The royal family received a new member this week: Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, son of Meghan, duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry. The couple went out together for the first time on Wednesday, baby Archie rocked in a blanket and hat in Harry’s arms. Harry was wearing a light gray suit and a thin navy tie. Meghan wore a chic white sleeveless trench dress, bare heels and a completely normal body after delivery.
Women with babies, even thin women such as Meghan, do not return to pre-pregnancy form immediately after birth. A belly that is stretched to carry a baby does not immediately jump back to a six-pack. But that is what thousands of celebrity photos after the pregnancy have conditioned us to expect. Of course, celebrities, who are partly paid for their superhuman appearance, make every effort to preserve the illusion that they have superhuman bodies. But so many images of postpartum women that look just like before pregnancy send the message that there is something unattractive or shameful about a body that still has a protruding belly, soft arms, and swollen fingers. It sends a message that there is something unattractive or even lazy about a woman who has just done an extraordinary, physically demanding and often fatal thing.
Meghan Markle has put a little finger in the shoes of the insane expectation that we would emerge physically unchanged from the process of creating a human and then promise to feed it to maturity, as we go through a hurricane of blood, sweat and human emotion.
Women’s work, whether it’s cleaning or worrying, or achieving or trying to be attractive, is supposed to be invisible. Our beauty must be effortless, our houses picturesque (without the disturbed woman with a vacuum cleaner in the frame), our goals achieved without excessive or clear ambition. A woman can never stop trying to become better, thinner and more beautiful, a more committed mother, a woman with a perfectly ‘balanced’ life – but she cannot show her work. Proof of that effort undermines the outcome.
Becoming camera-aware with a new baby was not negotiable for Meghan Markle, who as a member of the royal family could never make a request from a normal woman, such as sweating for a few weeks. But she did negotiate with her family for a while and kept her birth – and even departure from the hospital – a private matter. Meghan Markle reportedly “felt sorry for her royal sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, who posed for photos in heels within hours of the birth of all three of her children. After two more days of preparation, Meghan, like Kate, still chose to show her postpartum body-collaborating stars like Chrissy Teigen and Hilaria Baldwin to give the image of new motherhood a little more reality.
Meghan, as a biracial American divorced woman, has been breaking all sorts of royal family norms throughout her life; it is a reason why many of us who are not very amused about the royal family love her and admire her. She has also been the victim of all kinds of racist, sexist and intolerant attacks. Every public movement she makes must find a balance between her own values (feminism, privacy), the usual demands placed on princesses and the unique burdens that she brings. In a role in which the beam is already towering, it must be extra, extra perfect. That is part of what her appearance has made – polished, beautiful, but really great.
Some women hire “glamor squadrons” to come to their hospital rooms to do hair and makeup for their first photos with a new baby; at least one had done her hair and makeup while she was giving birth. The beauty sector professionals who benefit from this quickly define it as empowerment, but it is also inevitably a reflection of a society that values women for our outward appearance, and continues to raise expectations. Not every woman must be beautiful, but at least every woman must try. And there are always opportunities to try harder – to get a blowout while giving birth; to show your first appearance with your new child, you come complete with no proof that you have worn them physically.
There is no shame among women to enchant it, if that’s what they want. But it was nice to see a woman being examined in public, while Meghan withdrew, even a little, by taking a few days in herself before she looked radiant, happy and proud.