We need to stop asking women if they’re pregnant - even celebrities

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There’s something so undeniable about the “pregnancy glow” a woman experiences when she’s expecting. Her skin is so radiant and her hair is so shiny that it’s almost impossible not to notice. But what if that pregnancy glow isn’t a glow at all, but just a poorly-lit photograph, or the way a dress falls on her body, or an underlying health condition?

Recently, Hailey Bieber and Vanessa Hudgens were forced to deny speculation that they’re pregnant. For the 26-year-old model, this wasn’t the first time she’s had to shut down pregnancy rumours either. Hailey, who’s been married to Justin Bieber since 2018, told GQ Hype in October that it’s “disheartening” when her fans constantly ask her if she’s pregnant - especially since she’s previously been open about having an ovarian cyst.

As for Vanessa, she gave a blunt response when asked by fans whether she was expecting her first child with fiancé Cole Tucker. The High School Musical alum shared a video from her bachelorette party in Aspen, Colorado - in which she was seen bundled in oversized hoodies, fur jackets, button downs, and a loose-fitting slip dress - and quickly received a flurry of invasive comments.

“Why does she look pregnant to me or like she’s trying to hide a bump?” one viewer questioned, while another asked: “Are we pregnant?” Vanessa simply wrote back, alongside an eye-roll emoji: “Not pregnant so y’all can stop.”

It seems that social media has emboldened us to inquire about the personal, medical information of our favourite celebrities. Of course, it is the nature of platforms like Instagram and TikTok to make famous figures seem more relatable to us, and that we are privy to the goings on of their everyday lives. In turn, we develop a connection to our ever-growing “Following” list, sometimes forming something known as parasocial relationships - when one side of the party becomes emotionally attached to a person, while the other party most likely doesn’t even know the other exists.

Although these one-sided, essentially imaginary relationships we have with celebrities have existed long before the invention of apps like Twitter, the rise of social media has blurred the lines of how we interact with celebrities - including asking whether or not they’re pregnant.

Dr Jolene Brighten is a board certified naturopathic endocrinologist, specialising in integrative hormone care for women. “What everybody needs to recognise, whether you’re friends or not, is that when you make these kinds of guesses and you don’t really know what’s going on in someone’s life, there is this judgement and the shame that can come with it. You’re making guesses on someone’s body and you don’t know the full story,” Dr Brighten told The Independent. “On the one hand, they could be struggling with chronic illness. On the other hand, it could be that they’re incapable of becoming pregnant on their own for some reason, or maybe what you’re speculating is a pregnancy is actually a miscarriage. I think this is just really important for us to always step back and consider that we don’t know the full story.”

In November last year, Hailey Bieber revealed that she had an ovarian cyst “the size of an apple” and shared a photo of her stomach with a noticeable bump - though “not a baby” bump, she clarified. “I have a cyst on my ovary the size of an apple,” she wrote. “I don’t have endometriosis or PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome] but I have gotten an ovarian cyst a few times and it’s never fun.”

“It’s painful and achy and makes me feel nauseous and bloated and crampy and emotional. Anyways... I’m sure a lot of you can overly relate and understand,” Hailey said. “We got this.”

A screenshot from Hailey Bieber’s Instagram stories (Hailey Bieber/Instagram)
A screenshot from Hailey Bieber’s Instagram stories (Hailey Bieber/Instagram)

The Rhode Beauty founder first began fielding pregnancy rumours as early as 2020, when she called out Us Weekly for reportedly planning to run a story about her expecting a baby. “So please stop writing false stories from your ‘sources’ and focus on what’s important aka the election,” she wrote on her Instagram Story at the time.

Then in April 2022, Radar Online reported that Hailey’s “flowing gown” at the Grammys had fans “convinced” she was expecting a child. In the comments, she shut the claim down, writing: “I’m not pregnant leave me alone”.

