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Since Meghan Markle became the Duchess of Sussex, she’s been under the watchful eye of the press and public—though “watchful” is too delicate a word to use. Her every move has been dissected and scrutinized, and gone far beyond just her sartorial choices.
The latest controversy is Markle and Prince Harry’s decision to skip the post-birth photocall (which involves standing on the steps of the hospital with the newborn in tow for all the cameras to capture). Earlier this month, Buckingham Palace released a statement from the royal couple that said, “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very grateful for the goodwill they have received from people throughout the United Kingdom and around the world as they prepare to welcome their baby. Their Royal Highnesses have taken a personal decision to keep the plans around the arrival of their baby private. The Duke and Duchess look forward to sharing the exciting news with everyone once they have had an opportunity to celebrate privately as a new family.”
Part of the surprise—and subsequent public outcry—stems from the fact that for the past 40 years, women of the royal family have chosen to share the birth of a royal baby with the public in a formal photocall. The couple’s decision to skip out on the tradition hasn’t gone down well with the public or the tabloids, with thousands of people offering up their personal opinions and plenty of shouty headlines from the U.K. papers. The Sun, as the New York Times reported, decried that it’s “our royal rights” to have photos of the baby. While the criticism seems like it’s directed at both parents-to-be, it’s yet another thing for which Markle is getting unfairly blamed since joining the royal family.
When we look at how intensely Markle’s sister-in-law Kate Middleton was examined by the press and public following her births, it’s no surprise that the Duchess would take measures to avoid that scrutiny. After the birth of all three of her children, the Duchess of Cambridge stepped out of the private Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital for the official photocall with an immaculate blowout, glowing complexion, and a lovely dress and heels. Cameras loved it, but it also earned her criticism for setting unrealistic standards for new moms. The most vocal tasking came from Keira Knightley. In an essay called “The Weaker Sex” for Feminists Don’t Wear Pink, the actor called out Middleton for looking too picture-perfect when it’s far from how most mothers look or feel after giving birth. Knightly was specifically referencing when the Duchess gave birth to Charlotte in 2015—the actor’s daughter Edie was born just one day before, but their experiences vastly differed.
“[Kate] was out of hospital seven hours later with her face made up and high heels on. The face the world wants to see,” wrote Knightly. She continued, “Hide. Hide our pain, our bodies splitting, our breasts leaking, our hormones raging. Look beautiful. Look stylish, don’t show your battleground, Kate…. Don’t show. Don’t tell. Stand there with your girl and be shot by a pack of male photographers.”
Knightly wasn’t the only person to criticize Middleton’s appearance, though perhaps the most high profile. What the reactions to her appearance proved was that she simply couldn’t win: Had she shown up for the photocall disshevelled and in pyjamas, the backlash would have been even more intense.
It’s been reported that Markle “felt uncomfortable” with the idea of a photocall, and if the negative reactions against Middleton are any indication, it’s not hard to see why. Add to that, Markle’s already been subjected to intense scrutiny about her physical appearance: the colour of her skin, her “messy” hair, her freckles, her “skinny legs” and how much skin she shows. (During the royal tour of Australia, she wore a comfortable maxi dress on a hot day by the beach, which earned her comments like “Trash” and “Her thigh is too visible.”)
The Duchess of Sussex will also inevitably be compared to the Duchess of Cambridge. The two women have been constantly pitted against one another, whether it’s a comparison of their fashion choices, their upbringing, rumours of a feud, or the influence they wield on their husbands. By choosing not to do the photocall, Markle’s avoiding yet another comparison between the two royal women.
The intensity of criticism against Markle from the press was so bad when they started dating that Prince Harry—in a royal first—issued a statement defending his then-girlfriend. The “wave of abuse and harassment,” as Prince Harry put it, didn’t ebb after she became a royal. Everything from Markle’s relationship with her family to her motives for marrying the prince has been called into question.
But the most incessant narrative is the ways in which Markle has “broken royal protocol.” Tabloids have a laundry list of the ways in which she’s allegedly scandalized the Queen and the British monarchy. (She shut the car door on her own! She dared to wear dark nail polish!) As if she can single-handedly dismantle thousands of years of tradition by one gesture or decision….
Ironically, as far as the post-birth photocall is concerned, the Duchess is hardly a rule-breaker. A hospital birth and introducing the newborn to the world shortly after is a fairly recent tradition for the royal family. It was started by Princess Anne and Princess Diana, and the Duchess of Cambridge followed suit. But the Queen gave birth to all four of her children at home. “The idea it has to happen or is some kind of centuries-old tradition is just wrong,” says royal expert Victoria Murphy. Murphy also points out that just because Markle and Prince Harry are opting out of the post-birth photocall doesn’t mean they’re breaking from tradition completely. “It won’t be a mass media moment but the pictures will go round the world just as the images of William and Kate and their children did.”
But it’s not just the question of the photocall that’s an issue for Markle—she will inevitably be criticized for every move she makes as a new mom. We saw hints of it during her pregnancy from headlines asking why she can’t stop cradling her bump to questioning how and where she chooses to give birth. The policing of her body, which started the minute she came in proximity of the royal family and has continued into her pregnancy, won’t cease when she gives birth.
Mothers face this sort of mom-shaming on the regular on both social media and IRL, and it comes from every direction, including from men (the Piers Morgans of the world) and other moms. Markle’s royal status doesn’t exempt her from public scrutiny; it makes it far worse. She is also a Black, biracial woman, an American, a former actor and a divorcee—essentially a royal outsider in every way. You can see why she’d want to shield herself and her child from the ceaseless commentary, comparisons to other moms and unsolicited parenting advice as she goes into labour.
Yes, Markle has rules to follow as a member of the royal family, but it shouldn’t be her duty to parade her child in public. There are certain things she should have complete agency over, especially when there are so many things she does not. Whether the Duchess chooses a home birth or a hospital birth, wears a dress or PJs, puts on makeup or pulls her hair back in a messy bun, what she does is her business alone. And if she chooses to celebrate privately and introduce Baby Sussex to the world a few days later, then we need to all accept that.
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