These days, news of a woman’s pregnancy elicits all sorts of shameless demands from people with voyeuristic drives to see her naked stomach. I should know; I’m pregnant.
This is the first time that people I hardly know have asked me to reveal my bare mid-section on social networking sites for all of my so-called friends to see. What was previously an indecent form of exhibitionism has become a standard behavior, the expected conduct of pregnant women. It’s your obligation to show us your stomach, the voyeurs suggest, and it’s our right to see! Instead, I flash a well-practiced look that says, Surely you jest.
I’ve watched others do the opposite. Many conservative women who won’t even wear swimsuits in public jump at the chance to bare their skin on the Internet. I find it particularly puzzling when women only a few weeks along snap photos of their flat naked stomachs in the bathroom mirror, yoga pants pulled so low one can make out the top of whatever Victoria’s Secret underwear they’re wearing, and ask the world to comment on their so-called “baby bump.” And many women post photos weekly or daily, transforming social networking pages into a breeding ground for their new all-consuming identity as a mother.
And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with proudly self-identifying as a mother. But why must this identification begin with baring our stomachs? Have we no shame? It seems we have forgotten that we are more than just physical bodies, more than receptacles for new life.
Women still struggle against being categorized by our bodies first and foremost, and in an era lately dominated by political discourse surrounding the female body, perhaps a more effective strategy would be to resist even the most innocuous demands. Yet the moment many women detect the second line on the pregnancy test they forego dignity in favor of spectacle, and out comes the camera. Without realizing it, women are implicitly asking to be defined principally by their bodies, something that twentieth-century women’s movements worked desperately to change.
I probably sound like a real killjoy. Some might say I’m a “hater,” or surmise that my perspective stems from shame regarding my own 35-pound weight gain, or assume that I resent women who have the confidence to bare it all. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
At our male-female baby shower last weekend, my mother erected an 8x10 photograph of me in all of my 8-months-pregnant glory — and I loved it. But I was fully clothed. I do find the pregnant body beautiful and holy. It is sacred, but as we do with anything sacred, I want to protect mine. I know that it is one of life’s most special experiences, but it is not my only experience. Yes, I am going to be a mother. And I am already someone’s wife. But I am also a scholar, a professor, a writer, a thinker. While some of my friends agree with my distaste for “belly pics,” others call them cute, funny or adorable. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that this latter response is problematic.
I read a piece recently about a feminist anthropology professor getting heat for breastfeeding her baby in class. It sounded inappropriate until I read her blog response, which she has since removed. What resonated most was a female intellectual’s struggle between her biological identity (the pregnant body) and her preferred or public identity (that of a scholar).
I, too, am a professor. I happen to be pregnant. But I don’t spend my days talking about it, especially not on social networking sites, with the exception of one or two posts. In fact, I’ve found that people are bothered that I’ve simply continued to write and talk about the same things that appealed to me before the pregnancy. Yes, my stomach has grown; yes, I’ve spent months creating a mid-century-modern nursery; yes, I spend countless minutes each day dreaming about my baby and hoping he will be compassionate and intelligent. But that doesn’t mean I have less to say about literature, culture, politics, Judaism or anything else. Nor does it mean that I am less committed to motherhood because my public identity privileges my intellect over my body.
But I continually receive friendly digs from people who don’t understand why I refuse to post the notorious “belly pics.”
Precisely because I am going to be a mother, I owe it to myself and to my child to continue to think deeply about ideas, literature, politics and things that matter to me. To maintain my identity independent of motherhood. To engage with the world, and to have ideas and opinions shaped by careful thought and study.
Like the breastfeeding anthropologist, I don’t want my reputation tied solely to my biological condition. Women who prefer to be defined by their biological role should not be criticized, but we must think carefully about the decisions we make, the versions of our selves by which we encourage the world to define us. Pregnancy enriches my life, but it doesn’t define it. And while I already know that I will love my son so fiercely that I would kill for him, I prefer to let that love enrich rather than define me.