Hilarious or horrifying? Foetuses Photoshopped onto bellies

Meredith Nash

Representing foetuses as “babies” can have a serious impact on women’s access to contraception and abortion. Trevor Bair

I was both delighted and confused when I saw a discussion of a new “trend” in pregnancy pictures on STFU, Parents, a US blog that pokes fun at people who “overshare” information about parenting through social media.

In July, the blog’s creator noted that she had received emails about parents-to-be who were indulging in an “artistic” re-invention of their maternity photographs and posting them on Facebook. Women were Photoshopping their sonogram (ultrasounds images) onto their pregnant bellies in photographs.

The story was picked up by various media outlets, which referred to the photos as tacky and creepy.

When I first saw these photographs, I thought they were bizarre but quite funny. And the view of the trend on Jezebel.com made me laugh out loud. But when I thought more about it, I realised that the foetuses confuse the purpose of maternity photographs.

Emerging bellies

Until the 1990s, pregnant bodies had been hidden from the view of most people living in the West. Pregnancy was seen as a topic reserved for the doctor’s office. But the 1991 Vanity Fair cover photo of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore challenged this view.

The photograph was important because it put women’s bodies (literally) back into the picture at a time when reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), had transformed pregnancy into a highly medicalised experience. Until this time, there were few photographs of pregnant women in popular culture, but there were lots of pictures of foetuses thanks to the publication of medical photographer Lennart Nilsson’s A Child is Born.

Still, this new trend of Photoshopping foetuses onto pregnant bellies is not surprising given the cultural and medical importance of the foetus in the West. Historically, a foetus didn’t “come to life” for women until quickening (foetal movement). But now, thanks to technology, a foetus is often thought of as a “baby” in the early weeks of a pregnancy. As a result, the foetus has transformed into a life that must be protected medically at all costs.

Feminists have argued that ultrasound occupies a peculiar cultural space, having moved there from being a medical tool. Ultrasound sessions are often thought of as a time for “bonding” between parents and foetuses.

Technology has changed how we think of foetuses. Duncan Hull

And sonogram images have now become “baby’s first picture”. The technology has become more sophisticated (with 3D and 4D scans), and consumer culture has had an important hand in shaping beliefs through the marketing of entertainment (non-diagnostic) ultrasounds, the sale of products such as sonogram frames and through social media. Some foetuses even have Facebook and Twitter accounts!

Changing perceptions

When it comes down to it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Photoshopping a foetus into a picture of its mother. But pictures like these remind us of the extent to which women’s reproductive bodies have been taken over by technology and medicalised. They also show us the extent to which pregnant women’s views of their own bodies have changed.

To a certain extent, the Photoshopped foetuses show us that women see themselves as foetal receptacles. I think that they also show us how some women negotiate the alien feeling of having two bodies in one. But it’s important to remember that women have a bodily connection to the foetus in an ultrasound image.

The Photoshopped pictures are created by women as an expression of their excitement around a birth, ultimately to be viewed within the confines of “private” life. Although the internet has blurred the line between public and private, we should all be concerned about how private images of pregnancy are used in the public domain. Individual stories of pregnancy told through these photographs can potentially be re-imagined by others for use in ways that were never intended.

And as we have seen for several decades in the United States and Australia, pictures of cute, “smiling” foetuses that circulate in popular culture are dangerous for women’s reproductive rights and choices. The representation of foetuses as “babies” can have a serious impact on women’s access to contraception and abortion.

In some parts of the United States, women must view an ultrasound image before being granted a termination. In Australia, we have seen this played out in relation to the approval of RU486 (the so-called “abortion” drug).

When sonogram images leave the pages of the family album (or a personal computer) and make their way onto billboards, websites and television screens, the danger is that they may tell a story of foetal “life” that no longer resembles the images of pregnancy created by women themselves.

This is the fourth part of our short series on motherhood. Click on the links below for other articles in the series:

Part one: A womb of her own: risking uterus transplant for pregnancy

Part two: He’s my mother: motherhood across gender boundaries

Part three: IVF treatment for older women: is age the greatest concern?

Part five: Origins of Love: the reality and ethics of reproductive tourism

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Meredith Nash does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Tasmania provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.