Once you see it, you can’t unsee it—and then you see it nearly everywhere. Click on a story about pregnancy and glance at the image. There’s a good chance that the editors have selected a stock photograph of a disembodied pregnancy bump. Or do a Google image search for “pregnancy.” The headless, legless pregnancy bump shows up in a majority of photographs that surface.
The decapitated bump appears repeatedly in a “Pregnancy Week by Week” story at the Web site Mother & Baby, in which one protruding bump seems to be examining a refrigerator’s contents. It’s in stories about miscarriages, even though about 80 percent of them occur during the first trimester, when pregnancy is often invisible to others. It shows up in a story posted on Our Bodies, Ourselves’ blog about reasons to “celebrate morning sickness.” It pops up in stories about cannabis and premature birth, in news about pregnancy in women 50 and older and in at least one article about an increased risk of breast cancer among older women who undergo in vitro fertilization.
The headless bump appears in a story about “orgasmic birth” even as one interviewee insists she wanted “more continuity of care for her as a whole person, not just a vessel for the baby.” It accompanied an essay I wrote about my own prenatal depression even though the article was about what was happening in my head.
The disembodied pregnancy bump motif is so common that I began to wonder why the swelling pregnancy is more prominent and prioritized than the person carrying it. Why do we, as a society, view pregnant women as all but obliterated by a giant bump? One possible reason has to do with fear of a resulting lawsuit from publishing a pregnant woman’s face.
But that can’t be the whole story; plenty of women will happily sign model releases, making that worry moot. So is there a connection between this virtual beheading of the adult woman and the recent, extreme abortion bans in U.S. states such as Alabama—which, at any stage of pregnancy, prioritize the fetus as a “person” over the life and needs of the woman carrying it?
“There is something very dehumanizing about these images,” says Kaitlyn Regehr, a scholar of digital and modern culture at the University of Kent in England. The pictures, she notes, may reflect the way that society takes ownership of pregnant bodies. “In pregnancy, our bodies don’t just belong to ourselves,” Regehr says. “Our body belongs to our baby. And in turn, it belongs to your partner who wonders if you should have that glass of wine. It belongs to the hopes and dreams of your family members; it belongs to the woman in the park who stops you to tell you maybe you shouldn’t run. That process can be a real elimination of the individual in favor of the vessel. We literally cut off their heads.”
There’s also a strong historical precedent for these representations of pregnancy, says Meredith Nash, deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania. “It comes from the rise of ultrasonography,” says Nash, author of “Making ‘Postmodern’ Mothers: Pregnant Embodiment, Baby Bumps and Body Image.” “Ultrasounds didn’t really come into use in pregnancy until the late 1960s and 1970s—and very much so in the 1980s,” she explains. “That was particularly transformative because it was this moment in which fetuses became the subject. Fetuses were becoming these public figures as a result of being able to take increasingly more sophisticated pictures of them.”
This fetus personification became even more pronounced with the rise of Facebook and Pinterest, as parents began posting fetal ultrasound images to social media, hosting gender-reveal parties, decorating cupcakes with fetal images, framing ultrasound photographs, scrapbooking and even photoshopping fetal images into family photographs. In essence, the fetus becomes a “person” far earlier in pregnancy that it did in the past.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the near-total abortion bans passed recently in a number of U.S. states, most notably in Alabama, where the Human Life Protection Act, enacted on May 15, 2019, defines “an unborn child in utero at any stage of development, regardless of viability” as a person and allows no exceptions, even in cases of incest and rape. In Honduras, one of six Latin American countries to have fully criminalized abortion, the law defines an abortion as “the death of a human being at any moment during pregnancy or birth.” According to Human Rights Watch, “abortion in Honduras is illegal in all circumstances, including rape and incest, when a woman’s life is in danger, and when the fetus will not survive outside the womb.”
“Abortion politics is the most obvious example [of the way] in which the pregnant body is politicized,” Regehr says. “The rights of the fetus come before the rights of the mother.” Nash agrees. Laws such as Alabama’s, she notes, have resulted in punitive measures against women because fetuses are seen as the primary patient, and women are the objects of medical and cultural surveillance.
“In some cases in the U.S., fetuses have actually sued their mothers,” Nash says, with lawyers or family members acting as proxies for the fetus. “Particularly if women have used drugs [during] their pregnancy and then the child was born with some kind of abnormality. Or in cases of fetal death, women have been sued and jailed as a result of their behaviors.” In one recent case in, yes, Alabama, a judge permitted what the Guardian described as a “no-longer-in-existence embryo” to sue a teenage girl who had terminated her pregnancy at six weeks.
But it’s not just photo editors who have a preference for headless bumps, Nash notes. “Women do it themselves. I’ve done studies in the past 10 years where I’ve given women cameras or asked them to use their own cameras to photograph themselves to provide a visual record of the pregnancy. And for the most part, women photograph themselves without heads as well.” In one such study, a woman named Joan who had photographed her belly in a framed mirror said, “I felt like I was just a stomach.... It felt like that’s all that anyone sees, like I’m not a person, you’re just a pregnant person—you’re an incubator.”
“When you are about to give birth, no one asks you about you,” Nash says. “Invariably, every conversation with every person you meet on the street has to do with your pregnancy and your belly.” When their bellies become highly visible—and in the case of pregnant celebrities such as Meghan Markle, the focus of obsession—most pregnant women, paradoxically, become almost invisible. That obsessive focus on the pregnant belly explains why photo editors—consciously or not—select disembodied bumps to accompany stories about pregnancy.
Personally, I think it’s time for editors to consider more carefully the images they choose. Because pregnant women (and transgender parents) are not just protuberances . They are actually people, too.