BOSTON — Boston. -- From the sound of it, you would think that Demi Moore had posed for a Rorschach test rather than a cover photo. The image of the very pregnant star, naked but for her two strategically placed hands, has Vanity Fair being compared to everything from National Geographic to National Enquirer.
The magazine has been banned from supermarkets in North Carolina and has flown off the newsstands in Harvard Square. Her photo is now an instant visual poll on the subjects of sexiness and pregnancy, prudery and discretion, the uterus and the ego.
Indeed one amateur sociologist of my intimate acquaintance has been flashing Demi in the buff around her home and office. She has collected comments that range from ''indecent exposure'' to ''it's about time.''
One woman said that it was wonderful to see a woman who was big -- with child -- and beautiful. Another, in her ''17th month of pregnancy'' groaned about this new role model. Having not looked like a movie star before pregnancy, she now knew for sure that she didn't look like a movie star during pregnancy. She would have preferred a close-up of varicose veins.
It is true that people feel free to offer their opinions about the behavior of pregnant women. Pregnancy seems to turn women into public property. Co-workers, who wouldn't touch your shoulder, are suddenly rubbing your stomach. Strangers are telling you what to eat and what happened to them in labor.
But this tempest in a Demi-tasse has a familiar edge to it. Remember last year when Deborah Norville was pictured in People magazine breast-feeding? Some said she was wonderfully natural, quintessentially maternal. Others said she should keep her blouse buttoned in public. Everybody said something.
lTC Demi herself has posed nude before. It was, as they now say about Supreme Court nominees, a youthful indiscretion. But some of the same people who would criticize her for posing with a flat stomach exposed, praise her for publicly protruding. Others seem to suggest that nudity is even worse for a mommy-to-be.
It seems that photographer Annie Liebovitz focused her lens on an especially fertile territory in contemporary life. The place where attitudes about sexuality and motherhood conflict.
When the questions started pouring in, Tina Brown, the editor of Vanity Fair, said that the pictures illustrated the beauty of maternity. ''There is nothing more glorious than the sight of a woman carrying a child,'' she demurred, wrapping herself in the flag of motherhood.
But the pictures, as Ms. Brown knows, are far more ambiguous than that. This isn't a photo spread for the Lamaze class.
Inside the magazine are three more images. The most deliberately provocative is the one of Ms. Moore in a skimpy black bra, bikini undies and spike heels. Mommy meets Hustler? Did she mean to reveal Victoria's Secret? Guess what, Victoria's gonna have a baby!
Frankly, I would not rush over to see Demi's baby in utero. Spare me the videotapes of her first childbirth, during which she directed three cameramen to get all the right angles. She is far more fully and comfortably exposed on camera than in the dry, dull text that accompanies the pictures.
But the lens has captured and uh, exposed, a visual taboo. It walks the line that still ordinarily divides a woman's body as a source of pleasure and a source of reproduction. After all, a mother isn't supposed to be a sex object and a sex object isn't supposed to be a mother and where is Freud when you need him?
Remember the analysts who said that Western culture saw woman as either a Madonna (the original) or a whore? There are a lot more sexual options now but also a lot more opinions.
There's an ongoing argument about whether good girls wear garter belts, whether a centerfold is liberated or merely exploited, whether female nudity is sleazy or nature's way of staying cool. There's a talk-show, kitchen-table debate about good and bad sexiness that gets focused around Deborah Norville's breast-feeding and Demi Moore's pregnant poses.
Most of us harbor mixed feelings. Which is why this issue of Vanity Fair is selling . . . and why it's discreetly wrapped. Why the photos are getting a long look, but not on the subway.
Giving credit where it's due, I give it to Ms. Liebovitz more than Ms. Moore. She's taken a strong, unexpected image and thrown it on the national screen -- a conflict wrapped in amniotic fluid. Some pictures are worth a thousand words. This one's a bargain.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.