I am seven months pregnant. I live in New York City. Today, as I was walking to pre-natal yoga, a man passed me heading the opposite direction on the sidewalk. He looked at my abdomen, looked at me and said with an assured smile, “Twins.” I kept walking and said loudly, “Nope.”
Another pregnant woman lives in my building. She is now in her ninth month. She’s quite slender and from Australia. A few times, when we have encountered each other in the elevator or at the corner café, she has declared with full-voiced and accented abandon, “You’re SO BIG!”
Earlier in my pregnancy, I had to go to a doctor’s office other than my OB’s for some blood-work. The woman who supervises the phlebotomy station has a formidable personality. When she saw me, just past four months, she exclaimed, “When are you due?!” I replied, “End of October.” She then said, “You look like you’re about to go now! That is a big stomach!” I looked at her and said quietly, “I’m sure you mean that in the most complimentary of ways.” She then reiterated how big I was, double checked that I wasn’t incorrect regarding my own due date, and told me to “do plenty of walking and don’t pay attention to what anybody says.” And I thought, but did not say aloud, “Oh, like what you just said to me about my size?”
How is it that we, as a society, have not established an acceptable pregnancy etiquette?
These are just three small examples of what it is like to be a pregnant woman in public (which is to be a pregnant woman alive in the world who does anything outside her home). Suddenly, your body becomes the jovial subject of countless unsolicited remarks about your appearance: your weight, girth, carriage, face, skin, feet, gait, attire, and so on. Someone accosted my friend Anne with, “You’ve got that waddle down!”
There are also the unwanted hands, eagerly reaching for your midsection, followed nearly exclusively by effusive commentary about size, shape, symptoms, etc. If you react to these moments of supposed civilian bonding with anything other than benign gratitude for the attention you are receiving in your delicate state, if you dare to disrupt with a rebuttal, refusal or dispute, you are seen as a hypersensitive, ungrateful difficulty, undeserving of the kindness that was clearly just extended to you.
But I ask, when is it OK to openly comment on another person’s appearance? When is it OK to touch any other person’s body, especially a stomach, ever? Do you encounter people after lunch and touch them lovingly below their ribs, look into their eyes, and say, “Pizza? Two pizzas?” No. You wouldn’t dare. How is it that we, as a society, have not established an acceptable pregnancy etiquette?
It’s a subset of catcalling.
After my exchange with the phlebotomy supervisor, I consulted a friend of mine who has two children. Bess’s first pregnancy was here in NYC, her second in California, where she now resides. She confirmed that yes, people are awful, and yes, people touch you all the time. She affirmed that there are only three things appropriate to say to a pregnant woman: 1) You look lovely 2) How can I help? 3) I hope you have a smooth and easy delivery and a happy, healthy baby. Nothing further is warranted or acceptable. She also developed a response to the unwanted touching, letting people promptly know that they should never touch another person’s body without permission. When people asked her if they could touch her belly, she would reply that she’d rather they didn’t and thank them for asking ahead of time. Clearly, Bess is a badass from whom we can all learn a few things.
I began offering this insight to anyone who crossed the line of commentary. A cashier in a coffee shop asked me “if it was twins” (I was between four and five months). I replied no, and told her about The Three Things. I was with my friend Mike at the time, and when we left the counter I checked in with him about the exchange. Was I too harsh? It was my first time correcting a stranger outright. He assured me that I wasn’t, that these things needed to be discussed. I still questioned my own level of proactivity and wondered if I should just brush off all these people as inconsequential, like we valiantly try to do in junior high.
Except, here’s the thing about pregnancy. Well, there are many, many things about pregnancy, but here are the things most relevant to this discussion. Pregnancy hormones make you incredibly sensitive, reactive, and so deeply aware of your body in space. To have strangers consistently commenting on aspects of your body is invasive, inappropriate and rude. It’s a subset of catcalling, but somehow seen as well-meaning catcalling (which can also be said for much non-pregnant catcalling), as if all pregnant women should be thrilled that someone is trying to commiserate with us via unsolicited observations, throwing us an attention bone we so desperately need in our compromised state of gestation.
Women become pregnant under all manner of circumstances. In my circle of friends I know women who became pregnant unexpectedly, after two years of trying, on the first try, with IVF, with a sperm donor and an IUI, without a partner, with a partner who is thrilled by the pregnancy, with a partner who is not thrilled by the pregnancy, at age 25 and at age 44 and all ages in between. I know women who are tall pregnant, short pregnant, wide pregnant, narrow pregnant, running while pregnant, or on bed-rest; women who are opting for genetic testing, epidurals, home births and hospitals. It’s a full spectrum of experiences, so far from one-size-fits-all (literally or figuratively) that our society’s insensitivity to this is astounding.
What a pregnant woman is doing is private and sacred. It is solely her choice as to how this experience is shared with anyone else.
Pregnancy is also a deeply personal undertaking, profoundly disruptive and incredibly amazing. You are growing a person! And an entire organ to feed and secure that person! In your abdomen! Pregnancy surfaces countless unexpected questions about parental instincts and capabilities, about economic security, about professional aspirations and opportunities, about one’s ability to endure physical pain. It conjures scenarios of endless variation regarding birth, breastfeeding, swaddling, exhaustion and post-natal recovery. It influences interactions between mothers-to-be and their partners, parents, in-laws, friends, co-workers, and so on.
