Me, Jessica Simpson, and The Postpartum Road to Recovery

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I followed Jessica Simpson’s recent pregnancy with interest: we’re the same age, we both carried baby girls, and we were due about a month apart. I watched her show “Fashion Star” (admittedly, for me, an interesting concept but an inferior program to “Project Runway”) and wondered what it was like for her to work throughout her pregnancy. My own pregnancy felt taxing and public enough, but while I stood in front of fewer than one hundred students each week, Simpson’s pregnancy involved national tabloid media, celebrity commentary on her weight gain, and ultimately ended with baby Maxwell and a four-million dollar deal with Weight Watchers.

Pregnancy itself seems to invoke the curiosity — and, let’s be honest, the voyeurism — of strangers even for private citizens like me. I chalk it up to the combination of a fascination with the creation of new life and a social obsession with scrutinizing female bodies. That voyeurism grows more exaggerated with celebrity pregnancy “bump watches” — particularly in a culture where stars cultivate attention to their child-bearing status via tweets, Facebook updates, and the now seemingly-mandatory pregnant nude magazine cover. I found Simpson’s April cover photo for Elle beautiful and her attitude toward pregnancy refreshing: she seemed joyful and comfortable in her pregnant body in a way that I could not manage to achieve. Yet her own statements about her life met persistent criticism, as well as unfair comparisons between her pregnant body and her body during her daisy duke days. Celebrities like Joy Behar and Snooki criticized Simpson’s size, even as Sarah Palin came to her defense. To me, Simpson looked like a typical pregnant woman, to whom the only acceptable comment on her appearance would be “You look fantastic!”

Simpson seemed caught in a cultural quagmire, i.e., the tension between viewing women as wombs (where the “bump” and the breast subsume the woman as a whole person) and the drive to erase all traces of childbearing from a woman’s body  as quickly as possible. Simpson gave birth on May 1 and officially announced her Weight Watchers deal last week, but the contract leaked weeks ago, and technically, this new celebrity mother is not even out of the postpartum period. There was even talk of getting her body “back” before her baby girl was even born. In my own postpartum recovery, I am feeling proud simply because I’ve showered (almost) every day this week. Granted, I’ve been wearing the same pants, but underneath them, I’m really clean. Both my baby and I are eating and sleeping regularly, if at strange hours, and those expectations seem sufficient to me based on the physical and emotional overhauls of pregnancy, labor, and caring for a newborn. Yes, I want my body “back” too, but I question what that expression even means.

For the last nine months, my body has been shared, and in my recovery, I can feel the toll of lost nutrients, shifted organs, and fatigued muscles. I’m already thinking about when I can start running again, but I’m wary of pushing myself too hard too soon like I did after my first pregnancy (which only made healing harder). Right now, it’s enough work to stay hydrated and maintain minimal hygiene standards. (And, hey, I’m writing this column!) So when I think about Jessica Simpson recovering from her caesarean section and signing on with Weight Watchers, I understand her eagerness, though I can never fully grasp the pressure or pleasure that come with her celebrity status.

Stories abound about celebrities who revert to pre-baby bodies in remarkable time. But I think the spectacle of pregnancy, on both public and private stages, deserves a reexamination of what — and whom — our bodies are for: our selves, our families, our God. Why do we love to look at pregnant women but still expect new mothers to look like they haven’t spent the last nine months making a human? Why do we obsess about the way pregnant bodies look instead of what those same bodies achieve, since carrying a child is in itself a miracle? As we fixate culturally on the next “bump watch,” I keep asking myself, whose body is it, anyway?

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  • I was tiny before I had kids :) I had been pregnant 3 times over 3-4 years (we lost our first baby), so by the time I reached the third pregnancy, I got rid of most of my pre-preganancy clothes, knowing that between my body changing and my chest size enlarging from nursing, someone else could enjoy them before they completely went out of style :) Even though I had C-sections, somehow my hips never went back to their previous size–that you cannot change, no matter how much you exercise–and the jeans just wouldn’t go back on! Aside from that, it’s hard enough to get all the calories you need if you are nursing, especially if you are taking care of a toddler while having a newborn. As you said, getting a shower, resting, and eating become your “survival” mode. I love my girls, and even though I don’t “love” my body right now, I do love the rite of passage that I know is behind it. Regarding Jessica Simpson–my body has looked different with each pregnancy–they way you are carrying the baby and your fluid retention can be different each time–and you have no control over that! I think every mom can easily give yourself a year, and you’ll be surprised how much more “back to your old self” you will feel, physically and where you are with your baby.

