A mother holding a newborn baby is one of the oldest and most enduring subjects in art, a staple of religious iconography and a classic dramatic trope.
But – from the Renaissance through to the glossy magazines of now – the physical effects of childbirth on a woman’s body have always been an aspect of motherhood hidden from public view.
Even in our more open times, frank discussions about the sometimes brutal impact of birth are rare, and instead are still largely dealt with in private, with the media actively celebrating those women who bounce back quickly to their pre-birth figures.
Now, a new advertising campaign from Mothercare that is being trialled across 30 tube stations on the London Underground is bringing a more honest depiction of new motherhood into the spotlight.
The brand’s Body Proud Mums campaign aims to represent “a part of motherhood rarely seen in media,” the childcare retailer says.
Mothercare said in a statement: “Body Proud Mums boldly seeks to normalise mothers’ experiences, spark a positive conversation and help mums feel confident and proud of their bodies. At the heart of the campaign is the belief that all mums are beautiful. After all, their bodies have just performed a miracle.”
Shot by British photographer Sophie Mayanne, the campaign comprises of ten celebratory portraits of women who have very recently become mothers. They’re shown holding their babies close and smiling as the kids laugh, gawp at the camera in bemusement, or, in some cases, scream their heads off.
The photographs have apparently been published without digital retouching, and the effects of birth are evident, yet the scars and stretch marks are not the focus of the portraits. But, equally, they’re not hidden. Each portrait is accompanied with the simple phrase: ‘Beautiful, isn’t she.’
Mayanne said: “The images depict the raw and incredibly emotional experience of childbirth. The aim is for mums of all shapes and sizes to be able to identify with these photos in one way or another, and to feel more confident with their imperfections.”
The campaign is released alongside new research commissioned by Mothercare, which finds that more than half of new mothers feel unable to experience a sense of pride in their bodies after giving birth, whilst four out of five of British mothers have compared their post-birth bodies to unrealistic images. More than half of those in the sample admitted to regularly using social media filters when posting images of their post-natal bodies online.
Tina, who is 27, spoke to Mothercare about the campaign, as well as being photographed with her baby. “When I was pregnant, I hated seeing pregnancy and maternity wear all using skinny models with fake bumps,” she says.
“Brands such as Seraphina, ASOS maternity which cater specifically to pregnant women but use fake pregnancy models just make you feel fat. Society tells you to embrace the beautiful new you, but yet the new weight, new baggy clothes all make you feel fat rather than ‘glowing and pregnant’.
“So the inspiration behind this project is to show real women, all different shapes and sizes actually not caring about their ‘big’ thighs or ‘big’ bellies – and just trying to be comfortable in their own skin.”
There is a recent lineage in this style of portraiture in London’s contemporary photography scene. Stylistically, and also in terms of theme and content, the images bear some resemblance to Jenni Lewis’ ongoing series One Day Young, which saw the London photographer cycle around Hackney to take portraits of her extended social group in the 24 hours after a mother has returned home for the first time with a newborn.
The series was published by Hoxton Mini Press in 2015, and went far and wide, before Lewis was commissioned by WaterAid to pursue a similar project in Malawi, officially the poorest country in the world.
The campaign is part of a new trend – visible in politics, in the higher echelons of the film industry, in the commercial and advertising sectors, in magazines and in newspapers, and in sporting initiatives like This Girl Can – that places an emphasis on diversity, on the minority experience, and, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, on femininity not perceived through a masculine filter.
The Body Proud Mums campaign was created for Transport for London’s ‘The Women We See’ competition, which called on entrants to produce advertising that “reflect London’s diversity, feature women from all backgrounds and move away from harmful gender stereotypes”.
As the contest’s runner-up, Mothercare received £50,000 of digital advertising space. This progressive and impressive campaign is the result.