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Another Ad Campaign Spotlights the Unretouched Bodies of New Moms

Written by Erin Feher

Photography by Photographed by Sophie Mayanne for Mothercare

The walls, escalators, and LCDs screens in more than 30 London subway stations were recently plastered with larger-than-life photos of women in their underwear. But instead of the standard highly sexualized, photoshopped models, the women are new moms, proudly bearing their stretch marks, c-sections scars, and extra curves. The ad campaign, dubbed Body Proud Mums, is for Mothercare, the U.K.’s top retailer of baby gear. The photos are overlaid with the text “Beautiful, isn’t she?” while the accompanying social media campaign features the stories of each mom in her own words. Kesia, who posed for the photos 17 weeks after giving birth, holds her baby in the images and writes: “I always knew my body would be different after giving birth, however, I didn’t expect my mind to take so long to get used to seeing myself…I wanted to take part to show people that it is normal to look like this after having a baby. I want to show the baby is more important than the marks!”

And while the responses have been mostly positive (“Yes mothercare!! This is exactly what I want to see as a new mum!!!!” comments @sophiespiegler on Instagram; “Love these photos. I’m 57 and have four children. I wish I had seen photos like this in my thirties so that I would have know I was normal and BEAUTIFUL!” comments @soup_an_yay) there has been a small but searing backlash against the campaign. And the criticism is coming from some unexpected places: Writer and mother Tracey Clark-Foy took aim at the campaign in a recent piece she wrote for Jezebel (where she is a senior staff writer) and, as these things go, opened a floodgate of cheers and jeers in the comment section.

What exactly does Clark-Foy take issue with? One, she believes the campaign is not as groundbreaking as people are giving it credit for. Clark-Foy writes, “There is nothing bold about this advertising campaign, the least of which is because it follows a surge in using ‘body positivity’ and ’empowerment’ and ‘feminism’ to sell women shit.” But her real issue is that it’s not doing much to dismantle the concept of the ideal female form—that these sometimes shocking post-baby-body photos are akin to trading war stories while showing off battle wounds. She writes, “After all, ‘brutally honest’ post-pregnancy photos—the ones with stretch marks and c-section scars—so often feature a partially-nude woman holding her baby. The not-so-subtle subtext reads: I sacrificed this for this. These photos tell a righteous tale of maternal sacrifice, of women who let themselves go for the only reason women are ever supposed to let themselves go (and not just physically, either): motherhood. The baby—held to the chest, feet dangling above a zig-zag of stretch marks—is redemption. These ‘brutally honest’ moms have just returned from battle clutching their war medals. They’re heroes whose scars are honorable.”

Some commenters joined in the revolt, though it wasn’t always clear if they were mothers (or even women). “I hate this whole ‘you make sacrifices of vanity to have a baby’ stuff. This campaign plays to people’s insecurities and it’s stupid and sexist. Having a baby is a crazy, wild, and yes, natural thing,” and “I don’t want to see a marketing ploy disguised as a ‘project’ of new moms coming to terms with their postpartum bodies designed to sell a product. It’s just marketing, pandering to a demographic of women they think will buy.”

While others didn’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. “I have mixed feelings about this. I really struggled with the weight gain of pregnancy, and felt huge and tremendous pressure to slim down ASAP once my baby was born. I really struggled with how I looked. I think I would have benefited from seeing more diverse images, even if they were selling something. I guess I just didn’t see that many images of women’s bodies other than the ones in a typical magazine ad. And the postpartum bodies that were celebrated at the time were those women who got down to their pre pregnancy weight within weeks, which I just could not do.”

These days, it should come as no surprise that any attention-grabbing campaign should generate controversy—sometimes that’s quite literally the goal. But the Mothercare campaign was carried out thoughtfully and designed to make its customers feel good, even if they hope it leads to them buying more stuff. Prior to launching the campaign, Mothercare surveyed 1,500 mothers, with 80 percent of them saying they compare themselves to celebrities and feel the pressure to ‘bounce back’ to their pre-birth look and size. And Mothercare worked with photographer Sophie Mayanne, a 25-year-old photographer who became known for a portrait series she did called “Behind the Scars”, in which she lovingly turned her lens on the bodies of burn victims, cancer survivors, amputees, and more. Sophie clearly states on her website that she has “pledged to no longer digitally manipulate bodies or skin in her photographic work as of October 12th, 2017.” She told us she made that decision after a model she worked with shared her struggles with health and weight loss. “At the time I worked with her, I was quite new to the industry, and would edit my images in a similar way to the others that I saw—and at the time, looked up to,” says Mayanne. “I decided that I was, on a personal level, contributing to negative body image, and needed to be as honest as I could be in all of the photographs I take.” Asked what type of effect she hopes this new campaign will have, she responded, “I think it’s important that everybody has someone to relate to in advertising. We are all individual, but a likeness to someone else helps us feel like we belong, and listening to other’s experiences that may be similar to our own offers us comfort, and validation.”

So, while no one should ever conflate corporate marketing campaigns for charity work, it’s refreshing to see companies making choices to be more inclusive and hopefully try and undo some of the damage done by decades of presenting a whitewashed ideal of womanhood. Click through the slideshow below to view all the images for yourself.

For more thoughtful reads on the body politics of mothers, check out these words from real women on their changed forms, a first-person essay on what one mom didn’t expect after expecting, and read up on maternity brand Storq’s decision to no longer alter its photos.

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