by Jessica Critcher
Allow me to set the scene: It’s springtime in Boston. I have just taken my mother-in-law to brunch at Ferrara’s on Salem street, and we’re riding a trolley to take in the sights. She snaps a few pictures of me and posts them to Facebook. Before we can get from The Garden to The Pru, my brother-in-law’s Army buddy is congratulating us on my pregnancy, based on no information besides the fact that I’m looking kind of fat.
I got baby bump-ed.
I’m not what most people would consider famous (unless you count that one time Universal Hub wrote a post specifically about me because of a tweet I wrote). But for a moment I could picture myself on the cover of a trashy celebrity gossip magazine, yellow headlines promising answers to intrusive questions. Maybe they could even go all “Brangelina” on me and make a sonogram “dramatization.”
With more and more of our lives documented on social media, we’re all under more pressure to be “camera ready” all the time. Friends, family, acquaintances and friends of friends also (apparently) resort to the same type of body policing usually reserved for celebrities.
Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I have a copper IUD and pregnancy could be complicated and potentially life-threatening.
Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I am deliberately, happily, militantly child-free.
Not that it’s anyone’s business, but if I got pregnant, I would have an abortion.
Not that it’s anyone’s business, but I am absolutely, 100% not pregnant.
The offender has since apologized (albeit in a passive, annoying, “wasn’t my intention to offend” kind of way) but I can’t seem to let it go. The more I stew over it, the angrier I get, especially when someone tells me to calm down. It’s not that he called me fat (which was bad enough, but I’ve been called fat before). It was the way he said it. It was the way he assumed I would take it as a compliment, the way his whim to comment on my body trumped my feelings, and how the fact that he didn’t mean to offend me is supposed to somehow magically undo the very real offense he caused.
And that’s where it clicks. Street harassment. This is just street harassment in a maternity dress.
I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t given this problem much thought before, partly because I am child-free, but also partly because many of us don’t label it as harassment or would feel uncomfortable calling it out. But now that I have a name and a category for it, I can think of all kinds of examples.
If I’m ever feeling unwell or mention going to the doctor, people joke that I must be expecting. If I mention being excited or having news to share, people tend to assume I’m about to announce a pregnancy (not, for example, that I’m having an essay published). And, if my body changes even slightly (like after some delicious eggs Benedict) people will take that as a cue to congratulate my spouse on impregnating me. Ugh.
And unlike most regular street harassment, the offenses don’t come shouted from car windows, but from a variety of people — sweet old ladies, fellow mothers, even friends and family. What is it going to take for people to accept that whatever is going on in someone’s uterus is not a matter of public concern?
My examples are pretty banal. People who are (or appear to be) heavily pregnant can probably share stories of unwanted questions (When’s the due date? What’s the sex? Are you going to breastfeed?) and, perhaps worst of all, unwanted touching.
To be sure, some people actually like being touched and interrogated by inquisitive friends or even strangers. And most people probably don’t mean to annoy or alarm people by showing interest in someone’s pregnancy (real or speculated).
What then, are well-meaning people supposed to do? What if you think someone is pregnant and want to congratulate them? Here is the answer: Don’t. Seriously, just don’t. Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, don’t say anything. Take your fingers off the keyboard, bite your tongue, and exercise some will power.
Best case scenario, you guess correctly and remind a pregnant person that they’re showing, but you have no idea how it will make them feel.
Worst case scenarios when you ask about someone’s pregnancy:
If someone is pregnant and wants to announce it, they will. In fact, people who like to talk about their pregnancies will sometimes be open to sharing way more than most people want to know. If they don’t want to talk about it, work on being at peace with that. Ask yourself why you need to know if this person is pregnant. Ask yourself why it’s so important to touch this pregnant person.
But, but, but, you might be protesting, but wouldn’t it make them feel just as weird if I didn’t say anything? It might shock you to know that pregnant people occasionally have things going on in their lives besides a gestating fetus. If you’re wondering whether you should offer them a seat on the train, just offer them a seat and don’t make a big fuss about it. Ask how they’re doing, the same way you would talk to anyone, because pregnant people are still regular human beings.
If they want to talk about their pregnancy, they will. And if they bring it up first, fine. If they’re wearing a t-shirt that says Yes, I’m pregnant! you don’t have to wonder.
But after you have established that someone is pregnant, as a public service announcement, it is never OK to touch someone without their consent. Seriously. Even if they’re pregnant. Some people don’t mind, but some people really hate to be touched. Feeling a fetus kick is pretty cool, but it’s not worth harassing someone.
And just as an aside, I’m a cis woman with a cis male partner, but it’s important to remember that all sorts of people besides cis heterosexuals can get pregnant. Check out this adorable comic on the subject. Also keep in mind that the harassment they may experience, because of a pregnancy or even more generally, is complicated by the intersections of race, class, gender identity, and many other things. Undocumented women, or individuals with ambiguous genders, for example, probably don’t always get the same “polite” comments as women like me.
While many believe (and behave) to the contrary, our bodies are not public property. Ever. Not if we’re fat, not if we’re thin, not if we’re scantily dressed, not if we take off our clothes for a living. Not if we’re disabled. Not if we’re famous. Not if we’re vulnerable. Not if we’re dressed in a way that you find strange. Not if you think we’re beautiful, and not if you think we’re ugly. And seriously, not even if we’re really, really pregnant. Never.
If you really care about the health and well being of pregnant people, the next time you feel yourself tempted to touch a stranger, donate money to Planned Parenthood instead. Rather than making a comment about someone’s brunch bump, look inward and examine the vast, beautiful expanse of your soul. Let’s see where that takes us as a culture.