  • jill

    I feel like this part of my response should be public, so I’m posting it here. As I said earlier, this is a wonderful column. I think it speaks volumes about the extent to which women’s bodies–and especially younger (child-bearing-age) women’s bodies are seen as public property. I’ve never been pregnant, but as someone with very strong personal boundaries, I am *appalled* at the stories I hear of strangers coming up and touching women’s pregnant stomachs. I never touched my sister-in-law’s stomach, b/c to me, touching without asking is invasive and wrong.

    The fact that women are judged for gaining too much weight and then not losing it fast enough points towards the idea that women are first and foremost objects of visual appeal. If we don’t look “good,” we’re taking up space. We’re not contributing, because we’re not pretty enough. In the end, it’s dehumanizing. (At this point, I desperately want to segue into a rant about how much I *detest* those “Save the ta-tas” campaigns on these same grounds, but I will refrain.)

    (And for the record, I don’t think most people are doing this deliberately. We–men and women–have been conditioned to think of women’s bodies as public property, and we all participate in that, whether we mean to or not. And many men’s bodies are also construed in similar ways, but not with the same regularity.)

  • Wendy

    I wonder if the whole reason there’s such an obsession with celebrities and their bodies during/after pregnancy might also have something to do with the public wanting to see something real. I mean, so many celebrities have personal trainers and cooks, they’re photoshopped and airbrushed, and what we end up seeing in movies and on magazine covers ends up being a completely unrealistic picture of beauty. So I wonder if part of the public’s obsession with how quickly a celebrity bounces back to her original shape might have something to do with wanting to look in and see something real, something recognizable rather than ridiculously perfect.

  • Lindsey

    To Jill:

    I am 26 years old and 8 months pregnant with my first child. I am completely overjoyed about having my son, and I cannot begin to describe the pleasure it brings me to converse with fellow women and mothers regarding our shared experiences with pregnancy and child rearing. I have had several women touch my belly, especially in the last 2 months, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. They aren’t grabbing my stomach to be “invasive.” They’re trying to share in the sweetness and innocence of something that only women can fully understand.

    My husband is the most gentle man I’ve ever known, and I know that I am incredibly blessed by the Lord to have him as my husband and life-mate. However, he will never know what it actually feels like to be pregnant or to deal with all of the symptoms and hormonal changes within a pregnant body. Women get it! They understand! They’ve been in my shoes! A wise mother (whether a role model or a complete stranger) is an invaluable asset to a brand new mother-to-be like me. May I suggest that you let your walls down a little Jill, and try not to be appalled. In my experience, strangers who have reached out to touch my stomach have been so caring, kind, and sweet. They’ve been a huge blessing to me.

  • Jessica

    Boy does this resonate! I come from a family of very weight conscious women and I can tell you the pressure to get the weight off asap after birth was real for me. The weight scrutiny began the minute news of my pregnancy got out, and 13 months postpartum, it hasn’t stopped. I recall being asked by a relative who is very competitive when it comes to weight if I was eating because at 4 months pregnant I wasn’t showing yet. I could go on about what her motive for saying that might have been, but I digress. Immediately postpartum, you are dealing with so much, from your body healing, to dealing with the hormones, to sleep deprivation and adjusting to a new member in the family…..the last thing we need is our weight and looks being scrutinized. We are hoping for another child soon and I have determined to ENJOY this pregnancy and my child this time around. While I think some of Jessica S.’s comments during her pregnancy were on the side of TMI, I admire her ability to be real. And I have to agree with Lindsey. While some strangers can breach personal boundaries, I do not have a problem with another woman touching my pregnant stomach. I’d rather this than an insensitive comment about my size or weight!