The latest season of Netflix’s Selling Sunset offered its usual combination of workplace drama and luxury home tours, as the series continues to chronicle the friendships and careers of a coterie of luxury real estate agents in Los Angeles. But it also produced something a little more unexpected: a conspiracy theory.
The show’s scene stealer, Christine Quinn, gave birth to her first child over the course of the season, managing to juggle pregnancy, new motherhood, and her role at the center of at least three feuds. After the series was released in full on the streaming platform, fans lobbed a familiar accusation—that Quinn was never pregnant at all. Social media users remarked that she had remained strikingly thin throughout, appeared spry while wearing towering stilettos days before giving birth, and had performed yogic feats too soon after what she described as a traumatic emergency C-section. Fans would go on to compare dates of Quinn’s appearances at events with the timeline of her pregnancy for evidence, all in an effort to support the idea that she had perhaps become a mother via surrogacy while faking her pregnancy with prosthetics.
Quinn is far from the first celebrity to be accused of doing so. Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Meghan Markle, and other women in the public eye have been the targets of similar theories. Last year, the Atlantic profiled one internet conspiracist who devotes her days to amassing evidence that, among other alleged sins, Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife Sophie Hunter staged her pregnancies. But while the fake bump truthers have been scrutinized as one of the most women-inhabited corners of the conspiracy world, less attention has been directed towards why pregnancy is the focus of these conspiracies, and not other aspects of these very public women’s very public lives. Their allure might lie in the fact that public pregnancy is a relatively new American development, one that our culture is still struggling to negotiate.
For much of the nation’s history, respectability demanded that pregnant people become as invisible as possible. Working-class women who couldn’t afford to stay home concealed their stomachs with maternity corsets, and the precursors to today’s maternity clothes weren’t sold in stores until the early 20th century, when a designer named Lena Himmelstein Bryant Maslin began creating dresses with elastic waists for her New York clientele. “Someone had the nerve to say, ‘Do you mind making a dress for me while I’m pregnant?’” medical writer Randi Hutter Epstein told Jezebel. “You weren’t really supposed to go out. Walking out with a pregnant belly, you might as well just be naked.” The idea was so taboo that the company—which would later become famous as Lane Bryant—struggled to find newspapers that would accept its advertisements.
The decorous woman hid her swelling body, and the sexual relationship it implied. The polite term for pregnancy was “confinement,” said Epstein, “because they wanted you confined in your home. And then you stayed that way for months after.” One woman who’d given birth in 1944 reported in Epstein’s book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, that her doctor had advised that only after eight days postpartum would it be safe for her to “dangle”—dangle her feet over the edge of the bed.
Now, the pendulum has swung sharply in the opposite direction, from an American maternal ideal demanding prolonged confinement and to a nation in which the wealthy often jockey to demonstrate that they’ve swiftly “bounced back” from birth. Expectations for public roles during pregnancy have shifted for poorer women as well. Until the seventies, employers could mandate extended unpaid maternity leaves that banished pregnant women and new mothers from the workforce. Today, in the absence of national paid family leave, a quarter of American women return to their jobs within two weeks of giving birth.
Anxieties around these evolving norms played out in the public sphere long before internet sleuths could trawl through celeb social media accounts, searching for baby bumps that looked suspiciously like pillows. Lucille Ball, who delivered via C-section on the exact date that her television alter-ego gave birth, famously included her real-life pregnancy on her show I Love Lucy. The decision was controversial enough that the production team ran each of the storyline’s scripts by a priest, a minister, and a rabbi, and the word “pregnant” itself was never used onscreen. Decades later, Annie Liebowitz’s 1991 Vanity Fair cover photo of a very pregnant Demi Moore, posing nude save her wedding ring, again sparked controversy. Even for these famous, straight, married, wealthy, thin, and conventionally attractive white women, efforts to make pregnancy public could be fraught.
As pregnancy has become more visible, it’s also become more publicly scrutinized. Women are now expected to “get their bodies back” after birth, feeling pressured to gain the bare minimum of weight during pregnancy, and to shed it almost instantly. This wasn’t always the case; in earlier generations, concern about one’s physical appearance was considered out of step with the ideal of total maternal self-abnegation. Today’s pregnant people have been able to narrowly reclaim the right to self-interest, but it doesn’t seem to extend far beyond the freedom to force their bodies into compliance.
On Selling Sunset’s latest season, a majority of the praise Quinn’s castmates directed towards her were congratulations at her maintenance of her thin figure, for looking nearly identical to her pre-motherhood self soon after giving birth. The very leanness that was so prized by her circle has subsequently fueled the fake pregnancy rumors, suggesting a madonna/whore-like celebrity pregnancy binary. Long disappearances during pregnancy make a woman look like she is hiding something, but by being hyper-visible, as Quinn was, pregnant people are left open to the accusation that their activeness itself is proof of guilt.
If a celeb fails the test of pre- and postpartum body maintenance, she may be gawked at and mocked, but might ultimately be forgiven and perhaps patronizingly celebrated for being “real.” If she succeeds and manages to discipline her body to the exacting standards of “bouncing back,” she faces scrutiny over whether she was pregnant at all—scrutiny that is a perverse acknowledgement of her success at keeping her figure. Take Kim Kardashian, whose weight gain before the birth of her first child drew scorn. After it was rumored that she faked her second pregnancy, she admitted to delight in the speculation, which offered proof that she had been “so skinny.”
Quinn, however, has described the theorizing about her pregnancy as being painful. And she’s offered her counter-evidence: The show had fudged timelines, as many reality series do, she said, and a scene which purported to show her doing a headstand with a yoga instructor shortly after her son’s birth had actually been filmed while she was still pregnant. Her doctor seemed to acknowledge having delivered her child, and a Selling Sunset cast mate told the press she’d seen Quinn’s C-section scar.
Some significant portion of the appeal of fake pregnancy theories is rooted in understandable insecurity, insecurity that celebrities themselves help foster. Quinn’s public account of her postpartum experience certainly offers plenty of fuel for women inclined towards beating themselves up over perceived bodily failures. She announced that she’d resumed working within days of giving birth, and was having sex with her husband again just a month later. “It’s totally OK to admit to having a surrogate but don’t set unrealistic expectations for [postpartum] moms when you didn’t even carry the baby yourself,” one of Quinn’s accusers wrote to her on Instagram. “It’s deceitful and a shame.”
The particulars of any specific fake pregnancy debate are nowhere near as significant as what it means to debate public pregnancies in the first place. “As we judge and regulate the bodies of pregnant celebrities,” wrote legal scholar Renee Cramer, “we are simultaneously accepting and internalizing the very same regulations of ourselves.” This internalized harm may even transcend the more private pains of insecurity, self-loathing, disordered eating, and enter the political world. In her book Pregnant with the Stars: Watching and Wanting the Celebrity Baby Bump, Cramer points out that fascination with celebrity pregnancies has ramped up in near tandem with attacks on abortion rights. Both invasive bump patrolling and anti-abortion campaigns take pregnant people’s bodies to be public property deserving of tight surveillance, with the former perhaps subtly easing the path for the latter.
And of course, the contemporary highly-scrutinized pregnancy also offers many opportunities to sell things—including shapewear, workout regimens, diets,