When The Duchess of Sussex walked on to the stage at The Fashion Awards on Monday night, a frisson of excitement reverberated around the Royal Albert Hall.
Dressed in a black Givenchy one-shouldered gown, with a radiant smile on her face, she warmly embraced Givenchy artistic director Clare Waight Keller and handed her the British Designer of the Year award for Womenswear.
But as Meghan Markle stepped back to let Clare speak, she placed both hands on her stomach - and the furtive whispers begun.
Within minutes, Meghan’s bump-cradle - one hand firmly on top of her gently rounded belly, the other underneath; a pose she maintained for the photographs, too - went viral.
Twitter - to use tabloidese - was ‘ablaze’ with fury. 'What a narcissist. We get it. You’re pregnant. [...] Meghan Markle is a complete diva' snarked one Twitter user.
'If I see one more photo of Meghan Markle crading that bump I am going to vomit,' groaned another.
'Why can’t she just stand normal [sic],' said another furious keyboard warrior. 'She is just constantly showing off and this is really disgusting and repelling.'
Granted, Meghan’s ostentatious embrace of her baby could be seen as hammy; smug, even. To a woman who cannot have children, it may serve - like any pregnant woman would - as a painful reminder of her own vacant womb.
But repellent? Disgusting?
The subtext to this uproar is that, however enlightened we may think we are as a society, the dogma about how women should conduct their pregnancies, prevails.
The idea that Meghan is ‘repellent’ - in contrast to a demure, unassuming Duchess of Cambridge - subscribes to the point of view that a woman’s primary aim is to make herself attractive.
Even in pregnancy, Meghan must be appealing, not repellent (newsflash: I don’t think she’s looking for a dude right now.)
The parameters for pregnancy, particularly a pregnancy performed in the public eye, are narrow and unyielding. You must be radiant, yet humble. Proud, but discreet. You must not gloat or court attention. You must house your offspring in a way that others find digestible.
Being digestible is the most curious thing about pregnancy. When I was pregnant, men would jump out the way; as if my belly was a garish sort of jack-in-the-box where any minute, my vulgar little baby could slop out onto their shoes.
This ostentatious beach ball, with its curiously enormous tummy button, was constantly getting in the way: nudging people in the bottom, or poking itself into their dinner.
I felt, as most women do, utterly exposed in my enormity. My bump was mercilessly heavy and at times, felt almost unmoored.
'It’s not going to fall off,' scorched Twitter of Meghan’s rictus arms, to which I say - well it f*cking feels like it could.
I FELT, AS MOST WOMEN DO, UTTERLY EXPOSED IN MY ENORMITY
Cradling my belly became a form of protection, as much for me as my child. The hand on top attempted to push away the heartburn; the one on the bottom, eased my round ligament and pelvic pain. It anchored me, psychologically, to my peculiar tenant, who paid zero rent and yet somehow occupied the entire tenement.
According to Katherine Graves, founder of KG Hypnobirthing, 'Meghan is practicing responsive natural parenting,' but for all we know, she did it reflexively.
In her book of culture criticism, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, the Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen, writes of our 'profoundly contradictory' attitude to the pregnant body, which is 'at its most fecund, but also in its most grotesque figuration: the body swells, expands, and oozes, the boundary between inside and outside permeable.'
Motherhood is seen as ‘idealised’ and ‘pure’; 'the antidote to the abjectly pregnant mother.' Which is why pregnancy was so often kept out of sight.
Before Demi Moore’s watershed Vanity Fair cover of 1991, where she appeared 8-months-pregnant and naked, pregnancy was largely hidden; my mother, during her five pregnancies in the 70s and 80s, alternated between two giant gingham muumuus that covered her from neck to ankle.
Until the 1950s, writes Petersen, pregnancy was not even allowed on movie screens.
So the idea that pregnancy is crass is nothing new. They irony is that in many aspects, pregnant women are now treated reverentially - with those cringe-but-necessary ‘baby on board’ badges; NCT Whatsapp groups; myriad maternity clothing lines and pregnancy yoga/ acupuncture/ reflexology - and yet at the same time, particularly as their stomach/bottom/breasts grow larger, they are slightly reviled.
For every Twitter user and media outlet that found Meghan’s bump-cradle repulsive, there were ten-fold more who referred to her ‘adorable’ baby bump.
But such polarity, in my opinion, is misplaced: Meghan’s bump is neither adorable, nor revolting. It is merely a mound of flesh, which houses a growing foetus.
HOW CAN WE CLAIM TO BE FEMINISTS, IF A PREGNANT WOMAN CRADLING HER BUMP STILL BREAKS THE INTERNET?
We might not all choose to make declarative nods to our own cargo, but in choosing to do so, Meghan is not vulgar. She has not failed other women, in her burgeoning motherhood.
As Petersen writes, 'every body, every pregnancy is different… and remains that woman’s business alone.'
Meghan did not elect herself as the poster-girl for pregnancy. She should not function as the receptacle for all of our hopes, and fears, about pregnancy and its performativity.
Because how can we claim to be feminists - to support women, and mothers, and allow them to inhabit the body and the behaviours of their choosing - if a pregnant woman cradling her own bump, still breaks the internet?