A new advertising campaign launched by Mothercare, the UK’s “number one retailer” of baby products, features vivid photos of women’s post-baby bodies. There are stretch marks and scars, alongside the beautiful little bundles of joy who created said stretch marks and scars. Set against each image is the text: “Beautiful, isn’t she.” The so-dubbed Body Proud Mums campaign announces itself as an attempt to celebrate “the beauty of the post-birth body” and “boldly seeks to normalise [mothers’] experiences.”
It also follows a trend in post-labor photography, and Instagram hashtags, that tend to inspire listicles and slideshows with headlines like, “90 Brutally Honest Photos Of Post-Baby Bodies, That Women Are Sharing To Reveal The Truth No One Talks About.” The actual truth no one talks about is that photos like these have a sneaky tendency to reinforce retrograde notions around beauty, motherhood, and women’s worth.
After all, “brutally honest” post-pregnancy photos—the ones with stretch marks and c-section scars—so often feature a partially-nude woman holding her baby. The not-so-subtle subtext reads: I sacrificed this for this. These photos tell a righteous tale of maternal sacrifice, of women who let themselves go for the only reason women are ever supposed to let themselves go (and not just physically, either): motherhood. The baby—held to the chest, feet dangling above a zig-zag of stretch marks—is redemption. These “brutally honest” moms have just returned from battle clutching their war medals. They’re heroes whose scars are honorable.
Of course, this is not to say that “brutally honest” post-pregnancy bodies are widely accepted and honored. We still hear about celebrities “getting back” their pre-baby bods and post-birth Instagram influencer’s abs go insanely viral and there are “yummy mummy” nip-n-tucks. The weight of the culture is most definitely on returning to the pre-baby body.
That is part of what makes me wince at these “normalizing” post-pregnancy photos (especially in the service of advertising): their very construction is a validation of the pressure that women as a whole face around bodily perfection. They are meant to tell an apparently harrowing story of maternal self-sacrifice, and there is nothing progressive or revolutionary about that. All that tells us is that the pre-baby body was ideal.
I am skeptical of the idea that sticking women’s post-pregnancy bodies in front of a camera effectively “normalizes” them. But to whatever extent that these photos do normalize, they do so by buying into the broader terms of the debate over women’s bodies. The corrective these photos offer isn’t to the cult of beauty, but rather to the cult of post-baby beauty, and that deeply limited corrective still relies on the holy hall pass of motherhood. “At the heart of the campaign is the belief that all mums are beautiful,” says the campaign’s website. “After all, their bodies have just performed a miracle.”
These photos do not say: fuck your beauty standards. Instead, they say: get me in front of a camera with my baby so that I can prove my redemptive worth.
What I found as a pregnant person was that many mothers would wryly tell me things like: Your body will change but you’ll have this beautiful baby. You’ll never get your boobs back but the baby. It was so often presented as the loss of one traditionally feminine currency for another. The baby is the magical salve that you rub on those forever-there stretch marks. But no one told me that the quote-unquote “loss” of that pre-baby body can be freedom. That you don’t realize how much you are imprisoned by your relative bodily proximity to, and striving toward, a mainstream ideal until you decidedly “lose” your ability to perform some piece of that ideal.
A C-section scar right above your pubes will do that. It isn’t necessarily a heroic battle wound. It can be an invitation to having a body that is beyond the need for symbolic validation or redemption. I don’t mourn the loss of my pre-baby body; I mourn all the needless fucks I gave about it.