And because it happens in a woman’s growing body over nine months, it is impossible to hide its effects. It reveals us whether we want it to or not. And because a woman’s body and choices are already subject to objectification and evaluation by society, it is even more problematic that these unacceptable interactions remain uncontested. What a pregnant woman is doing is private and sacred. It is solely her choice as to how this experience is shared with anyone else. If she wants to discuss her size, cravings or super shiny hair, that is entirely her prerogative. It is not for you to assume she wants to hear what you think about pregnancy, birth, or how she looks or feels. But because our physical bodies convey this intimate undertaking to everyone we walk past, it is incredibly difficult to maintain any semblance of privacy or autonomy.
Women are supposed to be quiet and bigness means we are not.
And it is not only strangers who make comments. People we love, ideally driven by exuberant enthusiasm, also remark on our size, share all manner of stories as a way of fostering connection or building assurance. These comments are more often about the person making them than the subject, for they reveal all sorts of bias and judgment. And yet, they sting from our realization that even those we love can lack sensitivity or awareness around this issue.
When I was nearing four months, I visited my parents in Tennessee. My mother looked at me in the kitchen of my childhood home and asked, “You’re sure it’s just one?” We went to the one maternity store in the mall and she told the salesperson I was “only just past three months, can you believe it?” Then she speculated about how much further (and larger) I had to go. I felt embarrassed and angry, ashamed that my body warranted such explanations and that she felt compelled to make them.
And let me clarify two things:
My mother is a fantastic mom. She has amazing aspects and frustrating foibles, just as every human being does. She is already an exceptional grandmother to eight grandchildren via my two brothers. This remark of hers does not encompass her nor do I share it to shame her (Hi, Mom) but to reveal how deep this bias goes, how often we remark on the bodies of others without realizing what our remarks might mean to those within earshot.
Additionally, I am nearly six feet tall, as is my husband. My grandmother often referred to my physique as “pleasantly slim.” If one paused for a moment, it would seem ludicrous that I would create the same size baby as a woman who is 5’4’’, or that my belly would grow at the same rate as someone who is petite. And yet, somehow, I am consistently deemed “too big.” I have met women who gained 60 pounds while pregnant. I have gained around 25. And still, BIG! And should my stature or mass even matter? NO!
Furthermore, there is a parallel discourse to be noted here regarding our relationship to the word “Big.” Rarely a crowd-pleaser, being big contradicts embedded, patriarchal notions of women as dainty and demure creatures who take up very little space unless called upon. Each pregnant woman, no matter her size, is the right size to grow the healthy baby inside her. If the baby’s health is of concern to anyone, it is to the mother-to-be and her care provider. Let these two alone initiate body-related questions, not the casual passerby on the street or a distant cousin at a barbeque. Big is not bad, but being called big feels bad, as if we’ve broken a contract within this slender obsessed culture’s single-minded perception of pregnancy as something that shouldn’t take up too much space, isn’t bold or demanding or apparent. Women are supposed to be quiet and bigness means we are not. Our bodies are speaking for us, politely and assertively taking the space they need to do what they are doing. Shame around the space a body requires to simply be has no place in pregnancy, or elsewhere, for that matter.
There is no single, right pregnant body.
At some point, someone has to speak up, to say NO MORE, in a public forum. When I shared the story of the man on the street to my pre-natal yoga class today, I was furious. Furious about his presumption, about my emotional reaction, and that pregnant women, contending with so much at once, had not spoken out collectively about this issue. I looked around the room at the variety of bodies present and felt such gratitude for this group of strangers, all undergoing a particular journey, all subject to variations of the same kind of harassment/assessment.
There is no single, right pregnant body. Let us please stop pretending that there is, or that pregnancy is a signal for carte-blanche access to any body, baby, or expressed opinion. My sympathetic yoga teacher, herself a mother of two, encouraged me to speak out myself. You have her to thank for this essay.
Body-shaming is never cool, but when it is thoughtlessly presented as enthusiasm for someone else’s manifested procreative efforts, it is particularly offensive and seemingly easy to prevent.
I suspect that, pre-pregnancy, I myself was unaware of the damage a size-related remark might cause, and surely made them. As I find myself in this pregnant position now, marveling at everything from the rampant unwillingness many people have towards giving their seats to pregnant women on the subway to the persistence of heartburn to the vigorous way my baby kicks and flips to the healing powers of ice cream and cheese, I offer a true apology to anyone who was the victim of my insensitivity.
And to the man on the street who asserted that I was having twins, to my “Nope” I add a very vigorous “STOP.” It’s all about The Three Things.
Catherine Mueller Melwani is an Interdisciplinary Artist, Actor/Creator and Educator based in NYC. Founder/Director of The Institute for Collaboration and Play (www.ifcap.org). Past teaching includes Adjunct/Guest Faculty/Guest Director at Pace University, Marymount Manhattan College, Middlebury, Drew University. Performance work: The Public Theater, Ars Nova, The Orchard Project, Dixon Place (select list) and many national network commercials. MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts, Goddard College. Delighted and exhausted mother to Arjun George Melwani, born in October, 2016. www.mywonderchamber.com.
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