Let’s face it — our cultural narratives of pregnancy paint a pretty specific picture. We imagine a cisgender heterosexual woman dressed in pink frills happily “nesting” while getting ready for thestork to bring her a little bundle of joy. In reality, this archaic 1950s picture of pregnancy is social cause for many pregnant people to be ostracized or victimized for their unwillingness to play the role of this stereotypical mom-to-be. Even for gender-conforming cis-women, being pregnant is viewed as an invitation for advice, open criticism, and, in some cases, blatant disregard for personal rights, as the health of the fetus is regarded as a higher priority than the well-being of the parent.
Could the irreverence for pregnant people be one of the lasting effects of the increased stigma unwed mothers faced in the baby scoop era? In some ways, the modern era offers more channels for respect and independence than in years past. But even today, pregnant individuals are still denied the agency to choose what is best for their own bodies. Where do we see this now?
1. Denial of Agency Over Diet, Exercise, and Personal Space
While these examples may seem less egregious instances of body oppression than some of the others mentioned here, the everyday judgements most pregnant people face are some of the clearest forms of social injustice. How can we support body autonomy when pregnant individuals are not given agency to choose how they eat, how they use their body, or who touches them? Many people complain of complete strangers feeling at liberty to touch their growing belly without permission. While non-consensual touching is illegal in every state, only Pennsylvania specifically protects the rights of pregnant people to personal space. In the rest of the country, the social acceptability of touching a pregnant person’s belly seems to trump the legal protection of a person’s right to choose who touches them.
But personal space is not the only right taken away from pregnant people. Society also feels entitled to dictate what pregnant people eat, drink, and how they exercise. Even experienced and knowledgeable athletes get social backlash for continuing to be active with a baby bump. Coffee drinkers are likely to face explicit judgement, or even get slipped decaf at their local coffee shop. People feel more entitled to voice sizeist assertions that larger-bodied pregnant people are unhealthy. These social judgements shame pregnant people, implicitly telling them that they are undereducated, misinformed, or simply do not care enough about the health of their child.
2. Criminalization of Personal Healthcare Choices
There are some points at which society’s impulse to protect the health of a baby results in criminal action against the child’s parent or carrier. In 2015, Purvi Patel suffered a miscarriage under suspicious circumstances and was sentenced to 20 years for foeticide, which criminalizes having a miscarriage or stillborn birth. The news reached media headlines worldwide, but the reverberations of society’s fear of abortion affect eager parents-to-be in seemingly innocuous situations as well. Pregnant women have faced charges for falling down the stairs, refusing a cesarean section, and refusing additional testing for gestational diabetes. One woman was arrested for being in possession of just two prescription pain pills. In this last case, the woman, who went to the hospital complaining of severe abdominal pain, died in prison of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy.
These charges warp Roe V. Wade laws and criminalize the actions of individuals based on their pregnancy status, especially affecting low-income and African American people in disproportionate numbers. In many cases, laws protecting the “personhood” of fertilized eggs, embryos, or fetuses make it dangerous for pregnant individuals to prioritize their own health over the health of the baby, or to seek medical care in instances of illness or injury.
3. Limited Freedom of Gender and Sexual Expression
Once pregnant, many people find themselves with extremely narrow social expectations of how they should act and dress to affirm our cultural ideas of what it means to be an “expectant mother.” The growing number of transmen who go through pregnancy and birth may face the most significant challenges, as they are met with a healthcare system ill-equipped to respectfully treat pregnant dads. In some cases, men are even denied prenatal care because of their gender. Both our social beliefs and our healthcare system are often ignorant and/or misinformed about what pregnancy means for transmen, ultimately threatening the health of the baby.
Even female-identified individuals can feel their gender expression societally confined during pregnancy. In her graphic memoir Pregnant Butch: Nine Months in Drag, A.K. Summers recounts having her gender identity shaken by the difficulty of finding clothes, navigating healthcare, and interacting socially while pregnant as a butch lesbian. Pregnancy apparel is slowly beginning to include a wider range of clothing to accommodate less feminine consumers, but masculine and androgynous-presenting individuals are likely to experience social friction during pregnancy.
Regardless of gender expression, pregnant people have been traditionally desexualized by loose-fitting clothing and an expectation of modest behavior. While some people are stepping outside this mold, dressing in a “sexy” way during pregnancy is interpreted as shocking or disturbing. Some view the growing acceptance of pregnant sexuality as sensationalism. In reality, pregnant people are sexual (or not) just like all everyday people, and there is no need to publicly oppress or fetishize their sexual expression.
It’s time we gave people the benefit of the doubt in knowing what is best for their family, and caring for their OWN bodies accordingly. Whether it be their healthcare choices, gender expression, or daily lifestyle routines, there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for a healthy pregnancy. As the parents of our future generation (not to mention independent people deserving of respect in their own right), pregnant people deserve our support, not our judgement.