Did you notice something in those pictures of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, with their newborn son Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor?
No, not that Meghan looked radiant. She did.
Not that her hair was stunning. It was.
Not that she was wearing seemingly impossible high heels. All power to her.
She was also sporting a baby bump.
What, you ask yourself, a baby bump? Yes.
For the uninitiated, a baby bump is not just something you have when you are expecting. Gestating a human being takes up space in a woman's body, a lot of space. To make room for said human being, the uterus expands. Comedian Ali Wong memorably described it as a house. And after birth, that house takes some time to downsize. Weeks, or maybe months. So you still feel as though you are pregnant and you also look pregnant.
This is something that shocked me after I gave birth to my first child. I had spent so much time preparing for the birth, but I never learned anything about what happens after you give birth, and frankly nobody volunteered any information, either. Nobody told me I would still look and feel pregnant. I was still wearing maternity clothing weeks after giving birth.
Meghan showed the world something that many of her royal predecessors have covered up: what a woman's body looks like a mere 48 hours after birth. Her simple and understated white dress did not hide what her body had gone through. A simple belt tied high above her waist, in fact, seemed to be an intentional signal.
It was as if she was saying to the world, "Hey, I told you you'd have to wait a couple of days before you could see me, and this is what I look like. This is what happens to a woman's body, even a woman like me who made a career out of rockin' the pencil skirts on 'Suits.' "
It was the first thing I noticed about the photos, actually, and in our office chat about this important breaking news, one of my colleagues, who is also a mother, was the first person I heard really put to words the power of the image. It felt refreshing and validating, to both of us, to see a high-profile woman reflect the reality of a postpartum body.
When Prince Harry was born, his mother Diana, Princess of Wales, sported a loose red dress that could charitably be described as tent-like when she showed him off to the world, on the steps of St. Mary's Hospital in London. Perhaps the memory of that look is seared in my memory because when she died, Diana's devotion to her sons was the story that captivated the world, and images of her as a new mother (before she herself became a style icon), juxtaposed with that of a forlorn and heartbroken boy Harry walking in her funeral procession, were part of the mythology of "Saint Diana" that endures to this day.
Meghan's sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, took the first step away from Diana's billowy maternity wear, appearing outside St. Mary's with each of her children in dresses that didn't hide her postpartum bump. However, by the time her third child, Louis, was born, Kate showed herself to the world a mere seven hours after his birth. That's a lot of pressure on a new mother to show up as a vision of perfection. I'm pretty sure that seven hours after my child was born I was still in the recovery room wearing a hospital-issued blue gown, definitely not couture.
The details of Meghan's pregnancy and childbirth have been kept much more private than previous royals'. And every step has seemed like an effort to reclaim something that has become more and more performative for women, whether or not you are married to a prince.
Giving birth is scary and hard and exhausting and emotional and joyous and, yes, life-changing, and everyone deals with it differently. By revealing the post-birth baby bump to the world, Meghan, and Kate before her, sends a message to all new mothers: Your body will take time to recalibrate after you give birth, and in the meantime, whether you're a member of the royal family or not, don't feel the need to hide it.
(Madhulika Sikka joined The Washington Post in September 2018 to lead the creation of a daily flagship podcast. Previously, she was Public Editor at PBS, and before that was Executive Editor at NPR News and Mic. She also was Executive Producer of NPR's "Morning Edition" and Senior Producer at ABC News's "Nightline.")
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