Thoughts on creating a meaningful enclosure around appropriate fatness, and on why posing for pictures sucks in general.
I was at a friend’s birthday party recently and no one wanted their picture taken. Maybe it’s the effects of cumulative Covid years, during which indoor socializing was illegal where I live, but more likely the distaste for the roaming camera has to do with the dread of having to participate in content-production while trying to relax with friends. (I’m reminded of Blackbird Spyplane’s Beautiful Inward-Gazing Blessed Uninterrupted Closed System (B.I.G. B.U.C.K.S.) mindset.) Snapshots are intended to document fun, but in the phone-enclosurewe all call home now, they also incite work. We have learned to stand at attention for the lifted phone; our limbs twitch into position, our heads swivel into place. For younger folks this work has come to be second nature.
Like tree rings, you can tell someone’s age in 2022 by the way they stand for a photo. I am 39 and I don’t have the instinct to angle my body, bend my knee or dip my chin, and consequently, I am “not photogenic” per the standards of our age.
That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of these standards. Every time I’m being photographed a battle between two mes takes place in my mind: The 3D me that exists, and the me that is, theoretically, conjurable in a photograph. Every time I am looking at a camera, I am two people at once, grappling at the top of a waterfall like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty (that’s a deep cut for the Holmes Hive). Cyborg adulthood is awkward. I know how the machine wants me to look, and I want to look that way too. But I don’t know how to execute, and I resent the work.
Of all the ways that influencers influence our real-life behaviour, maybe the most potent is in the way we pose for photos. All of the physical details add up to a visual language that has come to define a particular era in photography: angle, bend, dip, arch.
Like the numbered ballet positions, there are Instagram positions. The one I want to talk about today is Bump Hands. You know what I’m talking about:
When momfluencers get pregnant, they unlock Bump Hands status. Previously ordinary fit pics are lifted to new poignancy by Bump Hands status; instead of just standing there, hip cocked and knee bent comme d’hab, they can use their hands to meaningfully frame their midsection.
Let’s locate Bump Hands in the context of representations of pregnancy in history. Until very recently — two generations ago, maybe three? — being pregnant was considered a private state, and women wore loose garments to cover their pregnancies. Despite the millennia during which many women spent most of their post-pubescent lives pregnant, we see very few portraits of pregnant bodies, covered or exposed.
Some of the reasons for this are patriarchal; pregnant women were the property of their husbands in most cases, and female sexuality was shrouded in medical ignorance and moral confusion. Best keep it all hidden, was the idea.
But there’s also the fact of high infant and maternal mortality. So many pregnancies were lost that it was not conventional to publicly celebrate pregnancy in many cases. The whole endeavour was fraught with risk; a pregnant body meant something different to women as well as men, prior to the 20th century.
There was apparently an exhibition put on by the Foundling Museum in London just before the pandemic of paintings of pregnancy in history. You can see some of what it contained here - I wish I had seen it. One thing you see relatively little of, I surmise, is Bump Hands.
Birth of Bump Hands
That is, until 1991, and this:
It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact of this VF cover. Some retailers refused to stock it on their shelves; in 1991, the image of a nude pregnant woman challenged very established norms around representations of motherhood. Demi’s dignified stare into the upper distance dares the audience to grow up a little bit. Which they ultimately did, kinda!
The cover is unimpeachably great, imho. But it also set a brutally fatphobic precedent for what hot-pregnancy should look like. Demi is not, as the saying goes, “pregnant all over.” She’s carrying a basketball, which is what women are meant to aspire to do.
Bump Hands functions to enclose (yaas) the “fat” part of a skinny pregnant woman’s body, to reassure the viewer that underneath this one protrusion is a thin person.
I had a lovely chat about Bump Hands with the eminent writer and thinker on diet culture, Virginia Sole-Smith. “When a fat woman sees a thin woman doing [Bump Hands], it’s a bit of a dog whistle. They’re emphasizing their thinness,” she told me.
“Motherhood is the ONE narrative where you can celebrate having a less than perfect body,” she continued. Bump Hands is internalized fatphobia in that it’s a way of winkingly emphasizing the aberration of amplitude on a thin body — “look, I’m so big! But only between my hands — nowhere else!” Fat moms do not get to do Bump Hands. Not having the “right kind of pregnancy” is a real point of stress and pain for fat women, Sole-Smith told me. Bump Hands is code for the “right kind of pregnancy” — it’s a gesture of victory on the brutal field of play that is having a body in public.
