A Womb of One’s Own

The accompanying text, though sometimes dry and academic, skillfully unravels the hidden politics behind the imagery. For instance, the Depression-era photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration portrayed poor rural pregnant women as "noble but anxious" in order to "increase the public's willingness to support [Roosevelt's] social service programs." (FSA photographers Lange and Arthur Rothstein both altered the composition of photographs "to show fewer children" and so garner more sympathy from the average taxpayer.)

Some of the most fascinating sections of Pregnant Pictures depict the collision of public and private spheres in the pregnant body. As the technology for visualizing life inside the womb improved, the mother became a backdrop for the real superstar: the fledgling fetus. Pregnant Pictures traces the cultural changes—from mother as passive baby-machine (one fantastic image from a '50s instructional manual shows women identically clad in white underwear, their identities obscured for propriety by identical white masks) to mom as post-feminist bombshell. The 1991 Vanity Fairfeaturing a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover, which was sold throughout the U.S. in a plain white wrapper, inspired a flood of copycat photos and cleared the way for such ur-moms as Cindy Crawford and Madonna to shake their bare bellies in public without shame. An article by Julian Dibbell in the current issue of Artbyte about the proliferation of online preggo porn suggests that the unveiling of the pregnant body is progressing apace.

It may be OK (even profitable!) to put your babyfied body on show these days, but pregnancy is still a mystery to most. When spoken of at all, it's more likely to be discussed in the most superficial and practical terms: the sorry state of maternity wear, the length of the labor, or the dreary aftermath that requires extra hours at the gym. All three of these books provide a glimpse into a hidden world and offer intelligent meditations on this culturally loaded experience, which lifts women off the plane of mundane existence in a way few other life experiences can—it is a nine-month-long event both sublime and profoundly physical.

From Gestation Animation: A Labor Manual, 1994
photo: Karl Baden
From Gestation Animation: A Labor Manual, 1994

Details

The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth
By Carole Maso
Counterpoint, 178 pp., $24
Buy this book ††

Increase
By Lia Purpura
University of Georgia Press, 141 pp., $24.95
Buy this book ††

Pregnant Pictures
Sandra Matthews and Laura Wexler
Routledge, 263 pp., $35 paper
Buy this book

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The eerie, Cronenberg-esque physical effects of pregnancy—often played down by the modern woman at pains to reassure the world that she is in control—are described in the two journals with varying degrees of astonishment and nonchalance. "One came as a pressure, another as jostlings, like being pummeled from within," writes Purpura of some pre-birth pains. "I remember thinking Is that my spleen the child's found? I remember his foot wedged under my rib: impossible to bend forward."

In the end, Maso's self-portrait best captures the tangle of awe and freakishness that is the pregnant woman: "We are two hearts, four arms, four legs, two brains, four eyes in one body. . . . I don't know how I'm supposed to walk around and go to school and eat like an ordinary person. As if I were not strange enough already—now, this eight-chambered heart."

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