Updated: Apr 7, 2021
“Rather than celebrating the body of woman with child, [medical photography] illustrates a somewhat more shame-ridden identity. Such photographs were never intended for a large public.” – Susan Bright
Many critics in the world of pregnancy and art offer one staple moment in time to create a shift in how society viewed the pregnant body and art separately, and how the two became later meshed together. This would be known as the famous, portrait of a very nude and very pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of an August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair as captured by Annie Leibovitz. For some, this magazine cover was the staple moment in history that offered a shift in the outlook of pregnant portraits within Western popular society. Society had never seen the pregnant body perceived as something beautiful. Before this moment, though, we saw pregnant photographs in medical textbooks and “How To” instruction manual-like books.
Pregnancy was not the only medical subject that was captured in medical textbooks via photography. At the turn of the nineteenth century, photography became a new and sophisticated way of capturing a “reality.” Society now began seeing photography used in many areas of medicine to offer a like-reality moment for education and training purposes. It was a way of representing reality and for setting an example of what may come in any specific area of medicine. In general, the medical photograph lends itself to “the diagnostic medical gaze and the rise of photography as the principal means of defining reality in the early nineteenth century” (Mirzoeff. 7). With capturing of this reality, came a harsh realization of the human limits and human norms. “The sublime is the pleasurable experience in representation of that which would be painful or terrifying in reality, leading to a realization of the limits of the human and of the powers of nature” (Mirzoeff. 9). We see this especially with the pregnant body and ways in which the woman’s body drastically develops and shifts in the 42 weeks of pregnancy. Diagrams and drawings only go as so far to show these changes, where as photographs lend a whole new level of reality to this bodily shift, which was, and remains to be a large component within medical texts.
Not only is it difficult to come across pregnant body photographs during these time periods, but the only places where such photographs are often found is within medical texts. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pregnancy was merely for reproduction purposes and was not deemed as a beautiful, life-altering moment in a woman’s life. Although some women sincerely enjoyed the act of bearing a child, it was rarely, if not ever, documented as such within the realm of photography. This is ever prominent as we often see the identities of these pregnant bodies were guarded and covered, denying ownership of the woman and her swollen belly. By blindfolding the woman you are separating the topic (the pregnany) from the subject (the pregnant mother). We see this commonly in medical textbooks, where the face of the pregnant subject was often times covered or masked, therefore, “one might conclude that one principal ideological function of early obstetrical photographs was to naturalize the masculine gaze at the female reproductive anatomy, and even at pregnant woman’s faces” (Mathews. 14). Not only is masking the pregnant woman’s face denying them an identity to their pregnant body and what is happening to their body, but it is also creating a purpose of the pregnancy. Not only does tying a mask around a pregnant woman’s face dehumanize her, but it is also extremely objectifying. Both of which are being done through a male gaze within the realm of medical texts. Furthermore, a purpose in which the only reason a pregnant body is being photographed is merely to see the pregnant body and not for aesthetic reasons or allowing ownership to the self. The pregnant woman did not have an identity and one pregnant woman was the same as the next. By masking these women, they were not seen as a pregnant woman with an identity and an individual, rather these women were subjects and served for the purpose of medicine (see images 1, 2, and 3).
Image 1 (Mathews. 131)
Image 2 (Mathews. 130) Diagrams found in early medical textbooks showing different stages of pregnancy. The subjects of the diagrams faces are covered.
Image 3 (Mathews. 129)
Through pregnant bodies only being seen in texts such as medical outlets and “how to” books, the act of pregnancy was not deemed as a “beautiful” moment in a woman’s life. Beauty can both been seen from the physical standpoint as well as the emotional. A woman is soon becoming a mother through her time being pregnant which can be seen as a beautiful moment, whereas physical traits of the woman actually change through pregnancy too. Not only is the woman’s body changing shape, but her hair skin and nails may also thrive during pregnancy due to an increase in hormones all of which can be seen as beautiful. Also, just the mere ability to become pregnant can be deemed as something very beautiful. However, early on, photographs of pregnant women were only found in the medical sphere and therefore society could not fully understand what it is to be pregnant, unless of course, the individual went through it themselves. The power of the female reproductive system was hushed by masks and blurred identities and created a gap of understanding of the pregnant body between men, women who have not been pregnant, and a pregnant woman. Since it so often is not the ‘norm,’ the pregnant body can seem grotesque, mutilated and unattractive. We even see this with people who are closest to the pregnant woman. In a specific instance, Renee Cox’s husband told her he was not attracted to her during the early stages of her pregnancy. She offers that, “for many women, this denial of our erotic pregnant selves by the men who made it happen is like spiritual rape” (Buller. 76.). Women who are pregnant and do not gain support for their partners become closed and self-conscious of their bodies. With a lack of beautiful pregnant artwork, it is possible for society (and men) to not appreciate the beauty that is within the pregnant body. It is through, “maternal sexuality, embodied by the pregnant woman, [that] does not lend itself easily to appropriation. Instead, a vigorous patriarchal mandate keeps maternity and sexuality separate,” (Mathews. 21.). We see this in the intense sexualization and fetishization of the female breasts. Women’s breasts serve the purpose of feeding their children. However, through society and over time, breasts have become a symbol of sexuality and less a symbol of nourishment. A sexuality intensified by the male gaze and his fetish of the female breasts. The same goes for the female body. It is upon impregnation that the female body no longer is deemed as beautiful in the male gaze and was often backed as society’s norm.
As photography develops and society modernizes it ideas, in about the 1930’s we soon see pregnancy photos moving away from solely being a part of medical texts and “how-to” books, and slowly become a part of documentary work. Within documentary work, the pregnant body began to become flaunted and offered to society that it is okay to be pregnant and proud of it. And it is, “within this mode of documentary practice, [that] modernist photographs of pregnant women gained a social context that made them acceptable to gaze at,” (Matthews. 24). This shift in the gaze of the pregnant body is a huge societal development and will lay the foundation of pregnant artwork in years to come. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that society began to see art photos of pregnant bodies. It was through this exposure of art photos that created an aesthetic for these types of photographs to be even thinkable within society. Essentially, this new development provided the ability to think of photography, specifically pregnant photography as art. It is “the content of a modernist art photograph [that] must be culturally acceptable for the image to be seen as art,” (Matthews. 19). Essentially, if the culture doesn’t accept it, then there is no desire or market for it. The early 20th century also offered a societal movement of “Voluntary Motherhood”. This was a group of activists who promoted the comfort of pregnancy and respected within the structures of marriage and family. These activists would speak out about normalizing pregnancy and flaunting the pregnant body. They saw the pregnant body for the bountiful nature and beauty it withheld, and saw it outside the confines of a medical text or “how-to” book. It was the combination of photography being seen as an art form and the works of the Voluntary Motherhood activists that laid the foundation of pregnancy photography to be deemed as an art form.
As society laid this foundation of acceptance of the pregnant body as an art form, pregnant women in the 1980’s began seeking professional photographers to capture this significant, life changing moment of their lives: the development into motherhood. They, “extended their reach beyond the family album as well, going to professional photographers to have formal pregnant portraits made or even collaborating with artists to make images of their pregnancies that were more ambitious that home snapshots” (Matthews. 101.). This was not the norm in the 1980’s however this is the shift society began to see in the flaunting of the pregnant body. More and more women were capturing this moment and as society has always made obvious, once when celebrities started doing it, so did everyone. And so, we move into the August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair, with a very nude, very pregnant, Demi Moore on the cover.