Beauty and the bump

Pregnant women are swapping smocks for sexy slips. But have our attitudes really changed?
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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE pregnant Spices, Posh and Scary, arrived at the launch party for Marco Pierre White's new restaurant earlier this week, there would have been two very different responses from other women.

Some would have looked at the two young pop stars, all fecund curves and voluptuous cleavages, and thought: Great! Just because you're pregnant doesn't mean you have to wear pastel-coloured tent dresses for nine months.

But I predict that others - especially any woman in the third trimester of her pregnancy who feels the size of a Ford Transit van - would be thinking: Great! But I bet Scary's high heels are murder.

It seems a long time since Goldie Hawn hid behind a screen at the Oscars because she thought she'd never work again if the Hollywood producers caught sight of her pregnant. This year alone has seen Mel Blatt of All Saints do the midriff top and combat trouser look. The Spice Girls have done Lycra and spangles. The television presenter Tania Bryer may have concealed her pregnancy for eight months, but when she did go public she chose Gucci, a designer label not known for its comfy, elasticated waist- bands.

All these women epitomise a new, liberated attitude to pregnancy which, for once, spreads further than the weird world of the celebrity. Eight years ago Karena Callen, beauty director of the women's magazine Red, remembers going, while pregnant, to a nightclub in Los Angeles wearing a short, skin-tight Azzedine Alaia dress. "This guy stopped me and told me I shouldn't even be out of the house in my condition, and I certainly shouldn't be out wearing that outfit."

She thinks times have changed, helped by public figures such as Yasmin le Bon, and Neneh Cherry who famously appeared on Top of the Pops when practically on her way to the birthing-pool. "Women are feeling much freer than they used to," says Karena. "I enjoyed being pregnant. I was into the way my body felt. It was empowering. I became more exhibitionist, rather than less."

Certainly there's more choice for women who don't want to do the navy- blue-marquee look. High-street labels such as Dorothy Perkins and H&M have maternity lines. Formes, a French-run maternity wear company, was launched in Britain seven years ago. Their best-sellers include PVC trousers - with cunning, stretchy waist-bands - and mock-fur miniskirts. For once in your life you can stick your tummy out rather than suck it in. Rachel Shattock, editor of the motherhood magazine M, says: "Gone are the days when a pregnant woman suddenly became invisible. You can be glamorous, just as you were before you got pregnant."

And yet, for all this enlightened late-Nineties attitude, it would be a mistake to think that pregnant women have suddenly got it made. The Spice Girls have to sell records. We'd be more shocked if Mel B appeared in an outsize woolly and a pair of fluff-flecked leggings.

And with more women choosing to work up to their due date, many of these enlightened views have been brought about out of necessity rather than a desire to politicise the pregnant woman. Alice Farmer, a solicitor, realised that she wouldn't be taken seriously at work if she didn't make an effort with her appearance. "There's a tendency to infantilise women who are pregnant, and the traditional uniform - the dungarees, the sailor suits, the pretty flowery patterns - is all part of that.

"There's a presumption that as soon as you get pregnant you aren't up to the job. I deliberately thought about what I was wearing, more so than I might have done before. I wore more hard-edged clothes in order to be taken seriously."

Indeed, anyone who has been pregnant may have wondered quite what kind of night Posh Spice and Mel B really had. Certainly, once she was at her table Mel B would have taken her shoes off. Your centre of gravity changes when you're pregnant, and high heels mean you're more likely to fall over. They also make your back ache. And how Posh got away with not wearing a bra amazed some women. "When I was pregnant I wore a bra continually, even in bed," recalls one.

Perhaps we're in danger of doing what we've always done to pregnant women: lump them all together. Put it this way: Mothercare will not be trading in sailor-collar dresses for maternity boob tubes.

Susie Orbach is the authority on women and body image: "It depends what type of pregnancy you're having. Some women feel fantastic. Others hate their bodies. You can't even judge your reaction by the way you felt about body image before you get pregnant. For some women, who have distorted ideas about body shape a pregnancy can be a healing thing. For others it's very difficult."

Good luck to the Spices, but perhaps we should look elsewhere for signs of enlightenment. When Mel B is photographed breast-feeding in the Met Bar we'll know that attitudes to women and motherhood have really changed.