Tuesday, 16 July 2013

After-birth

Pictures of post-natal female bodies are seldom seen. They're thought of as ugly and embarr-assing. But one woman has set out to change that negative view by publishing a book of over 70 post-natal bodies and inviting us to make our own judgments.

The photos make no attempt to hide all the physical effects of childbirth - the scars, stretch marks, wrinkles and knobby bits that are usually seen as unattractive and to be kept out of sight. There's no airbrushing or photoshopping or touching-up of any kind, just the honest reality of what a new mum may actually look like.

"So many people tell me, oh, I've never seen a body like that," says the photographer, Jade Beall of Tucson, Arizona. "I want people not to have to react as, you're gross, but instead, oh, that's a woman who is incredibly human, or that's a woman who has scars and lines with stories to tell. My goal is to help these mothers feel worthy of being called beautiful."

Most of the women who took part were deeply self-conscious of their bodies and reluctant to display them, but they took the plunge and agreed to be photographed.

Both men and women have pointed out that they're unprepared for the physical changes to a new mother's body precisely because they're always hidden from the public gaze. The sudden appearance of unexpected "blemishes" that go against media images of female beauty can be shocking and upsetting only because people don't know they're commonplace and normal.

Not everyone thinks the book is a good idea though. Sociologist Meredith Nash thinks it's quite natural to be horrified at your new stretch marks or scars and the book may simply pressurise women to feel good about something that isn't good at all.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with women feeling upset about the fact that they have stretch marks, because culture tells them they are ugly. There is a reason women feel upset about the way they look."

Maybe initial upset is natural, but surely it's right to challenge that reaction and ask why women are so mortified about their changing bodies? Why this endless pretence that women's bodies are always perfect and flawless when we all know the reality is something more wayward - and more interesting?

36 comments:

Jenny Woolf said...

Women will eventually have to get used to the idea that their bodies change, if they live long enough, so I don't see why there is this soul searching about the subject. Although it IS a shock at first. But ... hey.... if that is the worst thing in life - !

Nick said...

Indeed, a few stretchmarks are hardly the biggest of life's trials and tribulations! And certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

John Gray said...

I don't want to see anyone's body
I see too many at work
( and no I am not a prostitute)

Nick said...

John: I can understand that in your job you've seen far more bodies than you would wish to see. And consequently I doubt if post-natal bodies come as any surprise to you!

bonsaimum said...

The changes are just the affirmation of the stages of our lives. Just to wake up every morning is a blessing, everything else is secondary.

Nick said...

Bonsaimum: Indeed, every new day is a blessing, so why waste it fretting about one's "imperfect" body? As long as it performs the necessary daily functions....

e said...

Speaking of bodies, living and aging with a disability is quite interesting and one learns a different level of appreciation when things work...

Ursula said...

You'll be pleased to know - or may be totally indifferent to the fact - that I do not have stretchmarks. Childbirth and breastfeeding left my body unblemished. All it did was make my heart sing.

I think that book builds on a myth. And its justification is purely gratuitous. Will write to that photographer and suggest producing a coffee table tome full of the beauty of beer bellies. Now, that would be a laugh. A belly laugh.

Fact is: Humans are hard wired preferring beauty. By which I don't mean beauty in the sense of perfect symmetry. To nail it: To me someone's slightly slack bikini belly - three children in - is more palatable than young women who let it all hang out as soon as the sun is out - including their fat thighs. Oblivious to how crap they look. Sorry if that sounds harsh. But the human is a visual beast and the eye doesn't want to be assaulted. That's why clothes were invented. The art is in covering up the less desirable. And there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. And if you are a really ugly unsightly specimen there are always earrings to detract from the rest of you.

I agree with the professor cited in your link's article that this book serves no purpose whatsoever. None. If anything it's done a huge disservice - to both women and men.

Let me put it another way: Would you think it right to draw attention to someone's shortcomings; shortcomings they may not be able to do anything about? Under the mantle of making them feel better?

Don't think so. It's cruel.

U

Nick said...

e: A disability adds a whole new dimension. As you say, then the only important thing is that your body does what you want it to.

Nick said...

Ursula: Personally, I can't find any beauty in beer bellies, and I'm glad I don't have one. Of course beer bellies aren't the result of a natural bodily function but of endless indulgence....

You seem to be saying that people should cover up any part of their body that might seem unattractive to others. But then to meet every possibility we'd all be going around in burkas. And why should we cover up to suit other people's subjective opinions?

