In 1991, Hollywood actress Demi Moore, posed nude for the cover of Vanity Fair’s August issue. Nothing unusual there, considering her star power and the magazine’s penchant for Hollywood celebrities. What was different? She was seven months pregnant with her second daughter Scout LaRue Willis. Moore’s gorgeous face and equally beautiful body – her one hand covering her breasts and showing off a dazzling diamond ring, and the other cradling her pregnant belly – was tastefully captured by Annie Leibovitz.
The hand-bra photo was explicit on its own but it was the fact that it was exposing Moore’s baby bump in all its glory that created a social furore. The complaint was that the concept of a mum was being sexually objectified. On the same count, it emboldened many more celebrities to show off their baby bump.
Fast forward to today, it is an epitome of body positivity and hailed as a celebration of womanhood with social media increasingly becoming the platform for celebrities and influencers to showcase said acceptance while pointedly nudging society to do the same.
Take, Rihanna’s recent pregnancy for example, no message could have been more in the face than the Barbadian diva’s proclamation – the Metropolitan Museum of Art honoured the singer with a marble statue of her pregnant self, the first of its kind, for Met Gala 2022.
A celebration of the body
“Showing off one’s baby bump has always been a proud statement of being either a new mum or embracing pregnancy and motherhood once more. I believe the act is a form of celebrating the magnificence of a woman’s body at being able to bring forth another life into this world,” says Patricia Lin, Co-Founder of digital marketing agency Zion Global Marketing Pte Ltd.
The mother of two adds that it is something that only a woman can do for herself. “To me, it is a unique part of our being and our gender.”
Our thought processes have indeed evolved over the years. The concept of a pregnant body is no longer closed-door conversation. And rightfully so.
Counsellor, Dr Silvia Wetherell, of Alliance Counselling Pte Ltd, agrees that using photography as a tool to profess body acceptance ties in with body positivity, but she urges that it needs to be understood from different perspectives.
“Most baby bump pictures on social media portray a very limited view of the body: The woman is usually well groomed and ‘glowing’. There are no swollen feet or stretchmarks in sight. So, while on the surface it may appear to embrace womanhood, it is quite an edited version of the embodied experience of pregnancy,” she adds.
As an expert in prenatal mental health, Dr Witherell has worked with a number of women who are able to truly celebrate the body’s ability to create life. But not every woman is as accepting or able to rationalise the hormonal and emotional turbulence it can cause. She has seen evidence of women with previous body issues struggling with the bodily changes provoked by pregnancy.
It is not possible to separate them into two different groups of women with different set of emotional makeup either. As in the case of Lin, she experienced such contradictory emotions in her two pregnancies. Her first pregnancy didn’t cause much weight gain and she had the quintessential pregnancy glow that we all hear about. “Generally, I loved how I looked and I do believe a lot of photos showed that I was glowing,” says Lin. However, her second pregnancy was just the opposite, she had not only gained a lot more weight, “I also dealt with noticing different changes to my facial features and I did have negative thoughts – like I felt that I looked like a whale!”. She jests at the metaphor. But light as she makes of it, the situation and the emotions attached to it were real then and possibly even today at the memory of it.
So, the question is, faced with such unpredictable circumstances, where we do not have control over our physical and emotional self, do such displays of perfection motivate or aggravate the situation?
The flip side of things
Dr Witherell does not discount the fact that it could also evoke feelings of not being able to level up. “The mind is like a comparison machine, so being bombarded with body-beautiful pregnant women on social media can have a negative impact on women.” The impact could be more in the case of women who suffer from considerable weight gain, swollen feet and stretch marks could feel their body shape to be way off the mark as compared to the pregnancy bods on display in Instagram, or on the covers of glossies. Sexy pictures of pregnant women in a lingerie – and touched up – may resonate with some but could be very jarring for women who are feeling fat, exhausted and unattractive.
Dr Witherell does not disapprove of the concept either. “I think that the pregnant body should be celebrated in a way that feels right for each woman. My concern is the narrow scope of social media baby bump pictures that create an idealised and unrealistic beauty standard for the average pregnant woman. I would love to see more diverse angles of pregnancy photography that also show the less published bodily changes involved in pregnancy. That approach would be more in line with embracing womanhood as a whole and the strength and unique beauty of each pregnant body, regardless of whether it fits the current mold.”
For the new generation woman
Having grown up in an Asian society which has always set the bar high on standards of beauty, Lin sees this as a welcome change. Although she does not anticipate such open displays of the baby bump trickling into the streets of Orchard any time soon, it has inspired many women to record this stage of their live for posterity through boudoir photography.
Karen Fong, Associate Editor of The Singapore Women’s Weekly, who recently gave birth to her second child, welcomes the wave of change in maternity fashion – it has helped change what a woman “should” wear or is limited to wearing.
My concern is the narrow scope of social media baby bump pictures that create an idealised and unrealistic beauty standard for the average pregnant woman. – Dr. Witherell
Women like Rihanna, and more recently, closer to home Charmaine Seah-Ong are generally known for their style, “so I like being able to see how they worked their pregnancy into their lives”. “When Rihanna stepped out at Fashion Week baring her bump, to me, it just reinforced that pregnant women are strong and can pretty much get on with their lives while growing a tiny human. People need to be reminded of that.”
To Fong personally, these pregnancy-focused IG posts helped her plan her maternity wardrobe and save money in the process.
“Baring my (lack of) abs wasn’t something I did when I wasn’t pregnant so being pregnant didn’t make me want to start. But I was quite happy to show it off in a bikini, since it meant I didn’t have to buy a new swimsuit” she says.
Lin suggests that the other aspect could also be motivating women who shy away from having children for fear of it ruining their bodies.
It has to come from deep within
Feeling beautiful and “perfect” has to come from a place of acceptance of all flaws and an appreciation of the bigger picture. For Fong, for whom the period of the coveted pregnancy glow was shortlived, it was about the physiology of it all. She was thankful and proud that her body was able to deliver two healthy baby girls at term. Realistically speaking, she admits to neither feeling “sexy or womanly for doing it”. “I felt I needed to treat [my body] well and trust it to do its job, which was quite a different mindset for me.”
I would love to see more diverse angles of pregnancy photography that also show the less published bodily changes involved in pregnancy. That approach would be more in line with embracing womanhood as a whole – Dr. Witherell
To that end Dr Witherell suggests telling a “fuller story of one’s pregnancy, creatively documenting the good, bad and interesting moments of the journey”, such as “slowly applying lotion all over the body, with curiosity noticing the texture of the skin, tightness in the muscles, pregnancy changes in the body – and allowing critical thoughts to come in and out of your awareness”.
Being able to birth a new life is a beautiful thing – does it eliminate a woman who is not able to bear children or has chosen not to be a mother from the conversation of womanhood is mute as it is a discussion for another day. The takeaway, perhaps: We are each unique in our own way, and there can be no right or wrong way to celebrate it.
“Unfollow accounts that trigger body shame or anxiety, remind yourself that the baby bump pics are carefully taken and posted – that they do not capture the everyday behind the scenes reality,” says Dr Witherell. It is more about setting boundaries, knowing oneself, being confident, and celebrating your uniqueness.