if she wants to.
In some sense, this represents an advance. Previous generations of expectant mothers had to hide their pregnancies for fear of being fired, among other things. (It was only in 1978 that that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, forbidding employers for firing visibly pregnant employees.) If a woman had the bump she was expected to hide it. But the new term indicates “more legitimacy and more permission to speak about it than other euphemisms that were in practice and circulation 50 years ago,” says Ziv Eisenberg, whose Yale doctoral dissertation examines the history of pregnancy in modern America.
Not just acceptance, but active pride. “The majority of women that I have interviewed have generally viewed the term positively,” notes Meredith Nash, author of the forthcoming book Making Postmodern Mothers: Pregnant Embodiment, Baby Bumps, and Body Image. This embrace of the “bump” has allowed all pregnant women—not just the famous set—to view their shifting shapes and burgeoning bellies as sexy. The noncelebrity’s enthusiasm for “bumps” can be seen in everything from the popularity of form hugging maternity clothing to the “sexy pregnancy” photo spreads that show up on Facebook in the style of Demi Moore’s famous Vanity Fair cover. Or the hundreds of YouTube videos that are searchable under “baby bump progression” or “baby bump week by week” that chronicle the growth of users’ pregnant bellies. The YouTube videos do not aim for glamorous or sensuality. They are generally time-lapse videos. The pregnant woman stands in profile, either wearing a bra or with her shirt hiked up to her ribs to show off her expanding baby bump, from late into the first trimester until 40 weeks, accompanied by a sentimental song. (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” seems to be a popular choice). Though these home video projects are decidedly unpolished and celebrity free, many end up with several thousand and even hundreds of thousands of views from people celebrating or maybe just ogling.
But there are irksome aspects to this new sexy pregnancy trend. For one thing, the “bump” often becomes just another euphemism for fat or otherwise flawed. A female celebrity of childbearing age is either pregnant or she’s lost control and starting eating too many cheeseburgers. In that way, “baby bump” conveniently fuses our obsession with monitoring women’s sizes and appearances with our preoccupation with their reproductive functions.
Then there is the emphasis on a woman’s midsection to the exclusion of the rest of her. Just as overweight people are often dehumanized by depictions that show them from the neck down in B-roll clips local news stations run to accompany stories about obesity, the focus on a woman’s “baby bump” can make all the other parts of her seem irrelevant. It’s like an arm fetish or a foot fetish or a love of big boobs; what’s being fetishized now is the bump.
In the ’60s and ’70s advocates for natural childbirth such as Ina May Gaskin routinely published pictures of naked, pregnant women. That was the “Our Bodies, Ourselves” age and feminists were aiming to make the public less squeamish about the idea. The difference now is that editors and often the pregnant women themselves often tend to zoom in on only one part. “I find it somewhat creepy and weird that women are taking photos of their ‘bumps’ and not their whole bodies, ” says Nash. It almost serves as an accidental visual metaphor for the pro-life movement, where the bump is the whole point.
The term, like all other words and ideas we’ve come to apply to women’s bodies and reproductive functions, has predictably become fraught. (As we’ve all recently seen from the Time Magazine cover, breast-feeding is also hardly neutral.) When it comes to pregnancy, we might never locate a term that is both physically descriptive and not entirely reductionist. Just like the myth of the Super Mom, there is no one word that can do it all.