Performing Pregnancy: It’s Time To Debunk The Pregnant Archetype
‘It’s a surprise,’ I say to my mother, ‘just wait outside with your phone.’ She agrees and takes her phone outside with the camera ready to shoot as I walk into my studio to get ready. When I emerge a few minutes later she struggles to control her laughter while I navigate the garden path in red diamanté high heels, a matching sparkling g-string and pasties, and a giant red roosters head I made years ago completely covering my face and neck. I pose in various positions, some of which are vaguely reminiscent of the showgirl poses I might usually do in feathered headdresses and crystalled corsets, but I’m dressed as a rooster so the intention is absurd. And some of which are downright silly, like on all fours prowling like a cat, because, well it’s ridiculous, and funny.
My mother and I laugh as I trot around the garden, my six-inch heels burrowing into the lawn and causing me to land on my backside more than once. After dinner I edit the photos, we chat about the good evening light we captured and I post them on Facebook. Friends post crying laughing emojis and leave appreciative comments. And that probably would have been the height of the response and the desired reaction. To do something silly, fun and creative that makes people smile in these weird times of isolation.
But it wasn’t. Because I’m thirty-five weeks pregnant. And it seems rather large amounts of people on the Internet do not respond well to a scantily clad pregnant body wearing a giant roosters head.
Though some of us may have been led to believe babies were delivered by storks when we were children, a tale of European folklore popularised in the 19th century by the Hans Christian Anderson story, The Storks, we will all eventually have that bubble burst, along with Santa and The Easter Bunny, and learn about sex. We will learn that the burgeoning bellies that carried our growing siblings were the result of our mother engaging in sexual activity with someone with a penis. Shocking. And though these days it might be our father who’s sporting the baby bump as not all people with wombs are women, and not all women menstruate, the history of the pregnant body has predominantly been women’s history. Women’s bodies, cisgendered or otherwise, have always been, and continue to be, policed. We have been told what to wear on them, what to do with them, who to touch with them, where to put them. Our bodily autonomy is continuously scrutinised. Our reproductive rights continue to be challenged throughout the world, with millions of women having limited or no access to contraception and abortion. Even our reproductive timetables are not our own, as we are so often reminded the clock is ticking.
For centuries, the female body has been documented in the arts, though rarely was she seen pregnant. Although many women spent much of their adult lives with child, this has largely been absent from art and popular culture until the late 20th century. The pregnant body was an all too uncomfortable reminder that a woman had been having sex. In 1991, when Demi Moore posed naked for Annie Leibovitz at seven months pregnant for the cover of Vanity Fair, the magazine was shrink-wrapped, the cover hidden, like a porn magazine. Many outlets refused to stock the controversial issue. The cover was met with comments such as ‘It’s disgusting,’ ‘She’s obviously not dealing with a full deck,’ and ‘How are her kids going to feel?’. Laura Tropp, author of A Womb With a View: America’s Growing Public Interest in Pregnancy, notes ‘Pregnant women in media have generally conformed to the biblical standard of the Virgin Mary, pregnant, beautiful and with child but still a virgin in a sense that sexual beings and even the act of sex, which is of course, centrally connected to the notion of pregnancy, is absent from the idea of a pregnant woman.’ The Demi/Leibovitz shoot gave us both the pregnant, beautiful ‘Mary’ as she gazes softly at the camera covering her full breasts, but also ‘Eve,’ in the boldness of the exposed flesh, in the intimacy and the confidence she has with her pregnant body. The shoot had polarising responses, provoking massive public outrage at the same time as sparking a celebration of the pregnant body being shown in its sensual beauty. Demi is credited with paving the way for other women to take pride in exposing their pregnant bodies.
Twenty-six years after Demi bared her bump, Serena Williams posed naked and heavily pregnant for Vanity Fair. The magazine was released sans shrink-wrap. Nowadays, there are many celebrity pregnancy shoots, from Beyoncé to Britney, and of course, the Kardashians. Women are claiming their agency around their pregnant bodies and displaying them in a way that is both provocative and empowering.
