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
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University