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How We Talk About Royal Baby Bodies

Just how long will it take for the body-con hordes to descend on the Duchess of Cambridge? “I hope Kate’s lost her baby weight by now. I mean, it has been four hours now, you know,” quipped Hadley Freeman on Twitter yesterday. “Anyone know if she’s back in her skinny jeans?” Joking aside, the royal baby bump and other physical manifestations of Middleton’s pregnancy (who knew hyperemesis gravidarum would be a top topic for 2013?) have been scrutinized incessantly ever since the pregnancy was made public.

But baby-body talk—especially when it comes to the Hanoverians and the Windsors and the like—hasn’t always been so forthright. Conversations surrounding royal pregnancies have mostly been a matter of indirection. Of course, this isn’t surprising, given that the word “pregnant” remained taboo until the 1950s, according to the Online Etymological Dictionary. Dainty euphemisms included “in a family way” or “with child.” (There were some cruder alternatives: Eighteenth-century slang used the non-euphemistic “poisoned” to connote the condition. According to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, “in the spud line” was at one point an alternative.) In 1857, when Queen Victoria gave birth to her youngest child, the official announcement was careful to avoid any unseemly agency with tactical deployment of the passive voice. “This afternoon, at a quarter before two o’clock, the Queen was safely delivered of a Princess …” read the official announcement. 

When Prince Albert Victor (the reigning Queen Victoria’s grandson) was born in 1865, the rather lovely “accouchement” (the time of giving birth) was in vogue: “The accouchement of Her Royal Highness was not altogether so sudden and without premonitory warnings as has been currently reported,” stated the London Lancet. Lest this connote some Francophile tendency, the writer reassured that Her Royal Highness maintained a stiff upper lip: She, “equally with the Prince, has the strongest dislike to what, in ordinary phrase, is called ‘making a fuss.’” 

By 1894, when the future Edward VIII was born, the passive voice had been dropped from the official announcement, which forthrightly stated: “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York gave birth to a son at ten o'clock.” But if the doctors had dispelled with their squeamishness, the politicians hadn’t: “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York was safely delivered of a son at ten o'clock this evening,” wrote Home Secretary H.H. Asquith. (Until 1926, the Home Secretary was present at all royal births to ensure that no last-minute, baby-body-swapping took place.) 

When Elizabeth II was knocked up with the future Prince Charles in 1948, pregnancy had become a viable topic for conversation—though not in so many words. The Queen was “expecting” and would “undertake no further public engagements.” (Brenda proved a headstrong prenatal patient, attending weddings and the races—on her due date!—while Philip snubbed formality by wearing “an old pair of flannel slacks and a shirt open at the neck” in the hospital waiting room.) Some articles—e.g., the self-conscious “A Baby Makes the British Seem Somewhat Unbritish”—even divulged medical details: “the princess would use a tube of trilene to ease the pain of childbirth.”

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II expecting the birth of her son Prince Andrew in January of 1960

In the interim, of course, we’ve come much farther—or regressed, depending on your viewpoint. Life magazine advertised a feature on Princess Di’s “Royal Pregnancy” on its cover in 1982 and asked “How Fares the Royal ‘Bump?’” (Apparently, “bump” originated well before the early 2000s as guesstimated by this Washington Post riff.) Meanwhile, the tabloids snapped shots of the pregnant Princess Di in a bikini—a moment that the Queen called “the blackest day in the history of British journalism.”

Indeed, it might be modern visual culture that’s done the most to fuel baby-bump obsession and propel it to some grotesque levels. “Kate Really Shows Off her Baby Bump At Last!” exclaimed The Daily Beast in April, eagerly noting that she finally looked “properly preggers.” Kim-v.-Kate pregnant-body comparisons formed a mini genre within celebrity magazines for a large part of the spring. New York magazine has prominently featured a Kate Middleton Look Book on the Cut for months. 

The as-yet unnamed HRH Cambridge may be a comforting symbol linking past and present but there’s little in today’s discussion of the royal bodies that would be recognizable to their esteemed ancestors.