The Spark That Started a Fire. Annie Leibovitz’s Iconic Image of Pregnant Demi Moore and Its Impact Until Today

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

29 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Photograph and Its Protagonists

3 Perception on Pregnancy and Motherhood
3.1 History
3.2 The Pregnant Body

4 The Photograph’s Impact
4.1 Some Things Changed
4.2 Some Things Remained Problematic

5 Where Are Pregnant Women Today?
5.1 Pregnancy and Media Today
5.2 Having the Perfect Body – Throughout Pregnancy
5.3 The Pressure of the Perfect After-Baby- Body

6 Conclusion



The Spark That Started a Fire – Annie Leibovitz’s Iconic Image of Pregnant Demi Moore and Its Impact Until Today

1 Introduction

Imagine seeing a naked and very pregnant woman on a cover of a fashion and/or lifestyle magazine while doing your weekly shopping. Coincidentally, the woman pictured is not only pregnant but also good looking at the same time and most likely, she is famous for something. Today, we are no longer surprised or even shocked by that cover, we are simply used to seeing beautiful, famous, naked, and pregnant women on magazine covers as the likes of Britney Spears, Natalie Portman, and Claudia Schiffer posed for them as did almost every otherwise famous woman being pregnant. Because somehow it seems to be good form in the world of celebrities to expose the growing belly. Consequently, it appears naturally as if it always had been common practice to put the pregnant body on display naked or scarcely covered, revealing more than concealing leading to “next-door women” to do just like celebrities do in social media.

But this has not always been the case. When Annie Leibovitz shot a series of photographs of Demi Moore in 1991, who at that time was seven months pregnant and had no difficulties in posing naked, covering her breasts only with her hands (see Appendix 1) and even published this photograph on Vanity Fair’s August 1991 issue, the world seemed to have stopped for a minute. In an article by the New York Times on the iconicity the photo has reached in the past 25 years, Vanity Fair’s editor in chief said:

“I never questioned that I wanted to publish it. It seemed to me a wonderful celebration of the essence of womanhood,” [...] “I knew that some would find it offensive, and indeed when our publisher Ron Galotti showed it to Walmart, they insisted that we had it shrink-wrapped or it would not appear on the newsstands. This just made it more X-rated.” (Tavani par. 4).

This quote already hints at the explosiveness and uniqueness the photograph and especially the publishing of it had. Up to then, pregnant women were scarcely to be seen on magazine covers unless it were for medical representations (Nash 28). But in this case, Demi Moore was not pictured for the pathological condition of her body but to demonstrate her “cultural power and wealth and [her being] an idealized white woman“ (ibid. 29). The pregnant body was no longer a de-sexualized object, constrained by taboos and myths as feminist scholars including Carole Stabile (193), widely agree upon.

Looking at changes this picture is believed to have triggered, it seems feasible to argue that it not only changed society towards a tolerant, embracing view on pregnancy but also initiated a process of objectivizing the pregnant female body to an extent, at which even during this physically demanding time, women strive to perfect their body. Additionally, women feel a growing pressure to look toned and shaped post-partum as if nothing has happened. Hence, they put their own body at the center of attention stepping away from old view of nurturing as their main duty to an extent of self-neglect.

In this paper I would like to discuss the abovementioned picture and its protagonists, look at the past perception of pregnancy and motherhood and illustrate the changes that evolved after the photograph was published. Thus, by illustrating the changes, the development and processes this “ground-breaking” (Leibovitz in Tavani par. 5) picture enabled should become obvious underlining the paper’s thesis of the picture as being a step towards a more self-confident, physically attractive self-image of pregnant women but also becoming a trigger of pressure and excessive self-control.

