Pregnant with meaning - or a slight on motherhood?

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The female form has been among the most celebrated images of our cultural heritage - as long as it isn't pregnant.

Ask anyone to list well-known depictions of pregnancy, and they will be lucky to come up with a handful. The stomach, swollen with child, is a rare sight in even "enlightened" 20th-century culture.

The film actress Demi Moore caused a controversy when, heavily pregnant, she appeared nude on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto unusually shows a Madonna heavily with Child rather than Madonna and Child.

But these are rare examples; the National Gallery in London, for example, could not come up with a single artistic representation of pregnancy yesterday.

According to a spokeswoman, the example most commonly believed to depict impending motherhood - Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage - showed nothing more than the fashion for heavily gathered high waistbands.

In an effort to combat this ambivalence - or perhaps as an effective sales gimmick - Frank, a new "alternative" magazine for women, decided to use three heavily pregnant models to illustrate a fashion shoot.

The feature, entitled: "Eight-and-a-half: It's a miracle, not a dress size" shows the models' stomachs protruding between their clothes, bare flesh visible. They could not be more different from the demurely pregnant women blooming between the pages of mother-and-baby magazines, or maternity catalogues.

But this alternative approach is not without controversy. Frank's editor, Tina Gaudoin, said yesterday she was "disgusted" by the fact that readers - both men and women - had contacted them to complain about the images, one even describing them as "grotesque".

"The modern woman doesn't regard pregnancy as a different state; a special state, perhaps, but she still has to live her life. So we wanted to integrate it into the mainstream to illustrate the fact that it's very beautiful and to say you don't have to cover it up," said Ms Gaudoin, herself a mother.

"When you think of the things that can be reproduced without men batting an eyelid ... that someone could call this grotesque! Well, I don't care if people find it offensive, because it's incredibly beautiful. They should get used to it."

On Frank's pages, they may have to. Ms Gaudoin says that expectant mothers will feature again. "It won't be a regular feature, but these clothes aren't pregnancy clothes, so there's no reason why we wouldn't do women in different states of pregnancy," she said.

"An extremely high percentage of women get pregnant; it's a state most of us go through. If you can't see it openly in a magazine then you have a problem. The fact that women could complain about these images I find incredibly sad."

The pregnant form, it seems, still provokes equivocal feelings. Two years ago, a schoolgirl artist in Aberdeen caused a storm when her painting of a nude pregnant woman went on public display, with female staff demanding that it be taken down.

Her headmaster said: "Opinion was expressed that this shouldn't be shown in the main corridor of a school."

With an increasing number of models and actresses now proud to record their bumps on celluloid, perhaps a new generation will find the images less disturbing. As the sixth-form artist said afterwards: "They are so behind the times. I thought their reaction was quite funny."