Images of pregnancy, representations of birth

Once hidden and masked in the home, images of pregnant women now flourish in broader society, especially in celebrity magazines. Dressed up for the red carpet, dressed down for the nude photo shoot, caught unawares in candid camera shots and, of course, the postnatal weight loss article.

And the average woman’s experiences are receiving a heightened level of attention, with television programmes such as Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute claiming to place the (painful) ‘truth’ of natality on prime time television with unprecedented graphic depictions of childbirth. But before we crack open the celebratory champagne and clink our glasses to the final recognition of a role that has been historically and socially deemed inconsequential, and just something women ‘do’, these representations mask the social and cultural inconsistencies that continue to cause troublesome gender issues.

Stephanie Lawler points out in Women, Power and Resistance: An Introduction To Women’s Studies, that women have always been judged and measured in relation to their capacity (or not) to bear and raise children, whilst there are certainly physiological elements to this, the cultural meanings inscribed on pregnancy and motherhood change over time.

Pregnancy and childbirth have not always been so visible in society, as Imogen Tyler notes in her introduction to the birth issue of Feminist Review, natality was once viewed as a stoic experience and traditionally relegated to the home or hospital.

Pregnancy and new motherhood are now part of a woman’s body project and the long history of women never being good enough

Childbearing was (and often still is) seen as a woman’s ‘natural’ and destined role and, quite frankly, disregarded and trivialised in comparison to men’s role as waged labourers. Fathers were banned from childbirth in the UK until the 1960s, out working or pacing nervously, smoking a cigar in hospital waiting rooms as their wives dutifully gave birth.

While seemingly an outdated picture, my mother’s story of her first pregnancy, in the mid ’80s, emphasises the point. Not only is it visually littered with hand-me-downs (and tent-like smocks that would seem to offer enough material to shelter a small family), but when she was in the labour process she tried to remain as silent as possible, and says a scream did not pass her lips.

She says this was because many of my family were midwives and had told her so many tales of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers-to-be during childbirth that she did not want to offend my male family members or the medical staff by making a ‘scene’.

Fast-forward to the 1990s and All Saints and the Spice Girls defiantly wore crop tops and low-slung trousers to show off their pregnant bodies. As Lisa Baraitser and Imogen Tyler note in their article ‘Talking of Mothers’ for Soundings, the 1991 Vanity Fair shoot of a nude and heavily pregnant Demi Moore was controversial at the time but soon became a standard practice for the celebrity mother-to-be. Claudia Schiffer is one of the most recent celebrities to go down this path, this May she did a provocative photo spread for French Vogue when she was eight months pregnant with her third child. They argue this trend indicates that pregnancy has become sexualised, a fashion statement and something to provocatively display – an attitude now so commonplace and accepted it seems ridiculous and obvious to comment on.

This idea has gained momentum to such an extent that women are now expected to maintain teeny pregnancy bumps; sans stretch marks and enveloped in the limitless comfort of Juicy velour. The towering heels are virtually compulsory, those swollen, sore ankles a thing of the past – all of which serves to create a glamorous picture of serene pregnancy that winks seductively from the magazine cover and filters down into broader society. The fact that many of my friends in their 20s uniformly state, “I want my body to stay the same and just have a tiny little bump, you know, so you can’t tell that I’m pregnant from behind”, emphasises the point of how accepted these opinions are.

Notice how the women who represent this ‘sexy’ maternal body are overall white, heterosexual, middle class and in their late 20s to early 30s

As Tyler further elaborates in a chapter, ‘Pregnant beauty: new femininities under neoliberalism’, to appear in a forthcoming edited collection, the products aimed at pregnant women seeking to achieve this look are abundant, exemplified by ’10 of the best pregnancy products’ at Made for Mums, and the “soon to be mum” section of the online MumStuff store. There are morning sickness lollies, Aromamum’s perennial oil, bump flatteners, belly bras, sexy maternity underwear, bio oil for those pesky stretch marks (note: this dodgy smelling, and somewhat extortionately-priced, potion only works if is applied religiously, numerous times daily, throughout and after pregnancy- so don’t forget to bulk buy). The list goes on for things that are now available for pre and post natal times.

