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Body Language: Does your wardrobe say "maternity?"

I had an interesting conversation with my mom the other day. Every time she sees me during this pregnancy, she says something like, "Well, look at you! When I was young, you would never see a pregnant woman wearing something that form fitting."

My mom also tends to mistake non-pregnant women and girls in empire waist tops for being pregnant. I think this has to do with how fashion narratives and signals have changed since the time she and her own mother were bearing children.

Back in the '50s and '60s, when Grandma and her sisters and friends were having their babies, the average American woman of childbearing age had a nipped little waist, as exemplified in the period fashion of the show Mad Men.

I have a hunch that women in the workplace might have taken great care to emphasize their waistlines, not just because it was the fashion of the time and because it made their figures look great, but because it showed with no uncertainty that they were not with child. This was a time when pregnancy was hugely significant in society's eyes because it often meant that a woman could not (or should not) go to work, exercise, or do pretty much anything else except cook dinner.

In the '60s through the early '80s, maternity wear had a specific and distinct look which was mainly limited to empire waist styles with loose draping over the midsection or A-line tent styles.




In the 1970s, America's diet changed drastically in favor of copious amounts of soda and processed foods. The average American's waistline began to swell, and children born at or after that time were exposed to vast quantities of high fructose corn syrup and trans fats in utero, setting up their metabolic systems for a lifetime of weight struggles. Around this time, many more women also began going to college--all the way through, not just until they achieved an MRS degree--and started catching up to the boys in more ways than one, including binge drinking. Women's livers swelled, and their abdominal organs began to create thick layers of fat around them to protect against the onslaught of Mountain Dew and Budweiser. Soon, the average American woman was overweight, with a waistline significantly larger than her upper ribcage.

Obviously, popular fashion had to evolve to accommodate the new shape of an everyday woman's body. Empire waist styles for non-pregnant women became popular in the '60s, though they accompanied a long, slim silhouette. In later decades, as waistlines swelled, the very same cuts of blouses and dresses that had once been solely worn by pregnant women became mainstream fashion for teens and women into middle age.

I can see how my mother is easily thrown off by this trend; in her own formative and childbearing years, these silhouettes clearly stated, "I am pregnant." Pregnancy was the only time in most women's lives when their middles expanded enough to make a higher waist necessary, and until the '80s, many people still viewed pregnancy as a "delicate" and somehow embarrassing condition that should be kept modestly camouflaged beneath loose drapery.

Clearly, things have changed. Pregnancy is now fashionable. Tabloids that once featured movie stars toting yippy dogs in designer purses now splash their covers with photos of baby bumps. Celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Madonna to Kourtney Kardashian have made pregnancy sexy with overflowing cleavage and tight, round bellies. Fashionable maternity clothing evolved to highlight, not hide, the pregnant abdomen, with stretchy fabrics in shapes that hug the underside of the belly and cling to every curve.

I admit that I am having fun with this new image of maternity as sexy and cool. It's fun to dress up and show off my new shape when I go to a wedding or have an intimate date with Mr. G. But I also favor more form-fitting styles when sexiness is not a goal, like when I am grocery shopping or going to work (in a church office staffed solely by women). Why? Because when I wear looser styles...

...people don't notice that I am pregnant.

It's hard to believe, considering I'm now six months along and have a slim body frame apart from my distended belly. But the nonverbal cue now expressed by middle-grazing fashions is not "I am pregnant" but rather, "My middle is my 'trouble spot' just like everyone else's, so please pay no mind to anything between my bust and hips." Women, in particular, can have a whole conversation with me, style my hair, follow me on a building tour, whatever--and not even notice my condition. I think it's an unspoken, unconscious courtesy to avoid looking directly at another lady's sandwich fillings when she's obviously trying to de-emphasize that area.

But it's not beer, it's a baby!

I want it to be obvious to everyone on first glance that I am pregnant, and not just because I want to show off my joy or my trendy bump, but because people are nicer to me when they can see that I am pregnant. And also, they understand why I do certain things without my having to verbally explain my reproductive status. When people can see offhand that I am obviously pregnant... They don't let doors slam in my face. They don't bump into me. They don't cut impatiently across my path in their vehicles when I walk through a parking lot. They don't light up that cigarette until I have passed by. They don't look at me funny or sigh when I order "just water" at the bar. They don't invite me to late-night pub crawls or drug-fueled parties. (Well, actually, that has happened a couple of times, but at least they don't get offended when I decline!) They let me cut in line to the bathroom and offer up their seats when they see me standing around. The world is not always a pregnancy-friendly place by default, so it's very convenient when everyone can plainly see my condition, and I don't have to constantly explain or apologize or ask for favors.

