Updated: Apr 7, 2021
“And yet the image is vital to our history of the mother figure for it was the first to objectify the pregnant form in mainstream culture. What is more, it transformed attitudes.” -- Susan Bright
Much like the rest of history, there was one significant moment in the history of maternity photography that truly laid the foundation for modern maternity photography. The 1990’s faced a shift in popular culture as TMZ and E! Network flourished and the National Inquire was placed on magazine stands. People were now, more than ever before becoming interested in what celebrities were doing and gained interest in these celebrity gossip platforms.
When discussing maternity photography any scholar or artist who knows the history of it, would know of the photograph that laid the foundation for the maternity photography shift within society. This photograph would be on the cover of an August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair, featuring a large bellied Demi Moore. Demi Moore did not lay the foundation for celebrities posing nude, she laid the foundation for women to tastefully show off their pregnant bellies and be proud of it. This was a pivotal moment in society in which the people didn’t know what to do with it. World-renowned photographer, Annie Leibovitz, captured the shoot and she recalls that the photograph was deemed as scandalous, “in the sense of shocking and morally offensive to some people. [ . . ] Newsstands in parts of the country displayed it in a white paper wrapper, as if it were a porn magazine. Several supermarket chains refused to sell it even with the wrapper.” (Leibovitz. 91). 28 years ago the magazine was sold for $2.50 an issue. Today, I was able to get my hands on a completely sealed issue on EBay for an inflated price of $25.00. However, just as how many explained, once in my hands I saw just how society made her pregnant body out to be an object of explicit nature and curiosity (see images 4 and 5).
Image 4 (Vanity Fair 1991)
Image 5 (Vanity Fair 1991)
The cover of the 1991 Vanity Fair issue featuring a pregnant and nude Demi Moore that caused much controversy. Note the white paper in Image 4 that was inside of the plastic seal, explicitly used to cover her nude body. Image 5 reveals the full cover photo that was discreetly hidden behind the paper.
When the magazine was first released it was seen as the latest scandal. It was looked at as the non-norm, explicit and pornographic. However, with the public’s response to this photo came a moment of epiphany on society’s outlook on the pregnant body. Why would a woman, posing nude for a Playboy magazine be deemed as beautiful but a pregnant woman posing nude, with no sexual parts showing, be deemed as aan object of a scandal? As Mathews offers, “Annie Leibovitz’s cover photograph of actress Demi Moore, pregnant and nude, was an instant scandal. It also opened the floodgates to the public representation of pregnancy” (Mathews. 199). The lack of representation of the pregnant body as seen before the Demi Moore photo is immense. Pregnant women did not have representation as a form of beauty in society. Pregnancy was merely an act women did to reproduce and there was little to no artistic value within the immense milestone of a woman’s life. Demi Moore soon showed women that this moment in a mother’s life is life changing, just as a graduation or a wedding is and therefor, the moment should be captured and flaunt the beauty that it withholds.
The color photograph features a profile view of her bare body. She is not gazing into the camera and the studio lighting is deliberately coming from the right of the image. It is then shadowing the explicit areas with the help of the bending of her leg and placement of her hand below her belly. She also is covering her breasts with her arm and hand, while her other hand frames the bottom half of her swollen belly. The only items she is wearing include a very large diamond ring on her right, middle finger—clearly not a wedding band—and diamond studded earrings. The significance behind her not gloriously showing off a wedding band is perhaps that she is taking away the notion of a husband (at the time, Bruce Willis) and a wife make a baby, and moving towards the notion of being a strong, self sufficient woman who is facing an uphill battle—on her own essentially.
The public’s response to the photo was not the intention of neither Leibovitz, Moore nor Tina Brown, the Vanity Fair Editor at the time. Interestingly enough, the nude poses were originally done for Moore and at the time, her husband Bruce Willis only. The two were the sole intended audience. The nude photos were taken at the end of the photo shoot for Vanity Fair and were intended for only Moore and Willis (Leibovitz. 93). However, Brown had seen the photos from Leibovitz and fell in love. The nude photos were everything Brown needed in the issue to add to the sexy spread of the pregnant photographs (See Images 6 and 7). The nude photos were something different than Moore posing a tight fitted dress, showing off her baby bump. By her showing off her naked pregnant body, it was taking the photos to a whole new level. Brown knew the photos were needed for the cover. Brown and Leibovitz reached out to Moore for permission to used them and she had no problem with it. Looking back, she is proud of making that decision; “I think we did something great for women with that cover. It’s one of my proudest things that we did for women, because it really liberated women from maternity clothes. And it also liberated women from a sense that pregnancy was something to be sort of covered up.” Leibovitz too reflects on the public’s reaction and the outtakes from the photograph and explains that, “None of this was my intention, although it’s gratifying to think that the picture helped make pregnant women feel less awkward or embarrassed about their bodies” (Leibovitz. 92). The outcome may not have been Brown, Moore or Leibovitz’s intention, however this was the pivotal moment society needed to have to start a conversation, and an eventual movement for pregnant women to embrace their bodies and capture the significant moment in her life and the beauty that it witholds.
Image 6: One of the inside magazine photos used in the August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair. Moore’s pose is a typical maternity photo pose. She is framing her belly with her hands and is relaxed looking down at her belly. However, her outfit of choice is risqué, but offers the concept that she may be pregnant, but underneath she is still a woman, a sexual being, and an intimate individual.
Image 7: Nude beneath an emerald green gown, Moore still exposes her pregnant belly. With her chin up and her hand on her belly she is displaying a confidence and continued intimacy that the other images hold. She is not wearing underwear in the photograph, however shadowed so the viewer is unable to see any intimate objects. She also is wearing high heels, offering another level of confidence.
For some time after the release of the magazine, there were a lot of celebrity look a-likes, posing in a similar manner with their pregnant bellies being flaunted. The movement had officially begun. Over the years we have seen nude pregnant bellies on the cover. From Christina Aguilera (see image 8) to Jessica Simpson (see image 9) and Serena Williams (see image 10) pregnant women have began to flaunt their bellies proudly. Newsstands all around the country began to see more and more similar poses, and as the years progressed these poses started to become a new kind of normal.
Image 8 (Marie Claire, January 2008) Image 9 (Elle, April 2012) Image 10 (Vanity Fair, August 2017)
After Demi Moore laid the foundation, many other celebrities did look-a-like sessions flaunting their nude pregnant bodies for various magazine covers. None of these covers got nearly as much press conversation as Moore’s did.
It was the Vanity Fair August 1991 magazine cover that sparked conversation, increased confidence and essentially laid the path for any and all maternity photography and art to come. Moore’s confidence radiates in the photo and provided a backbone for pregnant women to come in the future. She connected beauty, sexuality and maternity in one captured milestone moment. However, the work for pregnant women did not stop here:
Annie Leibovitz’s cover photograph of Demi Moore did initiate a fuller representation of pregnancy in American popular culture. After the initial spate of copycat magazine covers, photographs of pregnancy began to appear, without fanfare, in many publications. The taboo against representing pregnancy in public has relaxed considerably since 1991, though by no means has it disappeared. (Matthews. 212)
Although the taboo of the photograph seemingly dissipated, it can be said that not all of society has fully transitioned to accepting the pregnant body and its beauty as a form of art. As Mathews notes, society is more “relaxed,” about posing nude with a pregnant belly, yet every single time a celebrity does it, it becomes the next hottest item to discuss
on E! Network. Society is not at a point which full acceptance of the full body is widely encouraged, however it is moving in the right direction of such.