Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

With child... and shame

Tabloid fixation with 'fat,' pregnant Kim K and other celebrities says more about us than it does about them

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Kim Kardashian and Gloria Steinem -- not two names you usually hear in the same news story.

But last week, the prominent American feminist felt compelled to defend the trashy, fame-mongering reality-TV star. Kardashian, who is currently six months' pregnant, is being hounded by the pregnancy police about her size.

Now, you could say that a woman who made her reputation with a sex tape and has followed up with a non-stop barrage of bikini Twitpics has set herself up to be judged by her body.

And you could say that a woman who has become famous for being famous, whose only real "job" is to ride that up-down, love-hate tabloid cycle, should be prepared to take the bad with the good.

If she gets to sell photos from her sham wedding to basketball player Kris Humphries for $1.5 million, she should be prepared for a few unflattering jokes while carrying her lucrative first child.

You could even say that Kardashian and her entire appalling family -- all those kreepy K-named siblings, along with Kim's current boyfriend, noted public narcissist Kanye West -- are an irrelevant circus sideshow. Certainly, Kardashian seemed gratingly out-of-touch when she tweeted about stepbrother Kris Jenner's QVC television appearance in the immediate aftermath of Monday's Boston Marathon bombings.

And I hear you. As someone who reads People magazine for work, I hear you. And usually, I like a bit of Kardashian-bashing as much as the next gal. But Kardashian's current troubles are part of a much larger issue, one that has real-life consequences for regular non-famous, non-horrible people. The relentless scrutiny of women's bodies, the unceasing snarking about weight, the weird confusion between "pregnant" and "fat" are all part of a broader cultural problem.

Those taunting tabloid headlines and mocking social media posts may be aimed at Kim Kardashian, but they hurt us all.

The celebrity pregnancy fixation starts early, with the first sighting of the "baby bump," often highlighted in photos with a yellow "arrow of shame." The headlines speculate wildly, but at this point it's impossible to tell whether the woman is "enceinte" or whether she's eaten a cheeseburger, either option seen as a risky exception to the compulsory thinness of the female celebrity body.

Once pregnancy is confirmed, any visible weight gain is viewed as a lurking, looming danger, as if the woman's abdomen is being held hostage by enemy forces or perhaps being taken over by an alien life form.

The post-partum period is even more punishing, as the new mother struggles to "get her body back" with a swift, ruthless workout and diet regimen. Again, there's an unspoken idea that what she's been walking around in for the last nine months wasn't her "real" body but an unfortunate big-bellied, thick-ankled replica.

These media narratives push the idea that the pregnant body is somehow out-of-control and unnatural. And they reinforce the larger notion that there is one way for a body to look, and that anything that interferes with that -- like time, age, illness or, well, life -- should be regarded as an aberration.

Most tabloid pregnancy coverage, even of "nice girls" like the Duchess of Cambridge, is tricky. (Kate, who is also six months' pregnant, is currently being chastised for being too thin.)

With Kardashian, whose public image is bound up with a queasy mix of lust and loathing, it's even more problematic.

There's the sensationalized speculation: "Kim's worst nightmare: Dumped at 200 pounds!" The unflattering photos: Pictures of Kardashian eating ice cream are displayed as shameful criminal evidence, as if the paparazzi had caught her killing somebody with her bare hands.

There are even conspiracy theories: A recent story ("Paid to Get Fat!") suggests that Kardashian's burgeoning body is part of a devious plan to snag a lucrative post-pregnancy weight-loss deal.

The stories are invasive, offensive and -- most importantly -- not just about Kim Kardashian. When we're nasty about celebrity bodies, we end up being nasty about ourselves.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 E1

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