It's also kind of funny to see the discomfort on people's faces when I wear a less revealing outfit and I can see that they are desperately trying to decide whether I am definitely pregnant and whether it is safe to congratulate me. I've had a couple of women at church stutter nervously, glancing furtively at my stomach, "I... I think I heard somewhere... that you have news?" before breaking into relieved grins when I assure them that yes, I am pregnant, and no, they have not mortally offended me. That's one of the most embarrassing social faux pas ever, no?

So for my convenience and others,' I choose to wear clothing that announces, "I am pregnant." And the language of women's fashion has changed so much since my mom's and grandma's times that the silhouettes that once stated, "I am pregnant" no longer do so.

As I hit the final growing sprint of the third trimester, though, my belly is more obvious no matter what I put on, so it is pretty darn fortuitous that I can wear a lot of mainstream fashions without having to deal with overpriced maternity brands. In this last stretch, perhaps I can loosen up fashion-wise and let my belly speak for itself through any clothing design.

Comments

  1. As a brief note, doing no justice to your detailed and thorough post whatsoever, I still think just about every empire waist looks like wannabe maternity clothes.

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  2. You know... so did I, when they first became popular. I was so confused. But now when I wear them, people think I am NOT pregnant. How times have changed.

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  3. I also think " back then" pregnancy was something to be embarassed about, even when it was within wedlock. Pregnancy = sex, and what a taboo that was.
    Personally I think it is beautiful to show off the baby bump!

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  4. Genie, you should probably be proud or something that you write your posts in such a way that I don't mind talking about essential oils, belly dancing hands, and empire waisted fashion in public. It's a gift.

    As a minor digression, do either of your (or does anyone else) know when this "baby bump" business started? I don't remember ever hearing it until a few years ago or something like that and now it's everywhere.

    (I'll admit to having some weird pscyhological, nails-on-a-chalkboard reaction to the phrase.)

    Is it just because as I get older more of my friends are pregnant and talking about pregnant women, or is this really a somewhat recent phrase?

    Enquiring minds want to know!

    ReplyDelete
  5. RK: Yeah, absolutely. I think some of the older generations still think it's somehow obscene to show the whole shape of a pregnant belly. I love seeing videos of heavily pregnant bellydancers rocking out with their bellies on full display. To me, a pregnant belly is beautiful but not overtly sexual. For heaven's sake, it's an evolutionary sign that she is currently unavailable for reproducing with a new partner... whereas a small waist and wide hips are a biological signal to "come and get some."

    Nevets: Your thoughtful comments on these subjects never ceases to amaze me! I think maybe you are just very confident in your manhood. ;) The phrase "baby bump" also creeps me out, to be honest. "Bump" makes it sound like a pimple or tumor or something. And I recently saw a Tabloid headline declaring that a certain celebrity "can't stop rubbing her bump." Now that's a disturbing way to put it. I don't think it's just you. The baby bump craze seems to have started a few years ago and is still going strong. I think it was when certain celebrities bucked the yuppie trend of going child-free by making large families a symbol of wealth.

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  6. You certainly put your heart into this and your opinion. I always like to see what others think. Then I just do my own thing. Which is the way it should be. Do what you believe is right no matter how anyone judges you through your pregnancy. It is nice to see that there is still a slight reverence for motherhood and pregnancy, etc. Each year I see that it decreases though. Bringing a child into the world is a beautiful thing when done for the right reasons.

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  7. Hello - I came by from Dominque's blog. I love the line 'it's not beer, it's a baby!'. And that is so true about the way Empire line dresses have changed their fashion status, in a way. Really enjoyed reading this, thank you!

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  8. @Genie - Glad I'm not the only one weirded out by the baby bump thing. lol I sometimes wondered while I was being an ignorant male by finding the phrase discomfiting.

    As I was thinking about it last night, it also occurred to me that it's actually really said that you have to be obviously pregnant in order for people to not let doors slam in your face and so forth. Good golly, people, be nicer.

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  9. I've not been a fan of the recent "hide your fat" turn that fashion has taken over the past years. It just seemed like everyone was giving up and deciding it was so important to eat cheeseburgers and drink soda that even *fashion* needed to accomodate the habits. Ick.

    As I've been waiting for my belly to grow enough to show (I'm 19 wks for goodness sakes!) I keep looking around at the women on campus and thinking that exact thought about my body, "It's not beer; it's a baby!"

    Tight clothes aren't really even doing it for me yet. I'm looking forward to being publicly pregnant and taking advantage of the brief period of civility I'll get to experience.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Awwww, Molly! You'll start showing soon. You must have really strong abs keeping your little girl tucked in there. Women with more muscle tone tend not to show as fast.

    If only, as Nevets mentioned, people were more courteous without us needing a giant belly sticking out in front of us. Oh well. It is remarkable, though, how nice people are to a *reallyreally* pregnant looking woman. I just went to the hospital to visit some sick relatives, and everybody was holding doors open for me way in advance and letting me on and off the elevators first. I was almost embarrassed.

    ReplyDelete

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