Maternity Corset.gifAlthough there were maternity corsets available in the 1830s, as described in Bound to Please: A History of the Victorian Corset , these were worn to mask pregnancy rather than to flaunt it, highlighting that the regulation of pregnancy has a long and complex history that changes with what is socioculturally situated as the ‘right’ kind of femininity.

Some of the contemporary products may alleviate the uncomfortable aspect of pregnancy that many women suffer, but the majority seem to say that even though you may have been face-down over a toilet bowl for some of your pregnancy, your breasts won’t stop lactating at awkward times, you feel bloated and physically drained, don’t worry, you can still appear to be sexy and glamorous for others. This, of course, is the most important thing when you are faced with the beautiful (but daunting) prospect of squeezing a small person through your vagina, sometimes so unfathomable it can seem the equivalent of getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

As if recovering from childbirth, the night feeds and exhaustion weren’t enough, there’s the added trauma of that ‘post-baby weight-loss’ competition. Giving birth is no longer an excuse for not whipping back into shape in six weeks (or less) and return to work a la Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham, Elle McPherson, etc. Giesel Bundchen recently pinged back into supermodel shape after childbirth and you can do it too, the Daily Mail states.

Hang on… she never even needed to buy maternity clothes in the first place and could fit into her usual sample sizes throughout, another story lets slip. Often sworn to be either a ‘lucky’ or ‘natural’ process of returning to the shape of a prepubescent girl after childbirth, this creates great pressures for women who don’t have this, or more likely, don’t have the bevy of personal trainers, cosmetic surgeons and willingness for a no carb, no gluten, no fun diet that is needed.

But wait… those who don’t want to do this can now have a ‘mummy makeover’, as Tyler states and Fiona Whittington-Walsh points out in her article ‘Lord make me over’. A step up from those who are ‘too posh to push’ (the elective caesarean and tummy tuck), mothers can now have their breasts augmented, a tummy tuck, face lift, fix everything ‘down there’ and many more procedures in the months, or even weeks, subsequent to childbirth exemplified through websites such as Cosmetic Surgery Consultants. And as I am sure that they aware how busy the first few months of motherhood can be, women can have these procedures simultaneously. A mother can pay for the equivalent of a head on collision in one pricey and painful sitting. It really makes me wonder whom these everyday super women are that the cosmetic surgeon advertises to and how they have the time to do all of this and serenely jiggle their newborns on their knee as the stitches heal.

In 2005 domestic violence towards pregnant women was the biggest cause of miscarriage or still birth, 30,000 women left work due to pregnancy discrimination and full-time employed women with children spend 30% more time on childcare per day than their male counterparts

As Tyler argues in her forthcoming chapter, the general result is that women are defined through their ability to use the variety of products and procedures that society dictates we must consume for successful pre- and postnatal periods. Pregnancy is now enveloped in a consumerist mentality and seen as a veritable goldmine of commodity production, with boardroom executives rubbing their hands with glee emphasising the myth that anyone can achieve this. This marks what is inevitably a part of motherhood in terms of bodily changes (ageing, sagging, drooping) as wrong, ugly and pathological. These times were previously exempt from these pressures, yet they are now part of a woman’s body project and the long history of women never being good enough. At a time when women are trying to juggle a different body and new additions to the family, the money expenses of becoming a new parent, childcare, work and more, is this added pressure really needed or fair?

Overall, the message is that women can be sexy and maternal at the same time, as these two characteristics have previously been placed in opposition. Whilst, I am not denying that many women can have a blissful pregnancy, nor that it is not sensual, what is determined as a self-proclaimed sexy seems to be pretty similar to what has long been expected of women to appear attractive, but in pregnancy form.