I think the point of the photos is that the physical results of childbirth are not necessarily "shortcomings" but just a natural event to be accepted and not guiltily hidden away. And the women in question did agree to take part, they aren't being unwillingly singled out.

Ursula said...

Nick, I'd say that beer bellies too are, in your words, "the result of a natural bodily function", namely that of hankering for a bit of "endless indulgence". Mind you, to declare my hand: Can't say I find stomachs spilling out over waist bands attractive but that doesn't take away from a man's other charms. And that's the point to remember: We are all more than the sum of our visible parts.

Glad you mention 'burkas'. I nearly did so myself in my first reply to you but then thought that might be taking my idea one step too far into the ironic.

You ask why we should cover up. My dear Nick, we should cover up because appearance is like any currency. And fact is, and no use to try and intellectualize it, we want to be seen as attractive. To other people. Even my son (insert smiley) once said to me: "You are not going out looking like that, Mama, are you?" This was at eight in the morning (still dark), going to the corner shop to hunt down a pint of milk for breakfast. Hope you get the point I am trying to make.

We all have a choice: Let it all hang out, or try and dress some of it up. I am all for dressing it up. A little. Not to the point of resorting to fakery. Of course not. But, in truth, and I say this as someone with two sisters, who between the two of them have nine children, and if you saw them - in their bikinis - you wouldn't believe it, it's up to us. I know, I know, it's partly down to genes. Of course. but it's also down to attitude.

And you know what, Nick, what made me smile about those photos accompanying the article you linked: None of the women's bodies depicted were in slightest unattractive. Try a zit on your nose. Bring back veils I say.

Be interesting to see what some of your older readers have to say. Age creeping up on them whilst still feeling like five or twenty five, when no one can be bothered any longer to put candles on your birthday cake.

Other than that: Enjoyable debate, Nick. Though didn't take to the subject at first.

U

Rummuser said...

Neither men nor women are resonsible to this so called obsession with beauty. It started with the movies and then the advertising industry took over. We are all subliminally conditioned to accept what the beauty industry sets as norms,

Just think back. In our childhood we did not see our elders have such ideas of beauty.People grew old gracefully and lived without complexes.

Nick said...

Ursula: I think we'd all agree a minimal amount of covering up is necessary in the name of decency. We couldn't all go around naked. But we shouldn't have to cover up our arms or legs or stomachs simply because someone else finds them distasteful. Nor should women have to render their breasts or bottoms undetectable.

Speaking as an oldie myself, I feel no need to conceal any part of my body other than what decency requires. I suppose it helps that I'm not fat or pot-bellied.

Indeed, most people grew old gracefully when I was young and they weren't so obsessed with looking twenty years younger. The association of youth with beauty is pernicious.

Nick said...

Ramana: I don't accept that we're all subliminally conditioned to accept false ideas of beauty. We all have the choice to echo what's fed to us or decide it's nonsense. Most people must be aware by now that models and film stars are endlessly preened and primped (and starved) to maintain their flawless appearance. Without all that prettifying, they'd be as ordinary as the rest of us.

Secret Agent Woman said...

I got minimal stretch marks, but certainly my body has changed some post babies. I don't accept that it makes me less beautiful and I sure don't accept that we should all have to go around completely covered just because some might not find us beautiful. That's absurd. It's a particularly bad idea when you live in places that are sweltering.

Nick said...

Agent: That's good that you don't think the childbirth changes make you less beautiful. And yes, are people really supposed to cover themselves up when the weather is scorching?

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

Good for her, Nick, and I so agree. Why should we be ashamed of the changes that occur through fulfilling one of life's imperatives? I've never been beautiful, not even as a teen, but I was nowhere near as ugly as I thought I was, by comparing myself to the 'media' idea of beauty. It's a waste of life when this happens to anyone, boy, girl, man or woman, and if something as simple as a book or magazine cover can begin to change that, then it's GREAT!

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

Ursula: My goodness, you ARE fortunate to have been pregnant and developed no stretch marks. Most of us are not that lucky, despite anything we might try to do. For many of us, it simply comes down to the fact that some of us have a harder time than others.

On the subject of clothing, generally, I think you've missed the point, my dear. Homo Sapiens did not begin to dress himself (or herself) in clothing to hide the ugly bits, but to prevent undesirable sexual competition/attention as he went about his daily life in an increasingly crowded and complex society.

