Ashley Graham is working to teach women how to embrace pregnancy — stretch marks and all

Ashley Graham announced her pregnancy on Instagram in mid-August with a gorgeous, posed photo of herself showcasing her baby bump in a body-con dress hugging her every curve. She was met with messages of congratulations and comments referencing her “sexy belly.” And just three days later, she took social media by storm when she posted another photo displaying her new journey to motherhood, which was a close-up of that same belly, unedited with stretch marks and all.

The 32-year-old model went on to post photos from the earlier months of her pregnancy, where she was lounging in a teeny bikini, rocking a latex dress or even showing off the high-waisted underwear that she was wearing to the gym to make up for the fact that her leggings no longer fit. With each post, she took control of the narrative surrounding her own changing body and empowered women to embrace its evolution in both the sexy and vulnerable moments.

“Getting bigger and bigger and trying to embrace my new body every day,” she captioned a video on Oct. 7. “It’s a journey and I’m so thankful to have such a supportive community.”

Despite the body-positive model making her own vulnerability look easy, she’s admitted that being so authentic about the changes while simultaneously trying to accept them was difficult. “This is a new body that I’m walking into,” she explained during an episode of her web series, Fearless. “I felt so isolated, I felt so alone.”

Although social media became an outlet for her to connect with other women feeling the same way, it’s no wonder that she felt reluctant to share so much as these conversations surrounding pregnancy haven’t always existed. Instead, women in the spotlight, as well as in everyday life, have often hid their changing bodies as a result of a shame-based culture.

“If we look at it from a historical perspective, even in the last 30-40 years, women hid their bodies. They wore tents when they were pregnant. You hid pregnancy. You hid the body changing,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, PhD tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It was something that was very private. It was, in innocence, something that a woman was ashamed of, and so it’s really a shame-based culture.”

One of the earliest examples of prominent women breaking this perception was Demi Moore with her 1991 Vanity Fair cover where she posed nude while seven months pregnant with her second daughter, Scout Willis. However, as Manly points out, the photo represented an idealized version of pregnancy.

“They are the posed pictures and the celebrity has the right to have the retouching done and all of this,” Manly explains, adding that any other celebrated depiction of a pregnant woman was far and few between.

Most other discussions around pregnancy didn’t happen until the postpartum period, when a woman was being prompted to talk about “bouncing back” — a concept highlighted by features like Kourtney Kardashian’s interview in Shape magazine when her first-born, Mason, was just 18 months old.

“I'm really excited to be on the cover of Shape and offer some advice, particularly to new mothers. I'm proof that even after having a baby, you can look better and sexier than ever!” Kardashian is quoted in the beginning of the piece, which featured bikini photos and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, kicking cravings and being a “hot mama.”

Other expecting moms have been shamed for their appearance while pregnant, including Elsa Pataky whose baby bump was compared to a “beer belly” during an episode of Fashion Police after the 2014 Oscars. The movement against that type of shaming, Manly says, is a result of recent messaging around body positivity, which counts on women to set an empowering precedent of owning their bodies and talking more openly about them.

“What I think we’re seeing is a movement toward destigmatizing so many aspects of what it is to be a woman, and what it is to be human,” Manly explains. “And so as we strive to destigmatize that, we then reduce the shame that surrounds it. So we no longer feel the need to hide because it’s something normal.”

Some of this year’s pregnant celebrities — Amy Schumer, Shay Mitchell, Shawn Johnson, Jessica Simpson and Graham — did their part to normalize all parts of pregnancy, including both the sexy and unsexy, with unfiltered content of themselves growing out of clothes, getting stretch marks and swelling ankles, lounging in lingerie and even working out.

“By calling attention to it on your own, you are in control of that. You are no longer embarrassed about it because you’re in control of the narrative and you say, this is a part of being normal. Yeah, it’s inconvenient or yeah, I wish I didn’t have the swollen ankles, yeah I wish I didn’t have the spot on my dress or whatever it is,” Manly says. “But it is here, it’s normal, it’s natural, and sometimes, isn’t it funny how we are all so human and human together? And that’s the beautiful part.”

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