As Gill points out in Gender and the Media, what is conveniently skipped over in this consumerist mentality is that not everyone can afford all these commodities and not everyone is marked as sexy. Gill also states these types of looks are incredibly narrow and homogeneous (notice how the women who represent this ‘sexy’ maternal body are overall white, heterosexual, middle class and in their late 20s to early 30s). This has swiftly become the accepted norm so even if you don’t want to go down this road, you are still measured in relation to it and marked as inadequate if you choose not to follow. This ‘choice’, as it is presented, is increasingly a necessity and, more to the point, this fun, sexy, look doesn’t seem to be much fun at all. It creates a bar for women to live up to, yet simultaneously it is constantly rising to define what constitutes a ‘good’ pregnancy/motherhood/woman.

In The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change (Culture, Representation and Identity series) Angela McRobbie argues that the representations and attitudes that define this sexualisation are part of a ‘postfeminist’ mentality. In contemporary times, it is assumed that equality has been achieved for women and a seeming feminist rhetoric of choice, freedom and equality now pervades society’s everyday landscape.

Yet, as McRobbie notes, this means that feminism is perceived as unnecessary and irrelevant and as these looks are presented as autonomous and independent the debate seems closed and sly patriarchal ideologies seep through. As she and Tyler point out, women’s physical appearance takes precedent in the popular terrain rather than any engagement as to what these images mean for women or the wider issues regarding pregnancy and social injustice.

The Women’s Resource Centre’s report from 2007, ‘Uncovering women’s inequality in the UK’, states, in 2005 domestic violence towards pregnant women was the biggest cause of miscarriage or still birth, 30,000 women left work due to pregnancy discrimination and full-time employed women with children spend 30% more time on childcare per day than their male counterparts. These issues become pushed aside as a serene picture of fashionable pre and postnatal looks take precedent.

The act of childbirth tends to be brushed over in this glamorisation.

It is positioned in a contradictory fashion, with its array of bodily fluids, pain and physically demanding nature, it is often grimaced at socially, simultaneously, an everyday miracle that no one can comprehend until they have experienced it. Yet, when it comes to the cultural representations, as Tyler notes, birth has historically been depicted through a masculine lens.

It was refreshing (and realistic) to see that there were a variety of women of different sizes, cultural backgrounds and sexualities

She cites European religious and philosophical traditions as fundamental to the celebratory nature of human creation that distinctly places symbolic male births as paramount, ignoring women’s role. The obvious example is the Judeo-Christian male God, the ultimate creator. He creates Adam and Eve is almost a by-product, grown from Adam’s rib. Women are given no role in this tale of creation, apart from the fact that Eve went on to eat the forbidden fruit and damn humanity to living on Earth, continually attempting to claw its way back to Heaven. #

Another religious example is Hinduisim’s story of creation. One legend within Hinduism states that Brahma, the God of creation, has no mother and created himself in a lotus flower that came from the navel of Vishnu (another man) when the universe was created. Brahma went on to create the seven great sages to help him build the universe and eleven forefathers, Prajapatis, to create the human race from his mind. From his body he created his son, Manu, who is said to be the direct descendant of all Hindus. Yet again, women’s role has been relegated and deemed inconsequential.

However, contemporary depictions of childbirth in film have assigned women’s role as more worthy, yet with a distinctly romanticised, Hollywood air. The stereotypical tale sees childbirth as incredibly dramatic; waters break in an unexpected gush, cabs are hailed and there is a fervent rush to the hospital. Cut to inside the cab and with some sweating, screaming and a couple of pushes, Bob’s your uncle and the baby has popped out before anyone has even reached the hospital, which would seem to all occur in the time it takes to say: “I can see the baby’s head!” The recent portrayal of Clare’s childbirth in the Lost finale follows this line, but the cab is swapped for a dingy sofa in a backstage concert; there wasn’t even enough time to call one for this first time mum.