What Jade Beal is trying to get across, I think, is that we should not be judging ourselves - or others - by a false 'media' standard. Nobody can remain young and beautiful forever, nor should we wish to. Every stage of life has its own beauty. Once we have children, the 'looking for a sexual partner' stage is over and our bodies reflect that.

Ursula said...

Jay, thanks for your response.

I agree and disagree with you. Yes, I know that I have been fortunate that my body shows no signs that I ever bore a child - other than that my shoes size went up half a notch which was a bit of a shame since my cupboard was close to rivalling that of Imelda Marcoss.

I did not miss the point. What I was trying to say to Nick, indeed Jade Beal, that we cannot deny laws of nature. And one of those laws is that the peach of a twenty year old's skin is a sight to behold.

Our sense of what's beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with, as you put it, 'false media standard'. Our sense of beauty is bred in the bone. Which doesn't mean you can't be beautiful at 80. You can. See above ... "bred in the bone".

I do agree with your "every stage of life has its own beauty". It does.

However, I do not agree with your "the looking for a sexual partner stage is over and our bodies reflect that". Come again? OVER? You know what you have just done, Jay? Playing into the hands of the "beauty industry", those who try to be politically correct and those who seek pleasure elsewhere.

U

Nick said...

Jay: I would have thought clothing was first developed to keep out the cold, but who knows?

Like Ursula, I would never say the "looking for a sexual partner" stage is over. There are many people who find others attractive and enjoy sex with them well into so-called old age.

Nick said...

Ursula: Surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder and isn't some immutable "law of nature"? Personally I find some older women stunningly beautiful and a lot of young wrinkle-free women rather bland-looking. If beauty is "bred in the bone" and applies mainly to the young, how come (for example) Helen Mirren has such a following?

Ursula said...

Nick, you misunderstand. Helen Mirren? My point: Bred in the bone. Some of us can stand the test of time.

Neither should it be held against women/men who go to pot on account of advancing years.

What's so funny (well, not funny exactly) you citing Mirren as an example shoots your original reasoning straight into the foot.

U

Nick said...

Ursula: Well, no, not necessarily bred in the bone. Some people may still think Helen Mirren is old and past it. And what exactly is "going to pot"? Getting a few interesting wrinkles?

How does citing Helen Mirren sabotage my original reasoning? I was originally talking about post-natal body changes. If you're talking about beauty, I still maintain beauty is essentially in the eye of the beholder.

Wisewebwoman said...

Well I'm a lonely different beat on your post here Nick.

I truly believe the pornification of women has led to this book. we are not allowed the well earned blemishes of childbirth, stretch marks scars and mastectomies and other surgeries. Survival scars.

Seriously. I wrote about this a long time ago.

Hallelujah to her for showing us what a post natal body really looks like.

XO
WWW

Ursula said...

You are not on a lonely beat, Wise Web Woman. I have made (at length) a point here. Unfortunately people do not read properly.

As new words go your 'pornification' is a find. Makes me smile.

However, and to be serious: That woman's book and photos are precisely that: "Pornification". Or as I said in one of my replies to Nick: Gratuitous.

As to, how you put it, what a "post natal body" looks like: I cannot disagree more. Some, yes, they will show marks. Others (I have one child) don't. It's the luck of the genetic draw. Possibly. One of my sisters (she has five kids) has model looks. Though she will be the first to admit, and she is vain, that she had the veins in her legs done after number five. Preservation being everything.

Where this debate has gone a little haywire, in my opinion, that the ravages of time, in whichever form, are of course to be accepted but also to be covered up. Not because it's shameful that one's body takes the odd brunt. But because we want to look our best. No matter what Nick says: The more attractive you present the more successful you are. If you are interested (might blog about it) last year I did an experiment in the name of research. Boy oh boy oh boy, forget political correctness: We are hardwired. For me it was an eyeopener. No babies, breasts or tummies damaged in the process. Only my frown lines (I have two - vertical, between my eyebrows) deepened. Vastly outdone by my smiling over humans' folly.

U

Nick said...

www: Indeed, operation scars and physical damage generally aren't supposed to be seen. It's very positive that these photos are showing us the "unshowable".

Nick said...

Ursula: I think the word pornification has been around for a while. And I don't see how simple photos of women's bodies like these come into that category. To my mind pornification means presenting a woman in a deliberately titillating and arousing way.

