On The Rawness of Birth and Mother’s Bodies

Once upon a time, almost exactly a year ago, I found myself standing before an exhibit at Tate Modern, in London, sobbing. The second part of this isn’t entirely unusual. I am someone who cries, including someone who sometimes cries in public (i.e., while reading Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place at a gym and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road on an airplane, etc.), but this was the first time I can remember crying at a museum.

The exhibit was by the Dutch photographer and video artist, Rineke Dijkstra. It featured three photographs, as big as me, lined up in a row. Each photo was of a woman, holding a baby she had just given birth to, one hour, day, or week before. Each woman stood bare, nude or nearly nude, revealing signs of the birth–mesh panties and sanitary towel on one, a tiny amount of blood running down another’s legand a caesarean scar on another’s belly. Each one was raw, and vulnerable, and strong. Each one told a true story.

Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994 1994 Rineke Dijkstra born 1959 Purchased 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78097

Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, Feb 29 1994

The artist stated,

As a photographer you enlarge or emphasize a certain moment… For instance the portraits I made of women after giving birth: the reality of this experience is about the whole atmosphere, which is very emotional. In the photograph, you can scrutinize all the details, which makes it a bit harsh: you can see things you normally would not pay so much attention to.

I felt it. Together the photographs forcefully made me remember my own raw, vulnerable, and strong experience giving birth, and the hours, days, and weeks after. I could only stand there and cry.

I went from there, with my husband and babe, to meet friends (and their pup) at a very Peter Pan-esque playground in Kensington Gardens.

Peter Pan GardenIt was especially charming and delightful, but unfortunately did not allow pups inside, so one friend walked around out. He told us later that he saw a myriad of professional cameras outside Kensington Palace. It was not too long after that, that we learned why: Kate Middleton had just given birth to her second baby.

And it was not too long after that, that photos of both princesses were posted, always, always with comments about the mother’s looks. She wasn’t given room to look raw, or vulnerable, or strong. And I cried again.


I am thinking very hard about all of these things, because any day or (perhaps) week now, I will be giving birth to my second child. I don’t know which marks my body will wear. I hope I can simply be grateful (and allowed) to wear them.


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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10 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    This is powerful, Rachel. Thanks for sharing it. I hope everything goes well with the birth of your baby!

  2. Violadiva says:

    Thanks for this perspective! My third baby is now 9 months old and I’m still carrying the marks and weight of growing three separate humans. I’m feeling really self-conscious, unsexy, heavy, stretched out, and tired. I keep feeling like I need to kick it into gear and claim my body back (which I probably do) but this post reminds me to be okay with what my body looks like after all it’s been through.
    Blessings to you and baby 2!

  3. EmilyCC says:

    So lovely, Rachel. I feel like we have completely unrealistic expectations for women in the public to get their body back. Heidi Klum and I had babies the same day and everyone celebrated her walk down the Victoria Secret walkway 6 weeks postpartum. I feel like it reduces the act of giving birth when society wants/expects women to erase all traces of the process as quickly as possible.

  4. Jenny says:

    This is so beautiful Rachel. I would probably cry, being there and experiencing that too. I think normalizing the raw, vulnerable experience of birth and the bodily changes women go through would have helped me so much as a new young mom. I want to send you love and empowering energy during this vulnerable time for you.

  5. Em says:

    That sounds like a really neat exhibit. I wish we could celebrate real women’s bodies more. Like if people who are pregnant in movies actually look like pregnant people then maybe strangers wouldn’t ask if you’re expecting triplets when in fact you are measuring completely normal for one child at seven months. I do have a weird fascination with the royal family and I also pity her. The idea of having to spend a single moment of the day that my baby was born getting a professional hairdresser in and doing my make up and wearing high heels sounds terrible

  6. Mie says:

    Beautiful. I love your words.

  7. Liz says:

    This is beautiful, Rachel. I am always moved by the strong, fierce, and yet vulnerable moments that surround women at times like childbirth. I love that this photographer took these pictures, celebrated them, and preserved them. We need more celebrating of women’s real bodies and real triumphs and strength.

    I hope you are protected, kept safe, and allowed to be as strong and vulnerable as you want (and need) with this upcoming birth. You are strong and can do hard things.

  8. Katharine says:

    love this! i would love to see birthing more normalized in our culture. why must everything be so sanitized and unreal? it puts us at a disconnect with our own bodies and their raw strength in giving life.

  9. Becca says:

    So good, and so important. I am the mother of 5 children. Our third came at home, on the couch, with my husband (and 911) delivering. Paramedics showed up 10 minutes later, and I have a picture of me clutching that baby on a gurney as we were headed to the ambulance. My lip is cracked and bleeding, my hair is pointing every direction, but the look on my face reflects to me Dr. King’s gorgeous quote, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.” We need to see more of that in the women around us and help them to see that in themselves.
    Wishing you so much joy as you bring another baby into this beautiful world.

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