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The Eternal Scrutiny of Kate Middleton

The Eternal Scrutiny of Kate Middleton
The Eternal Scrutiny of Kate Middleton

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Kate Middleton has been reduced to her body. By which I mean: Many weeks into her recovery from surgery, and many years into her life as a royal, the physical form of Catherine, Princess of Wales, has become a commodity that the public feels entitled to consume. Her image has been on screens and in print for the past 20 years, so scrutinized and idolized that now, while she’s out of sight, newspaper columnists and intrepid TikTokers are fixated on not just where she is but also how she might look.

Middleton hasn’t been photographed in public—with the exception of two dim (and disputed) paparazzi shots of her in cars—since December. Kensington Palace’s only explanation for her absence has been a “planned abdominal surgery,” which at first caused mere murmurs and polite concern for her health. But in the absence of more information, people started demanding to see a brand-new photo of her. Last weekend, the palace released a picture of her and her children, which turned out to have been digitally altered, only increasing the online clamor over what the monarchy might be hiding. The hunt for Middleton has now devolved into amateur sleuthing and conspiracy theories—a drama playing out with every apparent new princess sighting. Is this how her face really looks in sunglasses? Has she ever gone out without her wedding rings? When was the last time she wore those boots? In some ways, this whole frenzy—this investigation of Middleton’s body—stems from a belief that her physical figure is something that the public owns, or at least deserves to see constantly.

For a long time, Middleton was a nearly silent presence. In the years that she dated Prince William, she rarely spoke in public; many people didn’t know what her voice sounded like until the couple gave an engagement interview in 2010. But she had long been photographed by the paparazzi, and their attention moved in stages. As girlfriend to the future king, the tabloids hoped to catch her in a misstep or tacky moment. When she was photographed in 2008 wearing an emerald-green halter top and Day-Glo shorts at a disco-themed party, the U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail wrote, “The less than demure yellow hotpants she was wearing did little to conceal her dignity.”

After she became engaged to Prince William, photos of Middleton wearing bikinis on beach trips still appeared on magazine covers and gossip websites. Commentary circulated on blogs and in glossy magazines about how her physique fit (or didn’t fit) a certain paradigm for the female form; eventually Middleton was photographed sunbathing without a bikini top. But the conversation also shifted, ironically, to whether she was appropriately covered up. Alleged experts would pick apart whether her hemlines were long enough and if “royal etiquette” dictated that she could show her shoulders in a strapless gown. When a stiff wind blew up her skirt, Middleton was scolded by tabloids for not properly fitting her dresses’ hems with weights. In the months preceding her 2011 royal wedding, a tabloid debate raged about whether she was too thin, which the newspapers disguised as faux concern for her health. (It didn’t help that Middleton entered her marriage at around the same time that social media and smartphones spread across the globe, allowing Instagrammers to speculate publicly as much as columnists did.)

After Middleton’s marriage and first pregnancy, the questioning turned to how she would carry baby weight, whether her face would grow fuller, and when—long before she even gave birth—she’d “get her body back.” This was part of the dominant dialogue about women’s bodies in the 2000s, the era of thigh gaps and muffin tops. But for Middleton, who despite the media criticism had been unofficially crowned a perfect corporeal specimen, the scrutiny came from millions of eyes. Their defining preoccupation with the woman became: How does Kate look today? The day after giving birth to her first child, in 2013, she emerged from the hospital with a big smile and what looked like a blowout; the media both lauded and scolded her for being in public so soon.

The intensity hasn’t died down since. Many people continue to project their fixations about age and appearance on Middleton’s body. Newspapers speculate about whether, now that she’s entered her 40s, she’s had “baby Botox; social-media users ask how she could “be that thin and not die”; bloggers insinuate that she “is due to go through her menopause any year now.”

Middleton is more than a mere celebrity. An actor, singer, or athlete is perceived to earn their adulation with talent—or at least offer up entertainment in exchange for it. Perhaps the public’s sense of entitlement to the royals’ whereabouts hints at a different belief: If British citizens are partially financing their lifestyles through their taxes, the royals owe them frequent glimpses of that life in return.

Yet we know so little about Middleton’s personality and interests—and this appears to be by design. Middleton seems dedicated to giving her kids a somewhat normal upbringing; apparently she bakes and crafts and enjoys athletics; her charity work is mainly focused on children’s development. (As one person on X said about her disappearance, “This is the most interesting thing Kate Middleton has done in her entire life.”) This sort of obfuscation seems to come with her job. To be royal is to become an avatar of duty and decorum. Her persona is supposed to be one of dull perfection—beautiful enough to be admired while not provoking any firm opinions about who she really is.

In 2013, the novelist Hilary Mantel delivered a lecture in which she bemoaned this state of affairs for royal women: “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.” Mantel had carefully studied the women of the Tudor court for her novels set during the reign of Henry VIII, with his dispensable wives; when she said that Middleton had become “a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung,” she did so in sympathy. She meant that the princess’s image had been wrested entirely from the self.

Middleton is both venerated as aesthetically immaculate and denied any opportunity to show her unvarnished personality, leaving people to fixate on the only thing that they have access to, which is her body. All of this leads to a sad truth: No matter what photo emerges next—even if the Princess of Wales is presented without a wound, wrinkle, or frown in sight, and the picture’s provenance is entirely uncontested—it will inevitably be dissected. No image in the world will fully satisfy the public’s desire to analyze Middleton. They will simply move on to decoding another part of her.

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