Why are we so uncomfortable with bodies that we see as different in any way, and what makes people feel entitled to engage with them in such intimate ways, and in public?
Imagine that wherever you go—to the grocery store, to work, to the mall, to the bank—people touched you without asking your permission and asked questions about what was going on with your body, why it looked a certain way and why.
Sound familiar? You must be pregnant. Or have a disability.
I have an artificial leg and now, in my third trimester, am obviously pregnant. So the litany of questions I grew up fielding: What happened to you? Why are you limping? What’s the matter with you? have been replaced with: When are you due? Is it your first? Is it a boy or a girl? Do you have a name picked out? How far along are you? Did you use fertility treatments?
Although I have decades of training in answering the disability questions, the prurient interest in pregnant bodies was something that shocked me when I was pregnant four years ago with my son, and it continues to surprise me now when I’m pregnant with my daughter.
Here’s the problem: These questions are actually deeply personal. Many people (including myself) have experienced child loss, which makes answering the question “Is this your first?” a lot more difficult to answer, and usually embarrasses the asker when you tell them you had a child who died. And it’s actually pretty terrible to have to say “I had a boy and he died,” about 10 times a day, just a reminder that it actually happened. The alternative—lying—is also a no-win, because it’s unacceptable to pretend that a child didn’t exist, even if they are now gone.
Sharing the gender and name of your unborn child and his or her birth order and/or providing a brief overview of your reproductive history are issues you normally take up with your doctor or your partner or other people who have some kind of earned intimate proximity with you. Although I’d like to believe that most people ask these questions in the spirit of being benignly curious, it’s rude.
Before I was pregnant I would sometimes have people knock on my left leg (again, without asking) when I answered the question “What’s the matter with you?” because they thought I was lying about having an artificial limb. Formulating a socially appropriate response to that is a bit difficult. Do you say, “Hey, get your hands off me, your creepy person”? Do you push them away? I don’t want a stranger to put his or her hands on my pregnant belly, and sometimes people just plunk them there. My latest tactic is to put my hands on the reacher’s stomach, although I’m tempted to put them other places to make my point. Maybe I’ll try that, but I don’t want to be the creepy one.
These experiences have made me wonder: Why are we so uncomfortable with bodies that we see as different in any way, and what makes people feel entitled to engage with them in such intimate ways, and in public?
Because difference bothers us. It scares us. It reminds us that the world is a chaotic place, and that what happens to people is very often, if not always, beyond their control. Pregnant bodies are in a state of flux and change. This both attracts and repels people. Disabled bodies are outside the normative standards of what bodies should look like, standards that are perpetuated on a daily basis, in both obvious and less obvious ways.
I once asked a prosthetist-in-training why the walls of the orthopedic office were covered in posters of disabled male athletes but not with disabled women athletes. “Oh, nobody wants to look at a disabled woman,” he said, and half a second later realized he was speaking to one, a very young 16-year-old disabled woman, who was sitting in her underwear in a cold room, waiting for a repaired prosthesis to be returned to her.
That someone in the business of helping to maintain the mobility of people with disabilities would respond so quickly to this question and in such a way speaks volumes of how we believe women’s bodies should look. “You’re a dick,” I said to that guy, the first time I had said that word out loud, and it felt appropriate. He flushed red and left the room before my primary prosthetist returned, although by that time I was near tears.
Nobody wants to look at a disabled woman. For years I held this statement in my brain, and I believed it, and every once in a while it makes a nasty and exuberant reappearance and I believe it still.
Now, you might argue that a pregnant woman is doing the thing that women’s bodies were, as people like to say, “designed to do,” although everyone knows that many women struggle with fertility and that there’s nothing “wrong” with their bodies. Suddenly a new layer of expectation has been created—how you do your pregnancy. You’re so big! You’re not big enough. Pregnancy changes your body and you will never look as good again. You should eat more! Don’t eat too much or you’ll get too fat! Think of the unavoidable magazine cover stories about celebrities and their “bodies after baby,” and how one woman is successful at getting hers “back,” as if the body had literally disappeared instead of making a new human being, while others are accused of looking too fat even months (months! Imagine!) after the birth of a baby. So even when a woman is pregnant, doing a completely amazing task that only a woman can do, there still exists pressure to do it the “right” way.
I don’t know what the solution is to looking different in any way and moving through the world. I wish that people would consider their questions before they asked them, but perhaps this is expecting too much. After all, we’re human, so we’re curious and flawed. My latest tactic is to say, “I prefer not to answer your question,” even if it makes me sound like the monotone character in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” But it’s the truth.
I might choose to be exposed in my writing, but I don’t want to feel physically exposed in the world more than I have to, or more than I already have been.
Role/Reboot regular contributor, Emily Rapp, is a professor in the University of Cailfornia-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program and the author, most recently, of The Still Point of the Turning World.