Published on May 16th, 2022 | by DW McKinney0
Just Bare Your Belly￼
Relief washed over me as I pulled the maternity tank tops from my drawer and placed them in a pile for donation or disposal. Maternity fashions had been an integral part of my wardrobe for two pregnancies and, frustratingly, through the years afterward. The remaining clothes, mostly plain and basic shirts, had become reliable staples for me postpartum. I couldn’t believe it had taken so long—my second child nearing her fourth birthday—for me to finally uproot these clothes from my wardrobe.
When I announced my first pregnancy in 2015, other mothers immediately inundated me with their opinions on maternity clothing. They were almost all negative. I agreed with them the moment I walked into the maternity section at the nearest retail store. The dresses and blouses were unflattering and far from chic. The patterns were dizzyingly busy and the styles were conspicuously modest. It was clear that the clothes had been designed to conceal a childbearing body as much as possible. I resigned myself to what was before me and chose a handful of options that aligned closely to my style at the time. I relied on my existing wardrobe to fill in the gaps because I wanted to feel like myself as much as possible as I physically transformed.
Comfort is a luxury for a body that is expanding, growing, shifting, and readjusting all the time. A pregnant body moves more awkwardly than it did before. It processes food differently. It makes strange noises involuntarily. And along the way, living in this new physique somehow centers that person into the community commons. More people assume the right to lend their unsolicited opinion about expectant parents. It becomes a relentless litany of suggestions about what pregnant folks should or shouldn’t be doing, eating, and how their bodies should or shouldn’t be presented in public.
There were times during both of my pregnancies when my belly hung out of my T-shirts or the tank tops I wore to accommodate the Texas heat did nothing to hide my swelling chest. In those days when I tried to embrace my changing body, people mocked, chastised, or made me the butt of a joke.
Most present in my mind are the Sundays when I attended church. I relied on a simple, floor-length maternity dress that had a faux panel sewn into the V-neck, which presented the illusion of being modern but not too prudish. I was pleased with how elegant I looked and how confident I felt while wearing it. A deacon approached me before the service and commented about how lucky I was to still fit my regular dress even though I was expecting. She scanned me up and down as she lamented that she had to get rid of all of her “normal” clothes during her multiple pregnancies. She “had no choice.” Even though I informed her that I was indeed wearing maternity clothes, the deacon could not—or would not—hear me. And every time I wore the dress, she made the same comments. But a day in my third trimester, when the faux panel on the maternity dress wasn’t masking the fullness of my breasts and my stomach was rounder than it had ever been, the deacon made the opposite comment. She said my body had rebelled, and she took pleasure in letting me know this. “Isn’t it funny that you can’t wear that dress anymore,” she said with a laugh. “I guess you got to get some maternity clothes now.” She gave me one final scan before walking away, smiling gleefully.
What lingered from those interactions was how she made me feel—as if I were inappropriate. Like I was somehow in the wrong for not conforming properly and containing my physique within some arbitrary guidelines. That I hadn’t made my pregnant form fully disappear. Isn’t that the goal of maternity clothes, after all? To distract people from our bulging bodies with zig zags, animal prints, and florals. To keep us from standing out despite the widening of our very beings.
The current commotion surrounding Barbadian singer and fashion designer Rihanna’s maternity wear has been fascinating to me. Rihanna has flaunted these implicit rules and continued to live and dress like she always has, as if carrying a child were a happenstance that could be artfully fit within one’s own personal style. She announced her pregnancy through a photoshoot with her rapper boyfriend, A$AP Rocky, that took place near a Harlem parkway. Rihanna wore distressed baggy jeans and a vintage pink Chanel puffer coat that opened to reveal necklaces draped down her bare belly. Almost every photo of her in the months afterward featured her in an outfit with her belly out, proudly displayed. She made the biggest splash at the Dior Fall 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week, arriving to the event in a sheer black Dior baby doll dress. Vogue declared, “A Sheer Dior Dress Is Rihanna’s Most Sensational Maternity Look To Date.”
Rihanna looked exquisite. I was damn near proud of this woman, who I’d never met, completely owning herself during a time when most folks are encouraged to flatten and soften themselves. It was no surprise that Vogue was enamored with Rihanna’s look because it was so clearly antithetical to what was commonly acknowledged as maternity wear.
I don’t know why I scrolled to the comments underneath the article in Vogue’s tweet. I usually try to avoid reading the comments, but I thought that most people would be complimentary of Rihanna and how she was eschewing ideas of maternity. Instead, I read a thread from white women grouching at Rihanna’s audacity to show up in public “naked.” They equated her appearance to being profane. She was dressed indecently “in lingerie.” She was “supposed to be a mother.” Not parading her bare belly out in public. She was making a show of her pregnancy and trying to gain more attention and fame by treating her baby as an accessory.
“It’s not a good look” one woman remarked.
It irritated me to see the way these women assessed her and determined which parts mattered and should be shown. Their critiques were neither incisive nor justified. Just nasty. Of course, the internet being what it is, the comments expanded into the thousands, and folks from all backgrounds admonished Rihanna or joked about the comfort of her unborn child.
The supportive comments were buried under a deluge of tweets that all summed up to one argument: Rihanna should be covered up. PageSix.com would later call that same outfit “risqué” as they discussed Rihanna wearing another belly-baring outfit to the 2022 Oscars. However, the commentary did not deter Rihanna who continued to wear bikini style tops, low cut dresses, and whatever else she desired.
These critiques were rooted in patriarchal and misogynistic ideas about how to control women’s bodies. Somehow when we conceive, we become a Madonna-figure, holy and chaste. A proper idea of womanhood. Society unfairly places expectations on us that we have to realize through various mediums, including how we dress. Ownership of our bodies becomes restricted. These expectations take on different dimensions when they also collide with race and ethnicity. It does not escape me that critiques about expectant Black women like me are also rooted in misogynoir.
When I think about the years I carried my children, it saddens me to remember how often I hid my physique to make other people comfortable. How often I fretted over my belly poking out or if my breasts made people uncomfortable. How often I did not simply let myself exist in its infinite power because of other people’s ideas about maternal appearance. I hated the way everyone around me was implicitly reminding me that my body was obscene and should not be seen once I was expecting, despite folks regularly seeing near naked bodies at the beach, in fashion ads, or on television.
There is no shame in the pregnant body. Nothing about it is unseemly or should be hidden. In all of their forms, expectant bodies are beautiful. And at a time when we begin to lose our identities, it is admirable to still be able to hold on to who we are, even if it’s through a few outfits. A person embracing and confidently living in their body while having a baby is not them treating their belly or their baby like an accessory. It’s them being free, living their best life.
Rihanna walking around smiling with her belly and thighs out is delightful in the face of Black women’s maternal mortality rate. That she is celebrating herself and her life and her womb is a blessing when so many of us die because of neglect of care.
I was not able to live fully in my body during pregnancy. Others’ ideas about maternalism influenced how I navigated the world while expecting and coupled with fatphobia, they also impacted the years after childbirth. I believed I had to hide my postpartum belly. Mercifully, I am finding my way back to myself now. In the process of excavating my maternity clothes from my wardrobe over the past year, I’ve also been removing the layers of shame associated with them. As I make room for a few crop tops I plan to rock in the summer, I will be proudly displaying a stomach that serves as a witness to the history of my children’s birth and the powerful body that bore them.