BABY ON BOARD: Juliet Travis shows her belly during her third trimester of pregnancy. Women are now showing off their pregnant bellies more than ever.
BABY ON BOARD: Juliet Travis shows her belly during her third trimester of pregnancy. Women are now showing off their pregnant bellies more than ever. (MIKE LUCIA Staff)
The women were pregnant. Very, very, very pregnant.

Probably 37 weeks so. Maybe 38.

And wearing nothing but stringy black bikinis as they basked in the sun, poolside, at Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon pool.

Like passing a car crash on the freeway, it was impossible to miss them, and impossible to look the other way.

"They were just sitting out there, these two, hugely pregnant women. They know who they are," says Janet Byron, who was visiting the pool with her daughter the other day, saw the pregnant spectacle and who guessed the pair were just a few weeks shy of their delivery dates. "But, wow, I couldn't keep my eyes off them. I found it really intriguing. I mean, I admire them, and they looked beautiful, but... I don't know. It's hard to put my finger on it. I wouldn't say it was unsettling. But it was, well, a little in your face."

Such is the era of the immodest pregnancy. Whereas once upon a time, the baby bump was a thing to be hidden beneath drapery-like maternity clothing, the burgeoning belly of the pregnant woman has taken a 180-degree turn in the public eye.

Today, the baby belly is celebrated, exalted, shown off, and in the case of celebrity bellies, stalked. And these bellies are everywhere: They're popping out of tight-fitting maternity fashions. They're glistening in semi-nude family photographs that can be taken at the corner mall.


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They're on display in homes, maybe even in a neighbor's, in the form of plaster belly-casts, three-dimensional mementos of a biological process now considered less Discovery Channel and more prime-time viewing.

"Pregnancy," says pop culture guru Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, "is an eroticized public statement."

Just when society - or at least the pregnant women sporting their ballooning bellies - decided to grab the steering wheel, crank it around, take a uturn and elevate the expectant torso to idolatry status is up for debate.

Some point to Murphy Brown, the fictional character played by Candice Bergen on that same-named sitcom, who got pregnant as a single mother in the 1991-1992 season and was criticized for doing so by a decidedly nonfictional character, vice president Dan Quayle.

Though Bergen's character didn't stroll around in the bodyskimming outfits made popular today by Liz Lange, Pea in the Pod or Isabella Oliver, there is a sense, in a way that Murphy Brown was maternity's Original G. Borrowing the famous phrase from ACT UP, Murphy Brown, in a sense, said on behalf of all pregnant women: We're here, we're knocked up, get used to it.

"Murphy Brown is the one that started the whole 'F' the man," says Mimi Torres of Oakland, who's five months pregnant and looking forward to her third trimester when she can really show off her own baby bulge. "She had to defend her character to Dan Quayle! Quayle made art invade reality and made it a question of values and morals. She was our predecessor!"

But in terms of when the perception of the pregnant body changed, there is no argument. Hands down, the single belly responsible for portraying the pregnant body as beautiful in the modern context is Demi Moore. Seven months pregnant and nude on the cover of Vanity Fair in August, 1991, Moore instantaneously made a subject tittered about in middle school sex education classes a thing of art.

"The Demi Moore thing was important. Here's a woman, in pop culture who was a sex symbol. Somebody who today we'd call 'a hot woman.' Posing completely nude and very, very pregnant," says Thompson.

"That caused a lot of discussion when it played. Much more so than if someone were to do it now. Some people celebrated it, some people thought it was obscene, it just depended who you were. Some saw it as a feminist statement, and then some feminists saw it as yet another case of objectification - of showing a woman nude. But no matter how you saw it, that was one of the real moments everything changed."

It was quite a change to undertake. Because only a few decades prior to that groundbreaking magazine cover, the pop cultural pregnancy was only spoken of in euphemistic terms.

Even Lucille Ball, who fought for pregnancy-related story lines on the "I Love Lucy" show when she was pregnant with her second child in 1952, ran into a brick wall when faced with a network that portrayed married television characters as sleeping in separate beds, and women who just simply never got pregnant.

Even though the show ran its "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" episode on Jan. 19, 1953, Thompson, the Syracuse professor, describes it as a waiting room pregnancy.