It seems to me that whether a woman covers up her body is largely a matter for her. Apart from the minimal covering up that decency calls for, why shouldn't a woman expose her body if she feels comfortable doing so? Would it be so awful to see a woman on the beach openly displaying her post-natal stretchmarks and scars? Or any other scars she may have? Would it really be so shocking?

Ursula said...

This is getting slightly annoying, Nick. First of all: Why are we concentrating on women? Can't you see the irony? All you (and I) say goes for men as well.

Since porn isn't my scene I wasn't aware that, as you say, 'pornification" has been around for a while. I thought WWW had invented a funny word. And of course those photos are, in your words, "deliberately titillating and arousing". Let's not forget, without wishing to offend anyone reading this: There are people who get off on a corpse.

One last attempt at trying to make you understand what I mean: You can say what you like, Nick. Facts are facts. And the fact is that no one but no likes blemishes - those screaming in your face. This morning I went into town. Naturally the English can't help themselves but expose every bit of their sun starved bodies as soon as same comes out. Yes, the meat market. What I see shocks. Me. This has nothing whatever to do with the person behind the cellulite laden fat thigh he/she is happy to expose to the world. Nothing. What it's got to do with is that, for heaven's sake how many times do I have to repeat myself, humans are visual beasts. You, Nick, can protest till you are blue in the face. You ask "would it really be so shocking?" In an ideal world: No it wouldn't be shocking. But it is, at least, questionable why to let it all hang out. Talk to people who have REAL problems. Say: Burns. Psoriasis. People will recoil from them. That doesn't make people who recoil bad people. Not at all. It's a natural reaction. One for which they may feel ashamed of, apologize for. Nevertheless: It's one of human reflexes. Why do you think lepers were sent to isolated colonies?

To summarise: I think you are trying to peddle an ideal which is wonderful but not realistic. So, yes, I and every fashion designer and cosmetic artist in the world will say: Enhance the good, cover the not so good.

U

PS There is a film (will dig up the title) in which Marlene Dietrich makes my point beautifully. Or maybe you know the scene I am talking about already.

Nick said...

Ursula: I think at this point I shall agree to disagree. We're clearly seeing things from very different perspectives!

Though I must say, seeing these photos as pornography seems a very bizarre view. Does that mean any photo of a woman is inherently pornographic?

Rosemarie Blackthorn said...

When I was 27 I took part in an art project that changed my view on women's bodies and my own forever. One of the things that struck me during the project (which involved female nudity) was how many of the truly beautiful women were dissatisfied with their bodies.

I think there is great beauty in these post-pregnancy pictures. I was so moved when I saw them. My own post-pregnant body, did not 'snap' back into shape and has left me with stretch marks and curves. They are part of my experience of motherhood and are as much a part of my identity as my name.

I think it's interesting the emotion behind the debate on these pictures.

We talk about "beauty" and it can be a selection of genes or of mathematics and symmetry. For me, it's about the feelings behind appearance and therefore a much wider definition.

There are so many "beautiful" people who leave me cold.

PS. My partner has a "beer belly" and I love that as much as I love him.

Roses
xx

Leah said...

Roses, what a warm, thoughtful, beautiful comment. I agree with every bit of what you said.

Nick said...

Roses: That's one thing I constantly hear, that even obviously beautiful women still dislike their bodies. I agree the idea of beauty is a mix of all sorts of things, as you say. And I also agree that it's very much a question of the feelings behind appearance (and the way you see someone's appearance) rather than appearance itself.

Sorry about my remarks on beer bellies! A good thing you're not as scathing as me!

Nick said...

Leah: Me too. Well, except for beer bellies. I'm obviously shamefully prejudiced on the subject....

Wisewebwoman said...

One more thing I'll add, Nick, is that I was never so touched as when a lover kissed every inch of quite a long ugly scar on my abdomen and said:

"I adore this scar as it saved your life."

XO
WWW

Rosemarie Blackthorn said...

Nick, I wasn't at all offended. It's obviously the way I'm hardwired. I like my men with meat! :-)

WWW - that's exactly it! Spot on!

Nick said...

www: What a lovely thing to say. That's exactly the way to look at it.

Rosemarie: There's certainly plenty of meat in a beer belly!

(Technically, I'm told, it's not a beer belly but a calorie belly. It's simply the result of consuming too many calories of whatever kind)