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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.