Moore Photo: Shattering Or Shocking?

ALICE STEINBACH

July 15, 1991|By ALICE STEINBACH

It all depends on whom you ask. Some people love it; others hate it. Some view it as a breakthrough for women; others see it as being in poor taste.

But everyone is talking about it. Beautiful, they say. Shocking. Prideful. Arrogant. Maternal. Exhibitionistic. And so it goes. For every reaction to the photograph of Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair's August issue, there's a counter-reaction.

No one, it seems, feels neutral about the sight of the 28-year-old actress, nude and eight months pregnant, posing for the magazine with one hand covering her breast and the other cupping her swelling belly.

Newsstand operators report they can't get enough copies of thmagazine to meet the demand.

So, one is tempted to say, why all the fuss? What's the big deal?

Well, that's not as easy a question to answer as it might seem at first glance. After all, we are talking here about images of women, of sexuality, of sexism, of taboos, of what's beautiful, of the way women feel about their own bodies and of the way men feel about women's bodies.

So to find out what the big deal is, I decided to conduct ainformal survey. On the day the Vanity Fair photograph was reprinted in newspapers around the country, I collared about 50 men and women -- friends, colleagues and strangers -- and asked for their reactions. Predictably, some were offended by the picture, others pleased. What was surprising, however, was the response that emerged as more or less a universal one: The hard-to-define sense that some long-held images of womanhood had shifted with the publication of this picture.

To some, this was good news, to others, bad news.

"This photograph is a breakthrough for women; it shatters the image of pregnant women as the Madonna," said one woman who is pregnant with her first child.

"It's a shocking photo," counters an older woman, a retired judge. "And anyone who says this is a breakthrough for women ought to have his or her head examined."

"I think it is more shocking than Playboy covers because we are very accustomed to seeing women as sex objects," observed a younger woman. "But this cover shows a different facet of woman's sexuality, one that isn't there to titillate. It's more powerful; hence more shocking."

Some men found it sexy and beautiful: "Very attractive, sexy; erases any vestige of old concepts that women who are pregnant are sick and frumpy," says the father of three young children.

"Beautiful, yes. Sexy, no," said another man.

"I've never been titillated by pregnancy and an attempt to make it look 'hot' strikes me as dubious, to say nothing of futile, taste," said a third man.

Predictably, there were both cheers and jeers when it came to the question of motivation: "It is such an arrogant thing to do," observed a middle-aged man. "It's like Lyndon Johnson holding up his shirt and showing his scar."

And this from a young, unmarried woman: "The cover is a pretty phenomenal statement. It is opening up the definition of beauty."

But then there's this from a single, 20something woman: "There's nothing unattractive about the photo -- pregnant women are beautiful. But there's something unattractive to me about the idea of the photo on a magazine cover. She seems like an exhibitionist to me."

Some see it as just a ploy to sell magazines; others read even more ominous warnings into the photograph: "Just another depressing sign of a decline in taste or civility or whatever you want to call it," according to a middle-aged man.

One of the most interesting responses came from a woman entering her fourth month of pregnancy. "I'll never look that good when I'm eight months pregnant," she said. "Sure you will," I told her.

But her remark followed me around for the rest of the afternoon. I found myself wondering: Has Vanity Fair created a Frankenstein? Another beauty standard to which women must aspire? Does a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy now have to compare herself to Demi Moore?

Relax. Not everyone thinks Demi looks that great either. "I grew up in the era of the earth mother," one man told me, "but I can't imagine what would possess someone to pose naked who looks as if she had swallowed a globe whole."

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