October 3, 2012

The pregnant body image

Pregnancy is a liminal space of in-between. The life changes resultant from pregnancy are often described as "to be." And the language of pregnancy is often anticipatory and futuristic. Weekly emails describe my "baby" as though it exists autonomously and independent from me. And in a lot of ways, I feel abstracted from the process of its development. Instead I feel as though I must relinquish control to instinct and biology. My maternal body is doing its thing without conscious effort on my part (beyond some minor behavioral changes). So on some level, projecting "personhood" is to be expected, despite my own discomfort with such a notion.

The  rhetoric of personhood has led directly and indirectly to the erosion of women's reproductive rights in states around the country. So as a feminist, I feel reluctant especially to lend it credence. From an academic perspective it is interesting to notice how the descriptions of pregnancy's effects on the maternal body/person are near the end of the email, secondary and removed from the fetus rather than integrated across its narratives of development. In the discourse of pregnancy, these changes are framed as "side" effects, rather than simply "effects."

Recently, I revisited Emily Martin's canonical feminist text, The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction and was reminded of the complicated history of (Western) medicine when it comes to treating women's bodies. In some ways, this history permeates how we understand and discuss pregnancy in broader American culture. And I've been trying to put that into context with my own experience of being pregnant.

So much of the discourse of pregnancy is futuristic and rooted in anticipating changes that are beyond one's control, but my pregnant body and mind inhabit the present. The pregnant body does remarkable things to foster and maintain a hospitable environment in which a fetus can develop (and an embryo and blastocyst, before that). The process is incredibly integrated and surprisingly efficient. I'm already grateful for the visceral and intellectual educations of this experience.

But at times it has been challenging to surrender those comforting feelings of control and put my trust in what is physiologically intuitive. Some days I feel alienated from an increasingly unfamiliar and occasionally uncomfortable, pained body. Related, I no longer enjoy the same amount of control in announcing my pregnancy to the outside world. My body speaks for me. And with the social and moral panic over pregnant bodies (i.e. so many opportunities to be policed and judged), it can also be incredibly disempowering to feel subordinate to what is an undeniably miraculous physiological process.

When you're experiencing so much change as you inhabit what was once a familiar body it can be tough to make sense of all the new normals. Of course, I am so thrilled to be pregnant and still find a great deal of novelty in feeling fetal movement which makes me even more excited and anticipatory. But this experience hasn't been without its own body image issues and transition pains.

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