[Originally posted on Forbes.com.]
The summer of 2013 has been an especially fertile time for spotting currents and trends related to pregnancy, babies and birth. Two of the planet’s most strongly branded women, at diametrically opposed ends of the cultural spectrum—the reluctantly regal, much-admired commoner turned duchess Kate Middleton and the brashly outspoken, love-to-hate, famous-for-being-famous personality Kim Kardashian—became mothers in the past few months.
As gossip websites, social media influencers, and others chronicled and speculated wildly over every development in their pregnancies, their actions influenced trends that I think will have resonance for years to come. What these two women, who are both powerhouse brands in their own way, have done has not only helped define their own personal brands; their statements, actions, troubles and reactions have also launched shifts in our collective mindset that are redefining the way everyday women become mothers.
The news of Prince George’s birth, for starters, planted the phrase “baby bump” more solidly in the American vernacular—but the bump itself is likely to have an influence. It’s as if baby fat is suddenly on-trend, thanks to Mum Catherine. She’s wearing the extra weight gracefully, as if very well aware that she has much more important things to worry about. Having just landed on Vanity Fair’s international best-dressed list, she’s the embodiment of modern-day elegance, and that doesn’t change with a few extra pounds. Her brand is as tasteful, aspirational and lovely as it has ever been.
Even as some of the British tabloid coverage has been in terrible taste (something that’s never a surprise), such as the OK! cover promising an exclusive on the “Duchess Diet” and how “her stomach will shrink straight back”—a mere 24 hours after she gave birth. But Kate, of course, remained far above the fray that followed, as readers began a Twitter backlash and boycotted the magazine.
Then again, that hasn’t kept other outlets from writing about her prospective plans to get back in shape. And if StyleCaster is right about the Dukan diet, you can bet that French doctor will become as famous as Dr. Atkins. I myself am contemplating Dukan this back-to-school season, and not because of baby fat but because of all those tabloid success stories I’ve read while checking out fresh corn at the local grocers this summer. Even a trendspotter notices a diet that promises “10 in five” on the cover of a frumpy women’s magazine, especially with the reminder that French women aren’t fat.
The boycotting mothers’ rush to punish the magazine doesn’t just say something about their high opinion of the princess. It will also lead to more acceptance of their own baby bumps. If this glamorous woman with an army of helpers can’t get back into perfect shape right away, why should they expect themselves to? Especially not while she’s carrying it so gracefully and unashamedly.
Which brings me to the flip side of grace. New mom Kim Kardashian is looking increasingly off-trend with her moody rants. (Take those gifts and shove them!) Funnily enough, E! Online recently ran a feature on Duchess Kate and the OK! controversy with a sidebar titled “Kim Kardashian Out with Baby North and Kanye West,” which quickly pointed out that Kim’s first post-birth “appearances” have been videos that showed only her face. A couple of months ago, of course, she lit up the gossip sites with a Twitter rant about wanting to be left alone—ironic coming from a queen of shameless self-promotion.
Unlike with Kate Middleton, the backlash will likely be against the mother herself. Kardashian’s Instagram rant last week against Katie Couric—in which she responded to a gift of baby clothes by writing “I hate fake media friends” and “May I humbly suggest you not send gifts and then talk sh*t”—is nothing anyone would aspire to. The only person I saw rushing to Kim K’s defense was her sister Khloé. Women not wanting to come off as shrill and diva-ish as the reality star will shape the trend. They’ll be defining their own personal brands in opposition to hers.
The new mores around birth have been evolving for a while now. It’s no longer uncommon or seen as at all strange to announce a pregnancy on Facebook or in a tweet. But it’s not clear where the lines are now: Sonograms shared on social media? Delivery room photos? Birth photography is actually a growing business. Celebrating a birth in real time, and chronicling all the challenges that come before, during and after it, has real implications for a personal brand—and not only that of the woman giving birth, who has suddenly added “mother” to her personal brand attributes, or who has new jiggles, surging hormones and sleep deprivation (let’s give Kardashian some benefit of the doubt here) that can be instantaneously and permanently broadcast. When a fetus’ every kick is tweeted or sonogram pictures shared, that young person begins to take on an image even before birth. His or her personal brand is being shaped in the womb.
Some people, like The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist, Chuck Klosterman, have discussed whether it’s ethical to post images of a person who doesn’t even begin to understand what Facebook is. But that’s missing the point. Even if some want to wish it away, the trend of real-time personal branding beginning almost from the moment of conception is here to stay.
[photo: creativecommons.org/Christopher Neve]