2 The Photograph and Its Protagonists

The August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair, a magazine on popular culture, fashion, and current topics of interest, featured an unprecedented photograph on its title page. Being intended as the cover story to promote Demi Moore’s upcoming movie, it pictured the actress wearing nothing but a huge diamond ring (Bellafante par. 2) looking quite alluring at the camera. The picture was taken in a way that nothing could distract the onlooker’s view from the actress. The pregnant belly is positioned at the central but lower third of the portrait. Soft lightening was being used falling from an upper right angle on the actress’s face and shoulders. While her face is illuminated quite well looking directly at the camera, her belly, being shown from the side only, blurs with the darker background of the image making it quite difficult to detect the actual boundaries or dimension of the belly. While covering her breasts with one arm, putting the enormous diamond ring on display, the other arm holds or hugs the belly, drawing additional attention at it. Apart from the ring, the image does not use any further accessories striving to purely depict Demi Moore’s condition and put it at the center of attention. This is also underlined by the actress’s minimalistic make-up, it appears as if she was wearing none, and hair style.

In 1991, Demi Moore was a very successful and well-paid actress starring in several box office hits (Biography,, par. 13). Not only has she been very open in the cover story, revealing details about her private life, she also supported Annie Leibovitz’s idea to use this portrait shot of her nude and seven months pregnant for the magazine’s cover (Leibovitz no page). According to the photographer, Demi Moore generally was not shy at having very private moments like the birth of her first daughter in 1988 accompanied by friends and professional photographers (ibid.). Furthermore, she is said to having been very self-conscious as she did not want any body make-up or post-editing of the shot (ibid.). But she also knew that she was working with one of the most successful portrait photographers at the time, Annie Leibovitz (Bellafante par. 2, Tavani par. 1) with an aptitude for iconic shots (McGuigan par. 3). Having worked for more than a decade at the Rolling Stone, she started working with Vanity Fair in 1983, already being known to shoot both “stunning and often controversial” images (Biography on Annie Leibovitz, par. 7). According to Leibovitz’s recount, she and Demi Moore had worked together several times before (Leibovitz[1] par. 4). Initially, the cover photograph was not intended to be published but eventually, Leibovitz and the editor in chief at Vanity Fair came to the conclusion that this image would be the perfect picture for the occasion (ibid. par. 5). Although everybody involved knew that publishing this picture would cross a line, no one expected the reactions being so intense (ibid. par. 5). Leibovitz’s straightforward portrait received wide-spread world-wide attention varying from expressions of disgust (e.g. letter to the editor in Stabile 190) and complaints that even pregnant women were now subject to sexual objectification (Leibovitz par. 2) to an appraisal of finally “assert[ing] a space for the pregnant body in the public realm as a complete detachment from the rules and regulations that govern the pregnant body with regard to body image, sexuality and status” (Nash 29). Moreover, the image was being discussed as evoking “Botticelli’s Birth of Venus” (Siegel 257). Nevertheless, a wide audience was offended and the image provoked an unexpectedly intense debate for Vanity Fair summing up at “ninety-five television spots, sixty-four radio shows, 1,500 newspaper articles and a dozen cartoons” (Stabile 189).

In order to understand the reason for this vast upheaval it is important to understand how pregnancy and motherhood were perceived up to the early 1990s.

3 Perception on Pregnancy and Motherhood

From today’s perspective the scandal the Demi Moore shot caused is no longer comprehensible. Being used to body-hugging maternity wear, magazines using picture of pregnant celebrities to boost their sales, and even the Average Janes[2] putting their pregnant bodies on display in social media, we no longer have to comply with social norms and standards that still prevailed in 1991. Following, I will root those norms and cultural constructs of pregnancy and motherhood back to the Victorian times and trace them to the late 1980s and early 1990s in order to discuss the fierce reactions the photograph provoked and later on the changes stemming from it.

3.1 History

“Throughout centuries and cultures motherhood has been guided and constrained by […] world views espoused by a greater culture” (Bins and Dale 3).

