Censoring the Maternal Body

Censoring the Maternal Body

In the last decade or so, scholars across disciplines have worked to shed light on the complicated ways in which Americans praise the pregnant body while simultaneously rejecting the post-pregnant body. For example, in a recent guest post for Nursing Clio, Carrie Pitzulo traces the history of how the pregnant body has shifted in our societal perceptions, from scandalous and invisible, to highly celebrated, at least in the case of thin, white women and especially in cases of celebrity pregnancies. In Pregnant Pictures, Sandra Matthews and Laura Wexler examine the ways in which we create roles for women (and how women resist those roles) through visual images of pregnancy.[i]

An old photo of a mother nursing her baby
Nursing. Wikimedia

Several essayists in both The M Word and Reconciling Art and Mothering explore the tensions and career difficulties in making visible the maternal body in their artwork.[ii] And a host of recent anthologies address, within a larger context, the hostility to both the pregnant and post-pregnant bodies in academic settings.[iii] More than simply passive hostility, however, the maternal body in American culture continues to experience a shocking amount of active censorship and discrimination. The lactating body is doubtless the most often censored body, with new articles written every month about breastfeeding mothers who are denied their rights in public spaces, in retail stores, on airplanes, in courtrooms, and in the workplace. Through social media, such incidents are both instantly reported and instantly supported by networks of lactivists. See, for example, the thousands of women who turned out in support of a British woman labeled a “tramp” by an anonymous online poster for nursing her baby in public.

Unfortunately, cultural shaming of the maternal body on social media is not limited to the occasional anonymous poster but has quickly entered the insidious realm of censorship. One prominent recent example revolves around the 4th Trimester Bodies project. Conceived by Chicago photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson as she sought to recover from infant loss and traumatic birth and post-birth experiences, 4th Trimester Bodies has both general and specific goals: to photograph, honor, and make visible the vast array of women’s bodies that are not shown in our media, and to use these photography sessions as a way to honor women’s choices and varied experiences in birth, breastfeeding, and mothering. For some, the photographs are pure celebration; for others, they are the first step in a process of healing.

4th trimester bodies
Photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson with baby Nova

Jackson’s photographs are tasteful and artfully done. Many mothers are shown breastfeeding or surrounded by their children; others are photographed alone.

Martha Aguilar with Malaki (6) and Delilah (17 months)
Martha Aguilar with Malaki (6) and Delilah (17 months)

And yet, regardless of what the photographs show or don’t show, 4th Trimester Bodies is routinely banned from social media sites. At a recent event, Jackson said, “We’re on our fourth Instagram account, and I can’t even tell you how many photos we’ve had removed from Facebook.” For years now, groups have protested Facebook’s policy of censoring breastfeeding images, an on-going debate for which Jackson has developed a campaign.

The multi-generational Journey family
The multi-generational Journey family

However, what seems even more shocking is that the project is now routinely censored on social media sites without explanation. Jackson posts her photo shoot images soon after she takes them, only to discover that they may quickly disappear. Not all of the censored images feature lactating mothers, though; some are just mothers’ bodies. And other censored posts include no images at all but only the mention of breastfeeding. It’s hard not to start thinking in conspiracy-theory terms.

4th Trimester Bodies t-shirt campaign

The good news is that the 4th Trimester Bodies project has gone viral. Jackson’s vision of making the diversity of maternal bodies visible has been championed widely by many media outlets, including the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Good Morning, America, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Mail, and the Today Show, and the project is booked for national and international photo shoots through the end of 2015. But: how many times will she have been censored before she’s done?


[i] Sandra Matthews and Laura Wexler, Pregnant Pictures (NJ: Routledge, 2000). [ii] Jennie Klein and Myrel Chernick, eds., The M Word (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2011); Rachel Epp Buller, ed., Reconciling Art and Mothering (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2012). [iii] See, among others, Elrena Evans, Caroline Grant, and Miriam Peskowitz, eds., Mama, Ph.D.: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008); and, Lynn O’Brien Hallstein and Andrea O’Reilly, eds., Academic Motherhood in a Post-Second Wave Context (Toronto: Demeter Press, 2012).


Featured image Caption:  Tanya Mance with Amin (9) and Beja (7). Photo by Ashlee Wells Jackson.

All 4th Trimester Bodies images are used with permission of Ashlee Wells Jackson.

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