Last July, fans once again believed a Bieber baby was on the way when a leaked photo of Hailey appeared to show the model wearing a midriff-baring black top and holding her stomach. Speaking to GQ Hype, she called the pregnancy speculation “disheartening” but maintained that “when there comes a day” when she is pregnant, “you, as in the internet, will be the last to know”.

Last month, Kourtney Kardashian welcomed her fourth child - her first with husband Travis Barker. For nearly two years, she has opened up about her fertility journey on The Kardashians. In season one, the 44-year-old Poosh founder described how the medication she was given as part of her in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment put her “literally into menopause”.

Although she didn’t need to, the reality TV star decided to be open with her fans about her IVF treatment. Perhaps that’s why it was so upsetting when she was forced to respond to body-shaming comments on her Instagram in September last year. “Wait a minute did I miss that she’s pregnant,” one user commented under a photo of Kourtney posing in lingerie. “Nope, but you’re missing a woman’s body,” she replied.

Just five months later, Kourtney dismissed pregnancy speculation once again by sharing the effects that undergoing IVF treatment had on her body. In the since-deleted Instagram slideshow, she wore an all-yellow cropped cardigan and high-waisted pants while posing with the latest product from her Lemme vitamin brand. When one Instagram user asked: “Is she pregnant,” in the comments section, Kourtney explained that the recent changes to her appearance were simply the “after affects [sic] of IVF”.

“I only acknowledge this comment because I do think it’s important to know how IVF affects women’s bodies and it’s not spoken about much,” she added. “Also are we still asking women if they’re pregnant?”

According to Dr Kerry-Anne Perkins, a board-certified OB-GYN with 1.1m followers on TikTok who spoke to The Independent, one in seven couples are impacted by infertility issues. However, it is mostly women who take on the burden of infertility in a relationship. In fact, women who struggle with infertility have shown higher levels of anxiety and depression compared to men.

“Infertility in itself is a risk factor for depression and adverse mood symptoms,” said Dr Brighten. “When people start making these speculations, when people start making comments about your reproductive health, it becomes something where it can be so overwhelming that people’s moods can really tank.”

Not only does constant pregnancy speculation negatively impact the mental health of those who are going through fertility treatment, but such invasive questions are sure to make anyone question their own body image or life choices - even those who aren’t undergoing IVF.

“There’s a lot of societal pressure about what women do with their bodies, in all ways, and pregnancy is definitely one of those,” Dr Brighten said. “Some things that can go through their head include: ‘Am I the age when I should be thinking about having kids? Should I be doing this? Is this what fans want from me? Is this what I want for my life?’”

“It throws them into a situation where they start questioning something that they’ve never questioned before,” she added.

A growing number of women in the United States are deciding not to have children, opting to be voluntarily child-free. In April this year, a study from Michigan State University found that one in five adults in the state, or about 1.7m people, didn’t want to have children. Some critics have professed that child-free adults will regret their decision not to have children later in life. But a subsequent study, which analysed the reasons why people decide to be child-free, found that older, child-free adults were no more likely to express feelings of regret than those who are parents.

“People in general are having pregnancies much later in life,” said Dr Perkins. “People are waiting and exploring their careers first and their professions and really choosing to have pregnancies much later.”

For Hailey, who recently celebrated her five-year wedding anniversary with her pop star husband, some people may be setting their calendars for a Bieber baby announcement any minute now. But it’s important to realise how much of womens’ lives are encumbered by societal expectations, milestones, and arbitrary timelines.

“When you get to the five-year mark, now people are like: ‘Oh, you might be pregnant!’ or ‘There might be something wrong with you,’” said Dr Brighten. “The problem with being a celebrity is that people forget your humanity. They forget that you’re not just an object because you’ve been used as an object. I think that’s just a really important thing for people to reflect on, is that these are real humans having real human experiences.”

The world has made many strides in recent years towards body positivity and acceptance, which is why it’s so surprising to both celebrities and medical professionals that constant pregnancy speculation is still so persistent online. For Dr Perkins, it counts as a sign that we have a long way to go, in order to accept each other exactly the way we are. “I’m still hopeful we’ll get there,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”