Although this quote may vary in applicability it certainly can be seen as point to case during Victorian times. As the Victorian woman was “defined by her reproductive capacity” (Poovey 35) her individuality ceased to exist by the time she “became what she desired to be” (ibid. 52), a wife and mother. Even the Victorian law did no longer regard wives as individuals but as an extension of their husbands (ibid.), while medical scholars, e.g. W. Tyler Smith, saw no more than the uterus in women, to which they associated crucial value to society overruling female individual interests (ibid. 35). Furthermore, the woman’s “reproductive function defined her character, position, and value […]” (ibid. 37) but at the same time, she needed control and surveillance (ibid.). As Stabile puts it, “pregnancy has been traditionally predicated on an essentialism that reduces women to passive vessels […]” (192) suffering from various nervous conditions (Poovey 37). This basic difference from men required women to be constantly supervised. Moreover, in line with this view, childbirth was marked as a disorder (ibid.).

After having given birth, the Victorian image of a mother being the ‘Angel of the house’ (Poovey 8) dominated a woman’s life. Caring and nurturing were regarded as the prime tasks for women, who, as partially described above, had to have no other interests due to her passiveness. This take on motherhood defined how mothers have been portrayed throughout history: a good mother was the one who was “saint-like”, humble, and gentle, putting herself and her interests always last (Birns and ben-Her 47). Furthermore, society increased the pressure by asserting that “good mothers produce good children” (ibid. 57). Summarizing, mothers or mothers-to-be are no longer an individual but subordinated to self-neglect and nurturing due to their gender (Robinson and Stewart 862). So, being a woman the overall aim was to becoming a wife and mother and thus, turning into a medical pathology (Nash 28) ruled by cultural construction. The self was no longer of importance and the societal rules to being a good mother and a decent mother-to-be were to be followed. “The ideal female ‘reproductive citizen’ was expected to place her children’s health and well-being above her own needs and desires” (Lupton 2).

Surprisingly, this argumentation still prevails in the 20th and even 21st century with Fraiberg climaxing it with the claim that mothers have to be the primary care givers to their children, who in in her view are entitled to full-time care in order to raise them to “good children” (ibid. 56). Fraiberg went even further in claiming that “the survival of the human race is […] dependent on a mother’s ability to provide” undistracted love, denying mothers of individual needs and interests (ibid.). Therefore, Fraiberg’s arguments seem to be fueled by the Victorian view. The discussion or argument about whether a stay-home or working mom is the better mother is certainly stemming from this claim. And although we tend to think that Victorian times are a part of history for long time by now, I claim that the views made it into present times as well.

A survey by the Women’s Media Action Group conducted in the early 1980s and looking at stereotypical representation of gender roles in media asserted that women were mainly pictured at home with the children (Lowe 23). Celebrity mothers were stylized as being good mothers if seven prerequisites identified by Douglas and Michaels were met: the mom had to be “gorgeous” with distinct ideas about her future (dedicated to mothering, of course), dearly and increasingly loved by her significant other. Furthermore, she is completely content with her role as a mother, delighted by being surrounded by her children, sporting the “maternal glow” and looking fabulous after birth (Douglas and Michaels in O’Brien Hallstein 17). Additionally, she is a fully aware eater who designs her nutrition according to the latest findings of healthy eating and is disciplined when it comes to work-outs (ibid.). With the closely observed Princess of Whales, those prerequisites were being worked through, labelling her as a good mother and idealizing her as a role model for the newly defined so-called ‘momism’ (ibid.), an ideology going beyond the Victorian idea of a good mother and enhancing it by the aspect of positive self-perception.

3.2 The Pregnant Body

With regards to the pregnant body, I would like to highlight three aspects that possibly contributed to the intense reactions the Demi Moore photograph evoked. Before discussing in which details the photograph clashed with prevailing perceptions on the pregnant body, they firstly need to be explained.

