Serena Williams' Pregnancy Shoot May Never Have Happened Without Demi Moore's Trailblazing

August 2017 issue vs. August 1991 issue

This week, Serena Williams graced the cover of Vanity Fair’s August issuewindswept, nearly nude, and in the late stages of pregnancy. The image is the epitome of beautiful, made all the more powerful in its simple rendering of Williams' strength and grace.

The cover arrives exactly 26 years after Demi Moore and Annie Leibovitz unapologetically tore up the rule book about pregnancy and sexuality, by having Demi pose in the nude while heavily pregnant. It's almost unfathomable to think about now, but this -- probably the most famous image in all of Vanity Fair’s history -- caused shock, awe, and not a little disgust when it was first released.

The August 1991 cover was a watercooler moment years before anyone even had a name for that. It was pored over, analyzed, dissected. Vanity Fair’s editor Tina Brown may have described it as “a new young movie star willing to say, ‘I look beautiful pregnant,’ and not ashamed of it,” but reactions across the country were visceral. Many people were simply unable to comprehend how this intersection of pregnancy and sexiness could be out there for the whole world to see. Some stores refused to stock the magazine; others hid Demi's luminous form in the sorts of packaging usually reserved for pornographic publications.

A page from Demi's 1991 Vanity Fair cover story.

The controversy was widespread. An (incredibly amusing) article for the Bangor Daily News (July 17, 1991) acts as a time capsule. In it, a 24-year-old woman asks, without a wisp of irony: “How are her kids going to feel about this when they get old enough to understand?” Another exclaims: "It’s disgusting. Women are most beautiful when they’re pregnant, but from the face up!” Another declares: “I think it’s in poor taste”.

Probably the most telling quote in the article though, comes from a well-meaning grandfather, who opines: “I think it's very nice. Really very nice. This is nature at work. I get sick and tired of seeing sexy women on magazine covers. This is real.” For this particular grandpa, the image was rendered totally innocuous and asexual by the mere fact of Demi's pregnancy. Even a woman this glamorous, this beautiful, this confident in herself and her body, was rendered the opposite of a "sexy wom[a]n" by her unborn child. The only reason this man wasn't offended by the image was because he missed the whole point of it.

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It wasn't all bad though. Vanity Fair acquired 75,000 new subscribers, and the issue sold 500,000 more than expected. Liebovitz remained unfazed by all the fuss, later noting: "It’s a magazine cover. If it were a great portrait, she wouldn’t be covering her breasts." In 1992, Demi Moore told the Houston Chronicle the shoot made her "feel glamorous, beautiful, and more free about my body,” also noting, quite rightly: “I don’t know how much more family-oriented I could possibly have gotten.”

It may have just seemed like a controversial moment at the time -- a daring one-off -- but that single photoshoot literally changed the perception of what it means to be a pregnant woman, forever. Prior to the Moore-Leibovitz shoot, pregnant women were expected to cover up, be more demure, and sacrifice their own sexuality for the sake of their offspring. In the years that have followed, it's a rarity for celebrities to not do a revealing pregnancy shoot.

Here's a reminder of just some of the famous people who've thought nothing of following Demi's example, and received zero backlash for doing so:

Top: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kourtney Kardashian. Middle: Natalie Portman, Jessica Simpson, Mariah Carey. Bottom: Eva Herzigová, Kelly Rowland, Cindy Crawford.

More recently, celebrities have been bypassing the magazines altogether to do their own pregnancy shoots for social media.

Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian

It seems absurd, looking back, that a beautiful famous woman and her unborn child could cause such a national uproar, but in the years before the internet as we know it, media was far more filtered, and sensibilities infinitely more delicate as a result. It took Moore an incredible amount of bravery to face the inevitable backlash and she did so with aplomb.

Demi Moore bit a metaphorical bullet to grant women more agency over their images during pregnancy. Today, bumps are to be celebrated and shown off; not hidden away under loose maternity wear. Moore's example emboldened women to retain their sense of selves while on the road to motherhood, in a way that had been taboo for generations before. She and Leibovitz also -- for better or worse -- accidentally spawned an entirely new industry: the world of "Maternity Boudoir" photography.

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What Demi Moore gave women, via the medium of that 1991 magazine cover, was a lot: inspiration, bravery, and a bolder outlook on what was possible for mothers. Given that the trend she set more than a quarter century ago has never actually died out, even some of her original critics might view her as a trailblazer by now. It's almost impossible not to.

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