My pregnant body: sexualisation and sanitisation

// 22 May 2012

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This is the third in a series of posts by Yasmin, a pregnant feminist who is sharing her experiences of pregnancy with us, in the hope that she is not alone in her thinking!

a naked, sexualised photo of Monica Belluci on a magazine coverAs I entered my second trimester, 3-6 months pregnant, I began to notice what seemed to be a leery quality in the gaze of a few men. It may seem odd to some to suggest that the pregnant body is in some ways hypersexualised. Or to others who are not feminist, that there should be a problem with being considered sexual when pregnant because, after all, you are fat and men/women can still find you attractive. The more noticeably pregnant I became, the more I could discern a look from many men that suggested the recognition that some man had “possessed” me; that I was concomitantly fertile yet safe ground.

Women, in particular, would begin to comment, publicly, on how my “boobs are so big”, how “great” it is, as though this is the primary bonus of the whole process. It may seem like I am moaning again, but I find the talk problematic because it reinscribes as acceptable the objectification of the female form. Pregnancy requires that breasts be recognised as part of the female anatomy that is not simply there for aesthetic or sexual purposes. They are preparing to become functional entities, yet even now, there is an emphasis from without to maintain them as purely sexual.

In my previous post I wrote about the pressure on women to retain a sexual allure during pregnancy and in some ways, this is intensified throughout this particular stage. The famous talk of the “glowing” mother-to-be may well be true for some; for others, however, it is another objectified status that women are supposed to happily strive for. In not attaining it, one is deemed to be less than.

One pregnant feminist friend relayed the following story. During an antenatal class with one of the UK’s leading charities in this area, couples were shown footage of mothers breastfeeding. One male participant chose at this point to ask why a more “attractive” woman could not have been shown. This was greeted with titters of nervous laughter.

It is paradoxical that this focus on and hypersexualisation of my pregnant chest will in a few months’ time become even more acute. The stress upon large naked breasts as primarily fit for pornographic content like page three and top shelf magazines will mean that I will feel uncomfortable when bearing them to feed my child.

I myself had a female colleague, during lunch in the staff room, ask me whether I planned to shave my vulva in time for the birth. I explained that at the moment, I cannot SEE my vulva and did not relish the thought of taking a razor to it blind, as it were. How odd it is that I am supposed to care about the aesthetic state of my vulva at a time when, because I am in agony, I will really not give a second thought to who sees it and in what state.

A beautician confirmed my fears, telling me that a number of women close to their due date visit her for a Brazilian wax. Odd, then, that it is at this particular juncture, when the female body is perceived to be truly “woman”, that the vulva is required to be taken back to its prepubescent form. To justify this, some women are fed dross telling them that it is for the benefit of the baby because a bald vulva will lessen the risk of eye and mouth infections that can be obtained by having pubic hair come into contact with these regions.

The “lovely” roundness of my belly and breasts, more importantly, detract from the more troubling conversations women could have about how difficult pregnancy can be on the female body. I should feel grateful and happy that I am now allowed to eat “whatever” I want and have a large chest to boot: clearly every woman’s hidden desire. Yet, when I say that there are many complications people are visibly uncomfortable. I am not supposed to talk of the piles, constipation, bloating, heartburn, back ache, nosebleeds, sensitive gums, varicose veins… this list is, sadly, not exhaustive.

The sexualisation therefore goes hand in hand with a sanitisation of what actually can and often does happen when women are pregnant. (I will, in my next blog, discuss this in further detail.) And, as is often the case, the women are presented the carrot of attractiveness to tempt our concentrations away from more pressing matters.

Comments From You

Datch // Posted 22 May 2012 at 10:12 pm

Fantastic. I recognise so much of this from when I was pregnant.

Alex_T // Posted 22 May 2012 at 11:43 pm

Relatedly, a year after my second child’s birth, I’ve lost a lot of weight. I have at last got down to the size I was before I carried my first child, four years ago. This isn’t through any special effort though, it’s simply down to the fact that we’ve not had much money for the last few months so our food budget has been strictly limited to three sensible meals a day – no desserts, snacks or booze! I’m basically losing weight because I’m poor and can’t afford to eat as much as I want.

But I’m constantly being congratulated by my friends and colleagues, being told ‘well done’ and ‘you look great’ and being asked how I did it. And, yes, I did fully intend to get back to my original size, and I’m happy with my outward appearance, but I’m also tired and dizzy and contantly hungry (not to mention worried about how much more weight is going to drop off). I don’t feel great, so how dare I moan about the weight loss when people are telling me I ought to be proud of myself? I’m not, I’m ashamed! I’m totally embarrassed by my poverty! Being poor and basically starving is not an achievement! But as a postnatal woman all that matters is that I ‘get my figure back’, non?

Feminist Avatar // Posted 23 May 2012 at 5:27 am

In the mid-twentieth century, it used to be medical best practice to shave women’s public hair when they went into labour; it was thought to be more sterile and did we not shave the body for every other surgical procedure? This was one of those things that the NCT worked hard to change when it campaigned for ‘natural’ (ie not a medical procedure) childbirth.

Zoe Rose // Posted 23 May 2012 at 2:04 pm

I wouldn’t normally comment, but…

I’m 22 weeks pregnant, and exactly 0% of this resonates with me.

I’ve noticed no change in my male colleagues and friends, with the exception of some occasional doe-eyed welcome-to-the-clubbiness among the newer Dads.

I don’t talk about the nuances of body discomfort – but then again, I didn’t before. The exception is in some of my pre-pregnant lady friends, who are dead keen for juicy/grisly details about What It’s Really Like – and I’m happy to oblige (if I get piles, I’ll be sure and tell them).

The advice I get is mostly about baby management and husband-as-relates-to-baby management (I’m married), and comes from dudes and ladies alike.

All in all – I’m a card-carrying feminist, and I have never experienced a single thing that you’re talking about. I ground my feminism in a constant reality checking of ‘actual’ and ‘not-actual’, with a second line defense in ‘matter’ and ‘doesn’t’ matter.

Here I’m seeing ‘not-actual’.

anywavewilldo // Posted 24 May 2012 at 11:09 am

Thank you Yasmin for a great article.

As I’m a midwife I couldn’t resist commenting that perhaps you will be in agony when you give birth – but there’s a good chance you won’t too.

Birth is saturated with social constructions and expectations about what women are meant to feel during their labours. I hope your insights and commitment to being true to your own experience will help you find resillience and comfort when the time comes.

best wishes,

anywave

Laura // Posted 26 May 2012 at 6:00 pm

Hi Zoe – It’s great you haven’t experienced any of these things, but Yasmin has, so the fact that you haven’t doesn’t mean they don’t happen.

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