It’s been over a week since Halsey dropped the groundbreaking album art for their fourth full-length album “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” The cover saw Halsey dressed in a lavish gothic-inspired dress against a royal backdrop while holding a baby, all of which is reminiscent of the painting “Madonna and Child.” Only in this case, they’re also unabashedly freeing their nipple.
In an Instagram post detailing the cover, they wrote, “This album is a concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth… My body has belonged to the world in many different ways the past few years, and this image is my means of reclaiming my autonomy and establishing my pride and strength as a life force for my human being.”
This album begins their path to reclaiming their body that was taken away from them by the public, whose eyes are fixed on their appearance, dictating what should be and shouldn’t be. It marks the celebration of their body, especially including their pregnancy and postpartum stage. Because if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that there’s still much to discuss about how we talk about pregnant bodies.
In 2005, Britney Spears announced her pregnancy following months-long speculation instigated by magazines and tabloids. “There are reports that I was in the hospital this weekend, and Kevin and I just want everyone to know that all is well,” she wrote on her website, reassuring her fans not to worry.
In 2012, Adele announced that what would follow her career-defining era was not a new album but instead a pregnancy. With just about every track from her sophomore album “21” becoming a critical and commercial success, Adele took advantage of the situation and focused instead on her personal health. It wouldn’t be until three years after when she released another album.
In 2018, Cardi B announced her pregnancy on a “Saturday Night Live” performance after much speculation by the media again. She was also in the midst of promotions for her debut studio album “Invasion of Privacy.” Known for her sex positivity, many people worried about how she could possibly stand as a role model for her child.
What all of these cases have in common is that, for most people, this marked the “end” of their careers. Their glory days are over, they argued, and these women would need to change their public image and focus on their family life. It didn’t help that teen pregnancies were at an all-time high during the 1990s, leading to much scrutiny by the public who decided that the burden of this problem shall be shouldered by popular female icons. It has since declined 30 years later in a number of countries (save for the Philippines). But as Halsey pointed out, “We still have a long way to go eradicating the social stigma around bodies.”
The truth is, this could only be traced back to one thing: the patriarchy. Whenever we look at female bodies, even if we’re female and/or queer, we’re automatically oriented by the male gaze, which unfortunately is the dominant way of seeing. When we see pregnant bodies, we see nothing but shapes: curves, bumps, circles that are either too big or too small. The patriarchy taught us that there’s a specific shape that a feminine body shall desire to have in order to be deemed beautiful. This puts a certain pressure on female pop stars to debut as young as 15, taking advantage of what society tells them is their prime age because men would rather sexualize an underage girl than a woman who’s literally about to reproduce.
Most of the artists mentioned above even opened up about their postpartum struggle with depression and anxiety, which is also due to their public careers. “It was like ‘You can’t do this. It might fuck up your career,’” Cardi says, in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, recalling the discussion she had with her management regarding pregnancy.
Perhaps men are threatened by the very same thing they try to discard. Philosopher Christine Battersby theorizes that pregnancy challenges a man’s place in the world. An image of a woman giving birth and breathing life to an individual tells us that before there is anything in this world, there is first a woman. All men came from a woman’s body, and that alone should change how we look at pregnancy and motherhood.
Halsey freeing their nipple might not seem much at first glance, but it’s already a step in improving the discourse. It’s forcing us to rethink how we look at female bodies subconsciously, and the public discourse around it is nothing short of a testament to that. Nipples are to men a source for sexual pleasure only. But as feminine and/or queer beings, we know and understand that it’s also a source of life and nourishment—an art that is also worth celebrating.
Pregnant bodies—just like any other female bodies including trans and femme bodies—are just as beautiful and valid. It’s time we start unlearning things from the perspective of men. There is power found in giving birth or motherhood and there is also power in embracing our sexuality outside of the male gaze. Sex isn’t exclusive to a specific shape or body, and we need to start celebrating it with all forms of femininity. At the end of the day, Halsey is right: “The idea that me as a sexual being and my body as a vessel and gift to my child are two concepts that can co-exist peacefully and powerfully.”