Some films, like Knocked Up, have attempted to inject more ‘realistic’ and graphic depictions into society through a lengthy childbirth with water baths, irritating doctors and a cacophony of screaming for a seemingly humorous display of these experiences. Yet, in keeping with the sexist theme of the gender portrayals, pointed out on The F-Word and Bitch Magazine amongst many, the images of vaginal crowning were a brief glance of prosthetic genitalia, a supposedly aesthetically ‘perfect’, flushed, hairless, vulva. Barely a drop of blood or amniotic fluid in this depiction, giving Knocked Up the title of the cleanest birth ever known. Although childbirth is becoming increasingly discussed, it is still shrouded in a sense of mystery and these Hollywood depictions are troublesome as they offer narrow and unrealistic events and images that shape the expected experiences and looks of what people suppose childbirth to be.

So, when I heard about the docusoap, One Born Every Minute, I was really excited and intrigued as to how this ‘truthful’ depiction of childbirth would be presented on a reality television show. Set within a maternity hospital, each episode follows two women and their families giving birth in a highly emotive and intimate display. I was addicted to each episode, the tales put forth were highly moving and sent me scurrying for the Kleenex, and I felt honoured to witness such intense moments of some people’s lives. Yet, as my tears subsided, I began to reflect on the series and how the women and childbirths were being depicted more generally.

One Born Every Minute.jpg

The glamorisation of pregnancy in celebrity culture is heterosexual, tight and slim-line, so it was refreshing (and realistic) to see that there were a variety of women of different sizes, cultural backgrounds and sexualities. There was also an emphasis on the hard work, determination and physical aspect of having a baby. Yet, the big elephant in the room is that in depicting motherhood as the most rewarding ‘job’ a woman can do, the series immediately reiterates the discourse of women as child-bearing vessels and this is something that all women should do for a successful femininity. This, of course, is an issue that feminists have been attempting to deal with for some time and I do not claim to have the answers to this, yet in the show the emphasis lies in not only this but that there is a ‘right’ way to do childbirth and motherhood.

The show hierarchically places ‘natural’ childbirth as preferred, the midwives and mothers often say that some women only feel complete if they have children vaginally, whereas the caesarean is shown as a last resort if something goes wrong in a highly dramatic fashion. ‘Natural’ childbirth is presented as a rite of passage that women must experience for motherhood, leaving those who do not choose to or cannot go down this path as lacking and failing women. Despite this emphasis, the series distinctly censors vaginal childbirth, yet the caesarean is given full visibility. The last episode does show a baby being born vaginally, yet this is under sedation and the doctor physically draws the baby out. Despite all its calls for how women should give birth, the image of a baby crowning was avoided, which is contradictory and confusing.

Leoni’s tale hinged on how she will succeed as a single mother, but like every person in the series it ends with her in a wholesome relationship; the single mother becomes unseen, absent, unmentioned and deviant in the world of One Born Every Minute

It would seem that vaginal crowning is still too abject for society to witness and the fact that I searched for hours, mindlessly clicking on google images to try and find images of the baby crowning in Knocked Up or the vaginal birth from One Born Every Minute to show my point, seems to emphasise this. Could this be because there is a fear that this may desexualise how women’s genitalia are perceived, especially considering the heightened emphasis through pornography and the ‘designer vagina’ in recent times? Or, perhaps this is part of the longer history of birth being culturally represented through a masculine lens, as Tyler notes. Although there is a heightened emphasis on women’s role, images of a woman actually pushing her baby out are absent, yet the (male) doctor is given full glory through his role as performing the caesarean or physically drawing the child out. When it comes to that moment of creation, women’s role is still pushed to the sideline.

