No offence to my body but I’m just not the type of person to “celebrate” it. Neither am I that inclined to revel in my “own divine beauty”. Hence I might look at Jade Beall’s A Beautiful Body Book Project and consider it rather patronising. Oh, look at all the “real” ladies! How brave of you to show us all your flaws! And yet, looking at Beall’s images of women after pregnancy - unaltered, naked, strong - my cynicism fades away. Sure, I can’t decide whether they make me want to strip naked, cry, eat several doughnuts or do all three, but these photos are inspiring.
Of course, they’re also profoundly mundane. They’re just bodies. It’s not as though I’ve never seen a leaky, stretch-marked, post-natal breast before. It’s not as though I’ve not seen folds of flab and excess skin spilling over knicker elastic. Every single morning I am treated to my own “real body” show. Every bath or shower I take provides ample opportunity to immerse myself in the sheer power of my “realness”. And yet I don’t. I try not to notice myself. If I do, I tell myself at least you’re not famous. The gossip mags would have a Circle of Shame field day.
It’s not that I deliberately compare myself with the likes of Hollyoaks’ Jennifer Metcalfe, currently showing off her real, non-airbrushed body in this week’s edition of Heat. Declaring herself proud of her blink-and-you’ll-miss-them “lumps and bumps”, Metcalfe graces the cover alongside a larger photo of Kelly Brook with the question “Does Kelly Brook look fat to you?” (Heat’s emphasis) emblazoned across it. Readers share their expert opinions inside.
I know these worries aren’t really for the likes of me. I am just a mummy. I work in an office. I don’t generally go places where bikinis are required. All the same, like so many others, I can’t help but wonder, if I were on that beach, how disgusting would people find me? Once the clothes are off what would Heat readers say about me? My perception of normality is knocked off balance. I might be surrounded by women with “normal” bodies but the only naked ones I get to scrutinise belong to beautiful starlets. If that’s true for me, it’s also true for the kind of people who take it upon themselves to contact Heat to hold forth on Brook’s stomach and thighs. I might not share the same space as famous women but I know that I share it with those who judge them harshly.
Brittni Lyn, a young mother from Texas, recently wrote a blog on an experience she had when playing outside with her daughter:
“While I was outside running around & laughing w/her, some woman walking by had the nerve to say to me - “Why would you come outside & show those disgusting marks to the world? You should be more considerate of others.” (In reference to my stretch marks because I had my bikini top on)”
I’ve never experienced that myself. Then again, I don’t wear bikini tops and I don’t have stretch marks on my stomach (I have them on my breasts. Perhaps people refrain from insulting me because they don’t want to admit where they’ve been looking). I’m not sure how I’d respond to such an insult. Certainly not in Brittni Lyn fashion, much as I admire it (“I love every part of my body, every flaw, every imperfection, & every stretch mark. Simply because it represents my journey of becoming not only a woman, but a mother. Have a blessed day”). I’d probably say nothing then spend several years thinking of all the choice insults I’d have used in return, adding additional swear words each time.
The truth is, as far as our current standards of beauty go, the average mother’s body is considered defective. Stretch marks, sagging breasts and additional flesh aren’t admired. At best they are discussed in a semi-jokey, semi-apologetic manner. We complain of mummy tummies, jelly bellies and baby weight, as though these parts don’t really belong to us. We’re just schlepping them around, waiting to get rid, hence it doesn’t matter if we hate them in the interim. Of course, these body parts stick around, get older and saggier and the hatred only deepens.
Beall’s Beautiful Body Book Project, which she is currently seeking to crowd-fund through Kickstarter, involves creating a book with 100 or more photographs of women who have been through pregnancy, accompanied by essays, stories and poems describing their relationships with their bodies. All very self-absorbed, all very touchy-feely. Are statements on how “we have the ability to feel worthy, to believe we are beautiful and to be part of a community of people who wish to share beauty and joy in this world” worth all that much set against so many subtle and not-so-subtle messages telling us how ugly we are? I don’t know the answer to that. But there has to be some form of corrective to the distorted view we’re getting, and ideally one that isn’t just trying to sell us body lotion.
Personally, I don’t think my stretch marks are particularly beautiful or a source of maternal pride. I feel no desire to worship them. Nonetheless, our own flesh and skin should not be frightening or disgusting to others. If we’ve reached the point at which direct immersion therapy is required to enable us to accept one another’s bodies, then the sooner we get started the better.