Recuperating joy in front of the camera
My dream — all of our dreams???! — is to be captured unawares, looking happy and free. I will never look happy and free if I know you’ve got me framed on your iPhone screen. I think posing fatigue is beginning to set in, but it’s being replaced with an even more challenging gambit: Appear unposed, but be gorgeous.
Consider Rihanna’s pregnancy-reveal photos, which were styled like paparazzi photos but shot by professional photographer Miles Diggs. They are brilliantly shot, and Rihanna looks stunning, and the idea was that she and A$AP Rocky were caught strolling, unawares. They woke up like this. Compare these shots to Beyonce’s pregnancy-reveal photoshoot when she was carrying her twins, in 2017.
Posing in 2017 was not exhausting yet. Perhaps the wrestling matches between our two selves hadn’t really started. Looking at these two shoots side-by-side, I am struck by the shift that they represent. In 2017, putting in the work to create a perfect image was creatively interesting, a mark of status. Today, the true photographic ideal is to be picture-perfect without having to appear to be posing at all — we’ve been posing-pilled.
Posing hasn’t always required the degree of art direction funneled into an Instagram post by Beyonce. The place on Instagram where I find the most consistent joy in pictures is in the account @oldschoolmoms, made up of submitted photos. Below are all of the pics of pregnant moms posted on @oldschoolmoms in the past few years. First, you’ll notice not a single instance of Bump Hands. And second, you’ll be reminded (if you’re old enough) of a time when getting your picture taken was a matter of looking at the camera — not a brief anguished battle between your real and imagined self. The film would not be developed for weeks, and even then, once developed, it would have a very limited audience. The stakes were low and you can see it in the women’s faces. There’s a sublime mystery to some of these, and a sense of shared intimacy, and love. Take me back.
This month’s Recommendations:
Thank you all for supporting Mothers Under the Inf.
This month I have been watching Netflix’s French-language reality show about a family of realtors in Paris, L’Agence. My friend Evie wrote about it perfectly.
My friend Hilary lent me A Girl Returned, by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, which is def a “fans of the Neaopolitan Trilogy might also like…” type situ, but also, a book I enjoyed to the bone. Highly recommend. Hilary also gave me some excellent homemade granola during a period during which I was unfortunately “trying to avoid gluten” due to my naturopath’s recommendation… You can’t have any, but let me tell ya, it was good.
I was a guest on the superpod Forever 35 earlier this month to discuss my worque, and I am very grateful to the wonderful hosts Kate and Doree for having me on. You can listen here.
I have a piece coming out this coming week in Romper about the young moms of TikTok, which I am proud of and loved writing. Hope you will check it out.
The word “enclosure” is so beautiful to me. It’s my “cellar door.” It punches way above its weight definitionally, ranging from (…enclosing?!) the Enclosure Acts that created the ownership class in 17th century England to Andrejevic’s concept of the “digital enclosure” of a surveillance society… Amazing that such a lush group of syllables can encompass such darq and cursed shit! I also adore the French word “cloture” for fence (same etymology, obvi). Gorgeous word. People seem to like the name “Chloe” too, it’s an elegant name… same vibe.
The @oldschoolmoms pics are so beautiful. They remind more of the random surprise pics I sometimes find on my phone that one of my children has taken without anyone realising. I also think of bump hands as a way to disambiguate that 'I am pregnat not fat' - clearly continuing the fataphobic theme. There is a thing in the UK where men claim to feel awkward offering up seats on public transport to women who appear pregnant in case the woman is not pregnant and they cause offence. When I was pregnant I often found myself framing my bump if I was on a busy train and wanting someone to offer me a seat. London public transport also provide badges for pregnant women to wear for this purpose!
I thought I was going to be able to post a picture in the comments but apparently not?! Found one single photo of myself without Bump Hands during my pregnancy. I’m holding my tank top up with my hands over my boobs, have greasy hair, and sweats on. In my opinion, very old school moms vibes. But there’s only one photo! When really, almost all my time pregnant was spent that way.