Our modern obsession with pregnancy is just another attempt to control women’s bodies

Don’t tell Ali Wong what to do.
Don’t tell Ali Wong what to do.
Image: Netflix
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Last month, author Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie revealed that she had kept her recent pregnancy private. “I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy,” she told the Financial Times. “We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood.”

After nine months of pregnancy, I can relate. I’ve experienced firsthand how pregnant women’s bodies are met with constant judgement and expectations. A few weeks ago, I was walking down the street in Berkeley, California, when a total stranger on the street advised me to “drink more water.” A few weeks before that, I was out walking with a friend. A man jogged by us and shouted that I really ought to be running–after all, he’d just passed a woman even more pregnant than I was racing down the block. More recently, an older male stranger at an art opening pointed to my growing belly, so close that he was almost touching it, smiled, and gave me the thumbs up.

Wandering through the world “minding one’s own business” is a virtual impossibility for pregnant women, as Jessi Klein writes in a recent article for The New York Times. Whereas pregnancy was once seen as a shameful condition meant to be hidden for modesty’s sake, we’ve swung far in the opposite direction, becoming a “womb-obsessed society.” And while it’s good that American culture has brought pregnancy out from the shadows, the increased visibility has not decreased the level of scrutiny that women face. The world still interprets a pregnant woman who goes out in public as an open invitation to remark on her appearance, offer unsolicited advice, and regulate her behavior.

As Renee Cramer writes in Pregnant With the Stars, her book about celebrity pregnancies, “The pregnant female body has gone from being an embarrassing reminder that women had sex and therefore private state of being to being considered public property for regulation and commercial property to be celebrated as sexy.” This obsession translates into a constant baby-bump watch. Now pop culture is dominated by absurd conversations about which celebrities do pregnancy best—Beyonce or Jessica Simpson? Christina Aguilera or Chrissy Teigan? Certainly not Kim Kardashian, whose pregnancy fashion received plenty of negative coverage.

At the root of these evaluations is an impulse to shame women who fail to perform pregnancy in a sufficiently glowing and feminine fashion. At the same time, such conversations frame pregnancy as a kind of style choice: the newest (or oldest) accessory.

The hypervisibility of pregnancy–both in American pop culture and in everyday life–is in fact quite new. As Sadie Stein points out in “A Brief History of the Bump Watch” on Jezebel, pregnant women in the 19th century were often confined to private quarters. Pregnancy fashion was an extension of this sensibility, designed to hide pregnant women’s bodies under swaths of loose fabric. Even maternity fashion in the 1980s tended toward the drapey; the triangular ponchos my mom wore while pregnant with me were typical of maternity wear at the time.

Pop culture was similarly skittish about acknowledging pregnancy. On television, one of the most famous early pregnancy-driven storylines was on I Love Lucy, wherein Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy was written into the sitcom. So great was the anxiety around airing the 1952 episode, according to the Huffington Post, that CBS and show sponsor Philip Morris called in “a priest, a minister, and a rabbi to approve each of the ‘Lucy Is Enceinte’ scripts before they would concede.” A slow trickle of notable TV pregnancies followed, including Wilma on the Flintstones in 1963 and Samantha on Bewitched in 1965.

Pop culture slowly became more comfortable with pregnancy, reflecting changing reproductive politics, including the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision, and the influence of second-wave feminism. As Cramer writes, “The pregnant body was losing the stigma and shame with which it had been treated prior to 1970; women were gaining some measure of control over their reproductive capacity via access to abortion and birth control; and women were able to be pregnant and remain in the workforce.” By 1991, Demi Moore was on the cover of Vogue, unabashedly naked, pregnant, and looking radiant and comfortable in her own skin.

If pregnancy was once a performance of invisibility, it had officially become something to show off. But the shift was not without a dark side. Once pregnant bodies were allowed into the public sphere, they could be harnessed to push magazines and sell everything from TV shows like 16 and Pregnant to maternity clothes and prenatal yoga. Meanwhile, society’s desire to regulate pregnant women’s bodies didn’t go away–it merely evolved.

There is a current of violence that runs through those moments when strangers talk to me about my pregnant body. The interactions I have had with strangers on the street are just another form of catcalling. A man telling me to drink more water is no different from the men who demand that I smile as I walk past them. Such interjections, even from family and friends, are all part and parcel of a culture that routinely, and aggressively, demands access to women’s bodies.

But confrontations with strangers are only the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised women of childbearing age to be wary of alcohol consumption, lest they harm entirely hypothetical babies. Meanwhile, abortion laws enacted across the country restrict and criminalize abortion under the guise of protecting the fetus, yet never seem concerned about preserving the safety and rights of the pregnant woman.

As Cramer notes, “Reproducing women are increasingly subject to surveillance and regulation by the state, strangers and each other. Barely any aspect of reproductive decision-making has been left untouched—from an employer’s interest in a woman’s use of birth control, to the state’s interest in her miscarriage.” This regulation is carried out by the state, of course, and seeps into everyday life through the judgmental looks from strangers and comments pregnant women receive.

The problem extends to the psychological experiences of pregnant women. As Adichie notes, women in the US are under pressure to perform pregnancy in a particularly regimented way. The pregnant woman should be blissful, glowing, and free of complaints. She should be a martyr to her pregnancy, from regimented dietary restrictions to opting for natural childbirth—after all, this is her first act as a mother. As Klein jokes, “It’s so easy to believe the notion that having a baby demands complete and total self-abnegation, and anything short of that is not enough.”

But it is possible to push back against these expectations. I’ve found myself becoming increasingly protective of both my body and my emotions during my pregnancy. It’s hard to perform happiness when you haven’t slept in days and amidst the increasing physical discomforts of pregnancy. And it’s madness to expect pregnant women to perform bliss in order to ease others’ discomforts with the realities of pregnancy and female bodies. Women don’t owe onlookers a smile or a charming response or happiness at an uninvited touch. Now, whenever someone tells me I’m glowing, I casually respond that I’m just hot and sweaty–pregnant women run hotter, it turns out. 

Pop culture, too, has come out swinging against societal expectations of pregnancy. Ali Wong’s recent Baby Cobra comedy special for Netflix, which she filmed while seven months pregnant, revels in what Robyn Bahr calls in LA Weekly a vision of “sacred motherhood undone.” Wong jokes about everything from her love of porn and anal sex to her many encounters with Plan B and her miscarriage. Wearing a tight-fitting dress, she discusses her terror of labor. It’s a relief to watch a woman deconstruct so many expectations about femininity and motherhood, and even more glorious to watch her do so while pregnant. Audra McDonald, performing pregnant at the 2016 Tony Awards, offered another example of a pregnant woman refusing to serve as a spectacle and insisting upon her identity as an active (and badass) individual.

It’s certainly a sign of progress that pregnant women are no longer shrouded in capes or sequestered in their homes. But we can aim higher by demanding, and celebrating, diverse representations of women, pregnancy, and motherhood. And we can stop rolling our eyes at pregnant women spotted in the vicinity of a glass of wine or otherwise violating strict social scripts. A little less judgment could go a long way.