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The emotional and physical experiences of fatigue, stress, anxiety, and isolation are almost never seen in the popular images of pregnancy. reebob/flickr , CC BY-NC

‘Fat, bland, boring incubators’: ordinary pregnant women don’t feel like Beyoncé

Stop the presses, Beyoncé is pregnant.

For a brief moment last week, the headlines shifted from Trump to the “Queen Bey”, who dropped the news of her twin pregnancy on Instagram in a post garnering nearly 10 million “likes”.

Beyoncé announced her twin pregnancy via Instagram. via Beyoncé on Instagram

Kneeling beside a wall of flowers and caressing her belly, Beyoncé stares straight at the camera wearing a maroon bra, pale blue panties, and a veil. Following her Instagram teaser, Beyoncé released a further 17 photographs featuring religious, royal, and maternal references on her website.

These pictures are no accident – they make a powerful statement on black motherhood in 2017.

But they’re very different from a photo series of ordinary women I captured in my study: The Tasmanian Pregnancy Pictures Project. Two key findings from this study include:

1) women’s self-produced pictures reflect changing cultural and bodily norms in pregnancy, and

2) celebrity pregnancy photos form an important backdrop for these changing norms.

The power of celebrity pregnancy photographs

The iconic 1991 image of Demi Moore in Vanity Fair was pivotal in making us believe that a mother’s body shouldn’t be hidden from view.

Moore’s pregnant pose has been replicated many times over the last 25 years, mainly by white celebrities.

Naked pregnant celebrity portraits embody the ethos of the sexy and slender “yummy mummy”, a woman who is empowered by her ability to look glamorous and skinny during pregnancy and then squeeze into size 8 jeans just a couple of weeks after giving birth.

I am a sociologist, and specialise in pregnant body image. These celebrity pregnancy photos had me wondering:

  • What do everyday women feel about these images? Indifference? Anger? Sadness?

  • Where does feminism fit into “baby bump” culture?

This led me to one of my recent studies in Tasmania.

Photos from ordinary Australian pregnancies

This study is based on the idea there is a gap between the ways pregnancy is represented in the media and the way everyday women experience pregnancy.

It was clear the emotional and physical experiences of fatigue, stress, anxiety, and isolation are almost never seen in the popular images of pregnancy. So how would women document their experiences of pregnancy if they were given a camera?

I gave 12 pregnant Tasmanian women digital cameras and asked them to photograph whatever they felt best captured their experiences, and I interviewed them about their photos over a one year period.

Some 2,000 photographs later, what did I learn?

The strongest message to come through women’s photos was their fear of gaining weight.

In the last 15 years, we have seen the emergence of a booming pregnancy weight loss industry. There are pregnancy fitness magazines, prenatal exercise classes, and t-shirts made especially for women who are petrified about being mistaken as fat instead of pregnant in those early weeks.

Thus until about 16 weeks gestation, most women had great difficulty in coming to terms with how their bodies looked or their body image.

“Lisa”, below, represented her fear of looking like she’d let herself go because her jeans would no longer zip up.

“Christine” photographed a mushroom to show how unrecognisable she had become to herself – bland and boring.

And “Julie” weighed herself every day.

By mid-pregnancy, women became more comfortable with their bodies.

The photos are interesting because they show women as they saw themselves.

These are the kinds of photos that we rarely see in the media.

I like these photos because they are unconventional; they show women’s bellies from unusual angles and are about self-discovery and fun.

As pregnancy progressed, some women struggled with feeling like a public spectacle. “Joan”, below, felt like people always talked about the size of her belly – no one looked at her face anymore. It was like she had become a walking incubator.

Women anxiously waited for birth while they contended with competing anxieties about losing their baby weight.

Images of women after birth

Ever since Heidi Klum famously strutted down the catwalk just six weeks after giving birth, losing baby weight has become a competitive sport.

Australian women’s photos grapple with this culture of postnatal weight loss: how did Beyoncé get so slender from her first pregnancy so quickly?

Just how long would it take for them to “bounce back”? Would they get stretch marks?

Post-birth, all of the women told me that their bodies felt unfamiliar or “not me” and they worried they would never return to a “normal” body.

They hated not being able to wear their normal clothes – women talked about how much they hated wearing track pants and slippers day in and day out.

Why do pregnancy pictures from everyday women matter?

Feminist writers have observed that Beyoncé is the new “black Madonna”, a blessed figure of motherhood and a position that has been unavailable to women of colour historically. Her recent pregnancy photographs present this image.

My research demonstrates the power of photography for revealing a world of experiences and issues in pregnancy normally concealed from view.

Photography can make a real connection to people and photographs are also essential in improving maternal health care.

For instance, photographs taken by pregnant women may be able to illuminate strategies that health professionals can employ to help women improve pregnant body image. They might also help in assessing women who are more at risk for developing postnatal depression.

When I started this project, I had no idea what kind of images I would get. I ended this project with not just with a collection of photographs but images that tell women’s stories of pregnancy.

Beyoncé’s photographs are powerful in their own right, but let’s not forget what we can learn about pregnancy from those mundane images of track pants, barren wardrobes and self-portraits in a bathroom mirror.

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