This week, a Los Angeles-based lingerie model who has maintained her bikini-ready body throughout eight months of pregnancy is taking the Internet by storm. “Model who is almost 9 months pregnant is so fit she has abs,” proclaimed a local L.A. outlet. “No baggy maternity wear here!” the Daily Mail helpfully pointed out. The persistent media coverage of the phenomenon is highlighting a potentially damaging double standard that women face when they decide to become mothers.
Sarah Stage, 30, has been posting selfies of her pregnant body on her Instagram account and her website over the past month. Her followers are mostly impressed by her small baby bump and her toned stomach — commenting “Amazing!” and “I need to be like this when I’m pregnant” — although some people have expressed concern that she hasn’t put on a healthy amount of weight.
Stage makes her living from exercising and looking extremely fit in her underwear, so it’s not necessarily surprising that her pregnancy has displayed itself in this way. PEOPLE Magazine reports that the model is a “fitness fanatic” who often posts “gym selfies and motivational quotes to promote clean eating and a healthy body image.”
Her personal weight gain is ultimately her business. “I try to ignore any negative comments. My doctor says the baby is healthy and that’s all that matters to us,” Stage told an Australian news outlet.
But the mainstream media’s fascination with the story, and the overall emphasis that no one would ever believe Stage is nearly nine months pregnant, is yet another example of how women are backed into a corner by a society with totally unrealistic expectations for them. The acceptable range for women’s bodies — the perfect middle ground between a body that’s deemed unattractive for being overweight and a body that’s deemed unattractive for being too skinny — is growing increasingly narrow. And pregnancy is a particularly stark example of how women just can’t win.
Women are largely expected to have children (and some parts of the country are literally pushing women into pregnancy by making it too difficult to access birth control or abortion). Bringing new life into the world is considered to be one of the defining achievements of womanhood. But in the process of getting there, pregnant women in the public spotlight are often blamed and shamed for gaining any weight.
There’s no ideal pregnant size for every woman. During pregnancy, women can gain anywhere between 15 and 40 pounds, depending how much they weighed before they got pregnant. Leading gynecological associations urge health care providers to work with their patients on an individual basis to come up with a diet, exercise, and weight gain schedule that works for them.
Nonetheless, celebrities are endlessly scrutinized while they’re expecting, and praised when they maintain their relatively small sizes even with a baby bump. If they gain the type of weight that’s typical for many pregnancies, they give interviews about how difficult it is to let the public see them so fat. Then, they face intense pressure to melt away the extra pounds practically immediately — framed in terms of “getting their bodies back,” as if the body parts responsible for facilitating the miracle of life are something they don’t want to be associated with.
Very few famous women deviate from this script. When Kate Middleton appeared in public with visible proof that she had quite literally just birthed an eight-pound child, showing her stomach was hailed as a radical act — in the year 2013.
In a world where women are already supposed to be worried about thigh gaps, skinny arms, bikini bridges, and finger traps, the list is getting impossibly long. Focusing so much on exactly how fit women are supposed to look as they’re gestating fetuses threatens to add “pregnancy abs” to the mix, too.