It was also bothersome to see how the mothers were depicted and which mothers were chosen. Although there is a variety, the ones picked for the show tend to reflect (and in turn encompass and emphasise) the current social worries regarding gender ideologies and these became inscribed through their birthing practices. As Tyler states in her introduction for the special birth issue of Feminist Review, the maternal may never have been more visible in society but it is inherently contradictory:

Young working class mothers are still routinely demonised in political discourse and are stable television comic fodder; older mothers are censured and reviled for perverting ‘nature’; working mothers are routinely castigated for failing their children; mothers who do not work outside the home are rebuked for failing themselves, their families and the economy. Meanwhile, the spectre of infertility has taken root within the imaginary life of white middle-class girls and women, and the 25% of women who now chose not to have children are pitied and feared.

These anxieties subtly appear in the show regarding women’s social role and motherhood; the older, middle class IVF mother, Joy, who has let her biological clock tick too late due to work commitments, faces a difficult childbirth because of her diabetes issues.

The teen mothers, Leoni and Abbi, who accidentally become pregnant and were unable to work but allude to doing so after childbirth, are shown to constantly justify their reproductive choices and are claimed to be ignorant to the birthing process (show me a first time mum who isn’t?), which no other mothers were subject to throughout the series.

Leoni’s tale hinged on how she will succeed as a single mother, but like every person in the series it ends with her in a wholesome relationship; the single mother becomes unseen, absent, unmentioned and deviant in the world of One Born Every Minute. Similar to what Robyn Longhurst discovered of YouTube births in her paper ‘YouTube – A New Place For Birth?’, far from childbirth being merely a ‘natural’, biological scene, free from gender issues, it is clear that the show is a place where contemporary ideologies are initially raised and then ironed out. They are briefly touched upon and then ignored as all mothers end (eventually) with healthy babies in two-parent families, to offer a soothing story of gender and family ideologies that brushes over contemporary contradictions.

Helen Wilson and Annette Huntington point out in their paper ‘Deviant (M)others’, that teenage motherhood was socially acceptable until very recently, moreover it is now at its all-time lowest in Western countries therefore these worries that have surfaced are related to anxieties regarding women’s social and economic role.

McRobbie observes there is a “new sexual contract” in contemporary society; women are expected to gain qualifications and education, enter the labour force, delay motherhood and then combine this for a dual role of childcare and waged labour for female citizenship. Those who do not fulfil this, such as the working class teen mother or single mother, are demonised in popular culture, subjected to government initiatives and medical exploration to prove they are ‘bad’ mothers. Overall, those who are able to work and consume in our meritocratic society become the ‘good’ mothers and the others are the ‘bad’.

Yet, what gets ignored is how a sociocultural categories such as class determines who succeeds as the ‘victorious’ mother and the complexity of current gender roles. Nor that single mothers are not treated as well in NHS hospitals as women with a partner, (as a King’s Fund study found). Or that performing this dual role may not be beneficial for all.

For example, many single mothers that return to work may actually be in a worse position economically and this does not even touch on the abundance of social stigmatisation they may receive.

As McRobbie raises, in this “new sexual contract”, any potential discussions that childcare could be shared between parents is ignored overall, instead women are expected to do everything at once now and the fall out is placed on individuals or certain ‘types’ of mothers with little consideration to the socioeconomic structures that enable this unfair situation.

Whilst the opening up of pregnancy and childbirth has potential to offer different viewpoints, in its current context of paradoxes and inconsistencies it seems like these depictions of maternity are a way to showcase social norms, skipping over any contradictions through a happy depiction of sexually assertive women or blissful families. Yet, these issues must be discussed and the debate should not be closed; clearly, equality has not been reached, no matter how much these representations urge us to believe in the contrary.

Maternity Corset image in the public domain, obtained from WikimediaCommons. Image of One Born Every Minute courtesy of Channel 4.

Sara D B is a masters student in London. She spends her days reading, writing, drinking copious amounts of tea and smoking too much, and her nights socialising, having heated debates with her friends, drinking white wine and smoking even more. She hopes to go on to do a PhD