"In the 1950s there was this almost Victorian notion that pregnancy was covered up, not discussed, and any discussion, that did take place took place with the father, in the hospital waiting room. Lucy just disappeared to that secret land where people go to have babies, and the rest of the show was in the waiting room," says Thompson.

"We were highly embarrassed as a society by pregnancy because that would mean a woman must have gotten pregnant by S-E-X."

Gradually, though, television changed. In 1977, the mini-series "Roots" opened with a scene of a woman having a baby - an unglamorous, raw scene with closeups of the woman screaming, squatting, huffing and puffing.

Later, on "Cagney and Lacey," the birth of Lacey's third child became known as one of a handful of controversial topics the show covered. It was put in the ranks along with an episode that used racial slurs, including the use of the n-word for an African-American, and another about date rape.

"But it still hadn't moved us into the idea that a pregnant woman could be attractive from a sexual standpoint," says Thompson, who points to Jennifer Aniston's character, Rachel, on "Friends," with her pregnant belly-baring styles in 2001-2002, as a more modern example. "That's what we're seeing more of today, with clothes not meant to disguise pregnancy, but accentuate it."

To some, the all-about-belly attitude of today may have had Demi Moore as a foot soldier, but the real roots may be in the modern feminist attitudes that began to emerge in the 1960s and just became more commonplace, and essentially, normal.

Pregnancy as an indication of womanhood is a result of those changed attitudes. "I actually really like embracing the bump,' " says Cindy Gunderson of Berkeley, who is 24 weeks pregnant with her second child. "I really do think that pregnancy is one of the most beautiful and exciting things that can happen in your life, so why not feel beautiful during it? I love that you can feel like 'you,' even though you're changing."

To others, the belly is a biological, and social, talisman. "The baby bump is a symbol, really," says suburban Bay Area mom Tracie Romo. "It says, 'You're pregnant, you're different now, we can talk about you, criticize you, glorify you, touch you, whatever.' You're now part of 'that' world, the world that revolves around your children."

To some, that symbol is a bit different: a physical representation of an achievement, and a reward, of sorts, for xears of hard work. With women postponing childbirth, actually getting pregnant can sometimes turn out to be a struggle they never anticipated, and miracle when it happens.

"More women in their late 30s and 40s and sometimes beyond are encouraged to get pregnant either through science, or the old-fashioned way. Pregnancy's not just for twentysomethings anymore," says Torres, the Oakland woman who's five months pregnant with her first child at age 38. "The advent of in vitro fertilization has revolutionized fertility issues and has opened the door to family life for so many couples who were resigned to never having a biological child. I think that has a lot to do with the changing attitudes."

While pregnancy fashion has changed - and its metamorphosis has been noted for a few years now - the flourishing business of baby bump immortality is enjoying a sharp upswing.

Proudbody.com, a "pregnancy art" site that sells kits to make plaster casts of expecting mothers' bellies in just 30 minutes, says the lumpy work of potential living room art "enables a mom to forever remember how she looked during her pregnancy and the special nine months she shared with her growing baby."

One mother quoted on the site adds, "You can show your child later that this is what Mom looked like when you were inside!"

Even more common are the revealing photographs the average non-Demi Moore woman can now sit and pose for in the studios of photographers that specialize in maternity photography. Tiffany Johnson, a professional photographer, switched her focus to maternity and infant photography when she was pregnant with her second of three sons - after having pictures taken during her first pregnancy that weren't quite what she wanted.

"I had some pictures taken with my first son that weren't exactly what I wanted. I wanted my belly, and who I was, and a capturing of what was going on with me right then," says Johnson, whose work can be found at www.tiffanyjohnsonphotography.com.

Johnson attributes the uptick in her business - including increasing requests for pictorial "birth stories" where she chronicles the different stages of pregnancy over time - to the experience that is pregnancy, whether it's the accomplishment of achieving it or simply the need to commemorate it with something less ephemeral than the nine-month experience itself.

"A lot of the women who come to me have gone on a real journey getting pregnant," she says. "They want to be able to look back. Photography is art, and when you're looking at such a beautiful time in a woman's life, everything deserves to be captured."

Candace Murphy can be reached by e-mail at cmurphy@angnewspapers.com