I'm not quite ready to worship my stretchmarks, but these naked pictures of mothers are inspiring

Every single morning I am treated to my own “real body” - so why did I find a book of unphotoshopped bodies after pregnancy and birth so affecting, asks Glosswitch.

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.  

You can donate to the Kickstarter here.

A picture from Jade Beall's book.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era