First of all, women seem to lose proprietary possession over their bodies once they are pregnant. Generally, the female body holds a place in a hierarchy “not of their own making” (Giovanelli and Ostertag 1) requiring permanent monitoring and upkeep (ibid.). Due to the assumption of women being passive vessels and thus need to be closely monitored, the pregnant body turns into an “object of medical scrutiny and surveillance” (Stabile 191). Moreover, the representation of the maternal body as dangerously permeable (Lupton 2) forces a mother-to-be to limit and control herself, constraining her entire life so that she adequately “manages her body” in order to protect the pre-born (ibid.). Shulamit Firestone elevates a pregnant woman’s obligation to self-neglect and dispossession of her body to an even higher level by stating that “pregnancy is barbaric […] [it] is the temporal deformation of the individual’s body for the sake of the species” (Firestone in Stabile 192). Even law makers seem to agree with the opinion of dispossessing the pregnant woman of her body as they claim that the right of privacy “is not absolute” (Neff 328), ruling pre-born children as minors without a parent and posing as their guardians (Lupton 5). Furthermore, “bodily integrity […] has not been extended to pregnant women” (Neff 328). This take on the pregnant body being subject to extrinsic forces rather than the woman’s interest leads to the second aspect to be discussed, namely that a pregnant woman is no longer regarded as being an individual. This goes in line with the Victorian view on married women and takes the level of denying a woman of her individuality a step further. Interestingly, studies have shown that women felt as if “their own body has been taken over” once the social environment had found out about the pregnancy (Lupton 5). Moreover, as pregnant women are still represented according to the Victorian vessel metaphor, they no longer feel as an individual with own needs and priorities (ibid.). This detachment of the female pregnant body from the individual seems especially in America quite paradox as the American culture has a highly individual trait in its culture which recedes in the light of the self-proclaimed child –centeredness of the American society (Birns and Dale 5).

Finally, a look at the perception of the pregnant body is necessary. Although media and society want to convey that “motherhood [and pregnancy] is easy, natural, and enjoyable” (Hoffnung 164) “the pregnant body – even clothed – is a source of abjection and disgust in popular culture” (Stabile 191). Not only is the swollen belly regarded as awkward, accompanied with the notion of discomfort and oftentimes seen as “grotesquely excessive” (Stabile 191), it is also in juxtaposition to the prevailing paradigm of slenderness (Nash 30) and it is always a reminder of sexuality (O’Brien Hallstein 85). As Gow ascertained in her study, weight gain during pregnancy, which is both unavoidable and essential, was portrayed as generally negative (Gow et al. 4). Furthermore, a pregnant body is absolutely not seen as being sexually attractive, more as being “aesthetically and culturally problematic” (ibid. 27). This is underlined by the account of Waverman stating that “maternity fashion was a little infantilizing and made every pregnant woman look enormous. The clothing looked like it was actively trying to erase any idea of sex from everyone’s mind.” (Waverman Blog). Consistently with this experience is the fact that the depictions of pregnant women was very limited in non-medical publications (and here certainly clothed) and for medical publications as illustration for pathology and medical interests. Moreover, pregnant women were never associated with any sexual desires when depicted (Nash 34). Thus, women were expected to adhere to society’s expectations that pregnant bodies perform in certain ways in public and (preferably) stay hidden (Butler in Nash 37).

With these three aspects discussed, the loss of proprietary possession of a woman’s pregnant body, followed by the dissolution of her individuality and the environments opinion of a pregnant woman’s outward appearance and sexual attractiveness, the reactions on Demi Moore’s photograph may become more comprehensible.


[1] The excerpt quoted from is to be found in appendix 2 as the online version was no longer accessible.

[2] Average Jane as a synonym for common, non-famous, and average women.

Excerpt out of 29 pages


The Spark That Started a Fire. Annie Leibovitz’s Iconic Image of Pregnant Demi Moore and Its Impact Until Today
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
Intercultural Competence - Power, Ethics, Ideology: Photography and the Politics of Representation
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
912 KB
Photography, Politics, Represenation, Ideology, Female Body
Quote paper
Sarah Wunderlich (Author), 2017, The Spark That Started a Fire. Annie Leibovitz’s Iconic Image of Pregnant Demi Moore and Its Impact Until Today, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Spark That Started a Fire. Annie Leibovitz’s Iconic Image of Pregnant Demi Moore and Its Impact Until Today

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free