While these shoots are predominantly celebrated, one only has to pick up the latest trash mag to see a dissection of whichever flavour of the month happens to be pregnant and how her body is shaping up. It’s only acceptable if a woman is performing pregnancy in the ‘right’ way, glowing but not sweating, gaining weight but not stacking it on, eating but not gorging, sensual but not too sexy. Jennifer Musial writes in From ‘Madonna’ to ‘Whore’: Sexuality, pregnancy, and popular culture, ‘Pregnancy and sexuality, as well as sexiness, are seemingly incommensurate.’ The Madonna/Whore, Mary/Eve, binaries are still very real and very much imposed on the female body, and in particular the pregnant body.
The social unease around pregnancy, and the desire to control the pregnant body, has not disappeared; it has merely shifted. Women are no longer kept in confinement during their last few months of pregnancy but often choose to display their bumps proudly, wearing fashionable bump accentuating clothing that’s come a long way since Sears released the first range of maternity wear in 1905. A few clicks on a keyboard or a smartphone and one can find thousands of photos of smiling mothers-to-be holding up signs displaying the number of gestation weeks, perhaps accompanied by the corresponding size-appropriate piece of fruit. With this public acceptance of the pregnant body comes the public opinion of how it is acceptable to behave when you have a pregnant body. People don’t shy away from the sight of a pregnant woman walking down the street. Instead they stop her and tell her what to eat, how much water to drink, how much exercise to do, how much rest she needs, how big she is, how small she is — all the while reaching their unwelcome sweaty hands toward her growing belly. Liz Cahalan, former owner of Bey Dance School in Melbourne, speaks of her experience during pregnancy: ’Nothing brought forward to me how much my body was seen as public property like being pregnant did.’
Almost every single pregnant person has been given unwanted and unsolicited advice on what they should or shouldn’t be doing while pregnant, and how their body compares to that of other expectant parents. This prevailing commentary is a part of a culture that insists on controlling women’s bodies.
Liz adds, ‘There is an aura around the body when it’s pregnant that is now socially acceptable…as long as you behave in a certain way. As long as that’s other people shining that light on you and not you shining it on yourself.’
While the shoot I posted wasn’t intended to be sexual (a rooster is not my preferred kink) female nudity is seen as provocative in our society whether we intend it to be or not.
Two days after I hit post and sent the pregnant rooster clucking out into the world, I logged back into Facebook to see thousands of comments and over two thousand shares. In amongst the laughter and the supportive jeers were comments like—
‘She never shoulda been allowed to procreate.’
‘Maternity shots are usually disgusting to watch but this is a whole new level of why would you do that.’
‘Pregnant bellies are disgusting things to witness, this kid is definitely turning
into a school shooter.’
‘This is fucking nasty as f to put this on fb just go be a damn porn star cause this is definitely not just regular maternity pics this is nudity basically sick ass people.’
‘These types of people need to be executed.’
Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, with more appearing each minute that I sat watching my page.
The violence in these comments was shocking, but sadly, not surprising. When a woman behaves in a way that is deemed inappropriate or undesirable she is often met with violence. Whether that is being called a bitch because she refuses to smile, or being called a slut because the way she chooses to express herself doesn’t fit someone else’s idea of a ‘good woman.’ And of course, there are much worse forms of violence used to control women’s bodies. In the eyes of many, I failed to live up to the expectation of how a pregnant woman should behave and was compromising my integrity as a mother in the process. Yes, we have come a long way in the acceptance and the celebration of the pregnant body, but it seems we have a lot further to go.
Frankie Van Kan is a writer, queer stripper and alt-cabaret performer. She has been getting naked for an audience of one or a crowd of a thousand for over a decade. She is currently studying writing, practicing Tantra, and coming up with new ways to undress.