Published on May 30th, 2014 | by Kate Ryan2
Kate Ryan Says PEOPLE LIKE TO TALK TO MY BODY NOW
It happened for the first time yesterday. I ran into an old co-worker, and part of our catching up involved her saying “look at your changing body!” I fully believe that her comment intended to be a feminist, embracing-of-the-divine-feminine-strength type of body commentary, but still, it happened. I refrained from saying “look at YOURS,” even though she recently lost 20 lbs in a divorce, because it’s none of my business and she’s doing fine. Then today a friend said “look at your belly!” over coffee, and I realized that this next phase of pregnancy had begun.
This is a major thing that I’ve been bracing myself for, as I am privileged enough in my non-pregnant state to go through the world fairly unremarked-upon. I’m white, femme-ish, and considered typically attractive enough, but for whatever variety of reasons I’ve never dealt with the level of public commentary and harassment that many of my friends have dealt with – whether because of their race in certain spaces, or that they fit a gendered type too well, or not well enough. It just hasn’t really happened to me since I was a teenager, when I was a more visibly queer and brightly colored punk. And now it seems like public commentary on my body has become socially acceptable in a whole new way, as my body becomes perceived as ultra-feminine and somehow desexualized.
The way that pregnancy codes the body as public property, and as a particular kind of public-access feminine, is fodder enough for many a dissertation. I’m just starting to try to make sense of it. Since I decided to be a pregnant person, and then hopefully a person with a kid, I’ve known that at some point I’ll potentially have to deal with strangers on the subway touching my belly – and later, the even more infuriating prospect of getting tons of unsolicited parenting advice on the subway. Though I do not generally think or act as a violent person, when I talk or think about dealing with that stranger-touching it usually leads to a statement from me along the lines of “and then that person will have to deal with me punching them.” It just seems really, really obvious to me that touching a pregnant belly is at least as invasive as touching a non-pregnant belly, and maybe even a lot more invasive – there’s a fucking tiny developing person in there, in addition to a fully-formed adult person (me) UP HERE.
Particularly interesting, to me, is the way that this ultra-feminized body presentation and perception seems totally intertwined with an ultra-invasive experience of public space. The more Female a body appears, the more it automatically seems to incur invasion of bodily space and autonomy. The decision to be feminized in public has been made, tacitly, by the decision to carry a child, and thus all rights have been given up to further decisions regarding how I use my body and whether or not you can touch it. And because the ultra-feminized pregnant body is also de-sexualized, it no longer seems to fall under the category of sexual misconduct, in the way that touching a stranger’s body on the train would otherwise be perceived.
Now, I’m thinking more about the special opportunity presented by this kind of belly-touching by a stranger. If I can manage my rage in the moment, and not succumb to the punch-desire, it seems like there might be space for a pretty interesting critical dialogue, starting with “why is it exactly that you feel like you can touch me, even though you don’t know me at all and that’s an incredibly intimate experience?” I’m turning my anger into curiosity to know what people are thinking, what logic systems are at work, or if it’s some kind of protective or inquisitive reflex that maybe people don’t even really notice while they’re doing it. I’ve been fantasizing about some different responses that this imaginary person might have, such as “pregnancy hormones make you a bitch, I see,” or “I was raised in a family/culture/place that is not the subway in which it’s always been an acceptable thing for me to do.”
My best friend made the apt observation that we, as a society, are just barely holding our shit together when it comes to women’s bodies, and pregnancy really lets open the floodgates. I know that, and I know that most of the people in my life who are committing these infractions are smart, conscious, and often feminist-identified. That feminist consciousness might even be making room for a new variation in the pregnant-body-as-public-property theme – it seems to be difficult for many people, particularly people who haven’t been pregnant, to accept that pregnancy is a complex and ambivalent bodily state. I’ve noticed that if I talk honestly about my changing relationship with my changing body, frequent responses to my exhaustion or missing my pre-pregnancy body are “but you’re beautiful” or “but it’s so amazing, don’t you like it?” or “you should just relax and let people do things for you.” So if the assumption is that I’m having this magical empowering physical goddess experience all the time, maybe I understand why folks would assume that I would feel fine about them touching and publicly commenting on my body. Whether for strangers on the train or for feminist friends, those assumptions are worth rethinking.