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'Belly casts,' the new rage to memorialize your pregnancy

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At home in Congers, N.Y. shortly before giving birth to her son Tony, Jessica Rivera-Caicedo with husband Gil wait for her belly cast to dry. Her son Gibby looks on. (Courtesy of J. Rivera-Caicedo)

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A painted belly cast. (Courtesy of Proud Body)

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A bronzed belly cast framed on the wall. (Courtesy of Proud Body)

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A woman poses for a professional maternity portrait. (Courtesy: Katsoulis Photography)

Four years ago, when she was nine months pregnant with her first son, Gibby, Jessica Rivera-Caicedo got plastered in her backyard.

Literally.

At home in Congers, N.Y., she lay down in the backyard--topless--while her husband and two close friends dipped long white strips in a bucket of warm water and covered her with plaster.

Soon, she had created her first “belly cast” from the kit she ordered from Proud Body, a company that now sells over 1,000 belly casting kits a month. She sometimes points to the cast to show her son that he was once “inside there.”

“It was an awesome experience,” said Rivera-Caicedo, 35, who made a second cast with her next pregnancy and will repeat the process in a few months before she delivers her third child. “I’m holding on to a piece of my life when I actually looked like this.”

No longer hiding inside dowdy maternity dresses, pregnant women are now showing off their bellies instead of shrouding them. With this shift, more women are making an effort to preserve their pregnant bodies by taking maternity photos and more tangibly, making belly casts. Many women paint these casts and hang them on the wall as art.

“For something that used to be so private in culture, to now have your own personal pregnancy hung on the wall marks a significant development in how pregnancy is being viewed in society,” said Laura Tropp, an associate professor of communication arts at Marymount Manhattan College who is writing “A Womb with a View: Pregnancy in Changing Media Environments.” “Now it’s something to be talked about and shared and enjoyed by everyone.”

The casts have increasingly entered the public sphere as prenatal massage centers offer belly casts as part of their services.

“When you’re pregnant, this is a way to pause and just enjoy the pregnancy,” said Mollie Bollers, owner of Hoboken PreNatal Massage in New Jersey, where some women come to the spa for the casting service with their mothers, husbands or girlfriends. “Many women don’t have a context for what pregnant beauty looks like. When we turn the cast around and show it to them they say, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful.’”

Bollers said the demand for belly casting at her spa “comes in waves,” and while the casting is a growing trend, the 12,000 belly casts sold by Proud Body each year is a small percentage of the 6 million women pregnant each year in the United States, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

In western North Carolina, Melissa Taylor and her business partner have started mamabellies.com, a small pregnancy cast business. Both Taylor and Bollers use the Proud Body kits. Taylor then offers a finishing service—sanding, smoothing and waterproofing the cast.

“I’ll be honest,” commented Taylor, “the ladies that get them done are the ladies that enjoy being pregnant.”

After all, the stretch marks, the morning sickness and other realities of pregnancy are not captured in a sculpture-like pregnancy cast. Similarly, the growing group of pregnant women taking professional maternity portraits tend to airbrush out the imperfections on their bodies.

“Ninety percent of my clients want stretch marks taken out of photos,” said Gregory Katsoulis, a photographer in Cambridge, Mass., who specializes in maternity and baby portraits. “I’d prefer to keep them in, but it’s not good for business.”

Photographs and casts have become ways for women to connect to other pregnant women. On the Internet, women are sharing thousands of photographs of their pregnant bodies with one another and sharing photos of their painted pregnancy casts.

Determined to provide women a place to reveal their real pregnant bodies “sans airbrush,” Bonnie Crowder has created “The Shape of a Mother,” a blog where women post photos of their bodies during and after pregnancy. The site averages 25,000 page views a day.

On the Proud Body site, hundreds of women have uploaded photos of their pregnancy casts, some painted with sports logos or holiday themes. Some have had their casts bronzed to look like sculpture.

Rivera-Caicedo created two casts with her husband’s hand on her belly and said that it was an incredible “bonding experience.” She has not had a chance to paint her casts yet, but she has stored them in plastic bags and looks forward to doing so.

Suzy Dwyer of Hightstown, N.J., said she received a casting kit from her sister-in-law when she was pregnant with her now 5-year-old son, Hall. She and her husband Andrew Harrison made a mess in the kitchen and couldn’t stop laughing while they tried to work with the plaster. When the cast dried, she said, it didn’t look very “professional.”

“I didn’t know how to paint it or what to do with it” chuckled Dwyer, who said she thinks the cast is collecting dust in the basement of her mother’s house. “Maybe I’ll resurrect it and shellac it.”

E-mail: mfh2107@columbia.edu