She may have dropped out of headlining Coachella this month because of her pregnancy, but Beyonce has not dropped out of public life. Instead, she has swapped a festival stage for an Instagram stage, and so — just in time for what would have been her second concert performance — she released a performance of a different kind: a photo shoot showcasing not her songs but her stomach, framed by a batwing tunic, over-the-knee suede boots and mirrored glasses. Followed shortly thereafter by a white-gowned Easter extravaganza.
Together they formed the latest instalments in what might be termed Beyonce 3.0, the reimagining of Knowles-Carter not just as the Queen of Sound, or as a Black Lives Matter activist who uses her celebrity to speak up, but as the Mother of Us All: the avatar of female fecundity, her creative muscles stretching beyond making music to making life itself.
In doing so, she has created a new paradigm for what it means to be a pregnant woman in the public eye — one in which the very act of conceiving and carrying a child (or two children; she is having twins) becomes de facto proof of the power of femininity, doled out in carefully controlled and stage-managed moments. The message is positive: Pregnant is beautiful. It should be worshipped.
The problem is, for many women it is also messy, sometimes uncomfortable and just another fact of life. And in her extended fetishisation of her own physical evolution, Beyonce has not allowed for any of that. As a result, she hasn’t just raised the bar for fellow famous people. She may have raised it uncomfortably high for us all.
Ever since Demi Moore posed naked and cradling her belly on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, scandalising and exciting readers in equal measure (US retailer Wal-Mart insisted on a special wrapping), the birthday-suit pregnancy photo shoot, or variations thereon, has been something of a trope in the celeb-fashion axis. Cindy Crawford has done it. So has Brooke Shields. Ditto Britney Spears, Claudia Schiffer and Ciara, who appeared in the April issue of Harper’s Bazaar in jeans and not much else, following up with a video of her dancing around and rubbing her stomach while lip-syncing Whitney Houston’s I’m Every Woman.
Yet Beyonce has taken it to a whole new level.
It began in February with the announcement of her pregnancy. Though you couldn’t exactly call it that; it was more like a visual album, of a different kind from Lemonade, done in collaboration with artist Awol Erizku and poet Warsan Shire, whose poem I Have Three Hearts celebrated the occasion. Against the backdrop of the poem, multiple photos of Beyonce were published on her website: in lacy underthings with garlands entwined in her Pre-Raphaelite hair, submerged like a mermaid with scarves trailing around her, next to a bust of Nefertiti amid the grasses of Demeter. She was nothing less than a cross between Venus, the goddess of love, and Gaia, the earth mother. (And yes, I know my mythologies are mixed up, but so were the references.)
It’s a theme that has continued through Beyonce’s appearance at the Grammys in a sheer gold Peter Dundas gown featuring gold embroidery of her face, sun rays meant to symbolise the African goddess Oshun and a pair of cherubs (to symbolise the babies, presumably). Which was in turn continued via choreographed posts on Instagram, generally involving high-gloss shots of her in body-hugging gowns against curtained backdrops, surrounded by a filter of flowers in full bloom. Never involving, say, her feet in fuzzy socks with her swollen ankles propped up.
In a display of regal brilliance, a heavily pregnant Beyonce performed at the Grammys. Photo: Getty Images
Maybe such reality checks have no place in the iconography of Beyonce, but there is no avoiding the fact that they have a place in most pregnancies. Indeed, there is something of an alt-Beyonce movement happening, with a variety of women speaking up under headlines like “Hey Beyonce, as a Mum of Four Let Me Tell You This Isn’t What Pregnancy Looks Like” (in the UK’s Independent) and “Beyonce Makes Me Feel Like a Lazy Pregnant Person” (from Redbook magazine). Among others.
Which is why it is something of a relief to consider other pregnant women in the public sphere whose examples are perhaps not as impossible to live up to, and whose stomachs have not become an object of veneration in their own right. Like, for example, Amal Clooney. While on one level it is hard to imagine how the highly privileged human rights lawyer/spouse of George/fashion favourite could be presented as an “accessible” role model, in this case she may be.
International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres. Photo: Getty Images
Since announcing her pregnancy (not on Instagram, but by her husband telling a friend who happened to be the host of a television talk show), Clooney, who is also carrying twins, has effectively gone about her business, appearing last month at the United Nations to talk about the female victims of the Islamic State. She wears a lot of day coats, which don’t exactly hide her maternal state but don’t advertise it either, and low-heeled boots. By refusing to make it a big deal (except, maybe, in the privacy of her home – who knows?), she makes it seem less of a big deal: not just to the paparazzi who cover her and clearly think her body is part of their story, but also to other women, who let loose a volley of criticism when a variety of outlets focused on her “baby bump” at the United Nations, instead of her speech. Her public self is not defined by her physical evolution.
Now another potential role model is in the making: Serena Williams. Last week, when she posted a selfie in a yellow swimsuit with the words “20 weeks” on Snapchat, it created enormous excitement, not least because — for those who cared to do the math and count backwards — it seemed clear she had won the Australian Open, her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, while in her first trimester. Which was something of a boost for all working mothers.
This prompted speculation as to whether she would return to the court — her spokeswoman said yes — but in the meantime she was taking time off and had gone on a beach vacation with her fiance. Where, on regaining her No. 1 ranking, she promptly posted a message on Instagram to her unborn child (“You gave me the strength I didn’t know I had” and “I am so happy to share being number one in the world with you … once again today”) along with a photo of her smiling and patting her tiny tummy.
How far she goes down the public pregnancy route remains to be seen. But if she does decide to continue sharing her new state with the world, despite her superathlete status, here’s hoping she does so in a humanising style. One that admits the possibility of clay ankles.
There is probably a Nike for that, after all.
New York Times