Performing the Maternal Body

The maternal body is still a contentious subject. In the 21st century, the British tabloids have continued to eerily rate celebrity bumps. In retaliation, women have taken social media sharing their heart-breaking realities of miscarriages and difficult births. Of course, these discussions are vital for changing the abject tabloid outlook on maternity. But it shouldn’t just be down to women. What power do men have to start the conversation and subvert rigid ideals around the maternal body?

As Francesca Granata discusses in Experimental Fashion, Western systems of thought around the maternal body have been consistently reductive. Since the Enlightenment and the valuation of dualism/the Cartesian model, men have aligned women to nature and purity, thenceforth the birth process has been dematerialised and elevated to mythical status. Neglect and misrepresentation of the female experience is the product of this system of thought which, in turn, has contributed to the success of femininity.

Leigh Bowery, Look 9, July 1989, by Fergus Greer. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/fergus-greer-leigh-bowery-session-ii-look-9

Leigh Bowery, a performance artist and designer notable for his work in the ‘80s, experimented with the subject of the maternal body. Throughout his career, Bowery was fascinated with the leaky and malleable body.

Bowery performed a piece at Wigstock (New York) in 1993 wearing an oversized costume that features a distinctive bump on his stomach. At the end of the performance, Bowery gets up onto a metal table (that uncomfortably resembles a post-mortem bench) and spreads his legs. His assistant (Nicola Bowery) peels through the stretch material between Bowery’s legs and reveals herself, fully naked and covered in red liquid: “The first baby born at Wigstock!” Bowery shouts.

This graphic and violent scene, Granata says, “externalises and renders visible the problematic Western understanding of the maternal body and, by extension, the female body.” The material contrast between Leigh’s oversized costume and Nicola’s naked body inserted into the seams of the costume challenges the idea that the maternal body as a dematerialised object and space, whilst also drawing on the violence of the birth process.

About 30 years on, the ideas around the maternal body and gender performance have inevitably progressed. Bowery’s avant-garde birthing performances relied on nuance and violence whereas now, subtle, more empathetic forms are applied to the exposition of the maternal body.

Drag has become a mainstream form of entertainment in the UK. Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK first aired in 2019, introducing a wider audience to the scene. And drag queens, just like Bowery, have incorporated the pregnant body into their performance.

In Series 1, Episode 7, of Drag Race UK (2019), judge Michelle Visage commented on Divina de Campo’s artificial baby-bump: “There’s nothing more drag than a pregnant drag queen… It’s a big middle finger to society.” The runway task for this episode was to dress up one female family member. Divina’s sister (who was given the name Delisha de Campo) was four months pregnant when she came onto the show. Divina’s empathy for her sister’s maternal condition is palpable and Ru Paul said that the subtle adaptation to the silhouette was “a stroke of genius.”

The reaction to Divina’s bump demonstrates the maternal body in direct opposition to the fashionable silhouette of womenswear, as well as being in opposition to the rigid construction of femininity. As Granata says: “The twentieth-century fashion body remains one of the most articulate attempts at the creation of a ‘perfect’ and perfectly contained body restrained and sealed.”  In the 21st century, the costumed pregnant body defies this entirely.

Divina de Campo with sister Delisha de Campo, episode 7 of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, http://thenormcanconform.com/rupauls-drag-race-uk-s1-ep7-the-drag-family-scandal-of-the-century/

The performance of the clothed body is fertile ground for progressive ideas. Men costuming the maternal body encourages the normalisation of women’s lumps and bumps and at the same time disrupts the idea that issues surrounding femininity are purely a woman’s issue to deal with. Performance art and drag are examples of ways to subvert the norms. By way of creative freedom and empathy for female matter, the Modern man can blur gender boundaries and inspire a powerful subversion which at once frees them and their peers.

By Bethan Eleri Carrick

Bibliography

Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body. I.B Tauris, 2017.

The Legend of Leigh Bowery, Documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIS79ZQxYiw