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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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.