After attending two conferences in as many weeks, I have learned that strangers, especially white men, feel entitled to make unsolicited comments about women’s pregnant bodies.
These men can be from all walks of life – hotel staff, airplane travelers, and conference acquaintances. Yet no matter their position, when they see a pregnant woman working or traveling alone, their response is to (a) notice the woman’s belly; (b) make a remark about it; and (c) engage in unwelcome behaviour.
Some try to be helpful. While waiting to board a plane, a male stranger noticed my six-month belly and offered to help me to the gate. Others try to be comradely. Several new male colleagues asked questions about when I was due, if this was my first baby, and did I know the gender. A few are chauvinistic. One airport shuttle driver asked me if my “husband was okay” with me “travelling alone in my condition.” And some are dismissive. Around the coffee urn, I overheard two male attendees (both Ivy League faculty) talking about another delegate. Wondering to whom one man was referring, the other said, “You know, the pregnant one.”Creepily, some men also view a woman’s pregnancy as a carte blanche invitation to become her self-appointed protector. In the hotel lobby one morning, a conference attendee (whom I had never met before) noticed my belly and insisted I ride in his car to the conference, even though I had already ordered a taxi. Reluctantly, I agreed. He then proceeded to follow me around the conference, attempting to talk to me and my new (extremely wonderful) female colleagues. After I turned down his invitations for dinner, for sightseeing, and for a ride back to the hotel, he tried to give me a hug in the hotel elevator, where – to my dismay – I ran into him later that evening.
This behaviour is inappropriate, rude, and in some cases, scary. Whether a woman is pregnant or not is her own concern. It is not a topic for public discussion. If she feels like sharing the news of her growing family, that is up to her. If she does not want to tell colleagues about the numbers of children she has had or plans to have, that is her business too. And, if she turns down overly solicitous male attention, she is entitled to do so. Most emphatically, she should not be subject to male colleagues’ protector/predator behaviour.
Up to a certain point, it is up to individual women to ward off unwelcome actions. Having lived through two weeks of unsolicited comments about my own body, I now feel ready to say, “I’d rather not talk about my pregnancy” and “Thank you, I do not want any help.” I have also brainstormed ways to ward off overly solicitous men, such as “Fuck off.” Or perhaps the more polite, “Thank you, but I prefer to travel alone,” will suffice.At the same time, men need to develop a greater awareness of how their comments impact others. When a male colleague asks a woman about her due date or family plans, he is in effect telling her that he has noticed her growing body, and is more curious about her reproductive life than he is about her work, interests, and travels. Moreover, when a man engages in overly solicitious behaviour, he should recognize that women can perceive this as condescending. It goes without saying that men should never, ever use a woman’s pregnancy as an excuse to follow her around and make bodily advances.
These behaviours to which I have been “treated” these past two weeks have caused me to reflect on issues of gender, public space, and ability. Certainly, both Canada’s and the United States’ democratic and modern cultures entitle everyone to exist unimpeded in public settings, and to not have their bodily conditions called upon and – worse – put into the service of others’ agendas. Certainly, there are people who experience very difficult pregnancies, who have their mobility affected by their conditions. Yet no one should assume that a pregnant woman wants or needs help. One should only assist a pregnant woman if she herself indicates that assistance is required.
I should point out, of course, that not only men notice my pregnancy. Women, do, as well. However, there is a crucial difference in which women and men have behaved. When new female colleagues ask me about my pregnancy, they only do so under after I myself refer to the topic. And in such cases in which this has occurred, subsequent conversations have been welcome and inspiring. Moreover, women’s offers of help are always given politely, without any expectations of “favours” in return. In these cases, such offers are appreciated.So, why do men act so creepily around pregnant women, while women themselves do not? Perhaps men think it is chivalrous to talk to women about their bodies. Perhaps they think it is chivalrous, too, to “help” pregnant women. But the problem with chivalry is this: it is based on the assumption that women are weak. It is based on the assumption that men are superior. And it is based on the assumption that women exist for men’s heroics. Pregnancy, it turns out, is a battlefield. When one is pregnant, one needs to constantly police one’s own bodily borders. Together we must remain vigilant to ensure that a pregnant woman’s body is her own business, one that she will discuss and allow to be touched only at her discretion.
Thanks for another great post Hissy Fit. I love your declaration that women do not exist to enable male heroics. Amen sister! Men who are truly self-confident and respectful of women never try to save them; they never search for the perfectly weak “damsel in distress” to build their otherwise empty and powerless lives around.
First, I wouldn’t necessarily ride in a car with a stranger pregnant, not pregnant, male or female. I think that might have dropped the “invisible curtain” so to speak. That probably would’ve remedied that unwanted attention.
Second, I am a female and I have been asked “when are you due?” when I am NOT pregnant. It broke my heart. Therefore, I NEVER approach the topic of pregnancy with another female unless she brings it up first. I think that might be a reason why you see the difference between the sexes.
Of course, this is just my two cents. I have been pregnant before and I have one six year oldson.
Jessica, you’re right about not getting into the car. A common conference badge does not a trustworthy colleague make.
Meanwhile, unwanted comments about my body continue to emerge. Yesterday, a neighbour strode into my backyard to inform me that I should not be moving heavy objects.
I have found that women are just as rude or worse than men. I am currently at the end of my pregnancy and only a few men mention the pregnancy and almost every woman does. Some politely and others not so much. I think both sexes have tendencies to be inconsiderate about the topic. I thought women should know better, but they do not!
Interesting post, and it calls into question what sort of stranger contact with a pregnant woman should be socially acceptable. That said, I think you’re interpreting some intentions wrongly, though I am not saying all the attention you got was justified at all. Some of that behavior you received was unsettling.
>> When a male colleague asks a woman about her due date or family plans, he is in effect telling her that he has noticed her growing body, and is more curious about her reproductive life than he is about her work, interests, and travels.
I see it as more of a small talk. If I said “Hey, how’s it going? Lovely weather today, isn’t it?”, does this mean I’m more curious about the weather than work, interests, or travels? If you’re obviously pregnant, it’s just a really easy thing to bring up, with the added bonus of most probably being something you care about so as to quickly establish rapport. Also, when you say “reproductive life”, it sounds to me like you’re implying “sexual life” in that, as opposed to a purely “family-starting life”. Maybe some people were oddly sexual about it, but it seems to me that most would just be asking about your family plans and how you’re doing during this often stressful time.
>> Yet no one should assume that a pregnant woman wants or needs help. One should only assist a pregnant woman if she herself indicates that assistance is required.
If it’s over-the-top like some of the assistance you were given, then absolutely. However, I wouldn’t make this blanket statement, since in public there are a lot of little things people do for each other with the intention of just helping someone out that are usually appreciated. If an elderly lady is slowly heaving grocery bags across the parking lot, is it inherently wrong to ask to assist her without her indication? I would say most times it’s just a recognition of hardship, not of superiority; we know that being elderly or being pregnant can make normal tasks hard, and so we offer help. Also, there’s some little manners that are done between strangers. If a family is walking behind you into a restaurant, is it wrong to hold the door open without their indication they need the help?
>> Certainly, both Canada’s and the United States’ democratic and modern cultures entitle everyone to exist unimpeded in public settings.
Yes, depending on what you mean by “unimpeded”. The thing is, there is no expectation of total isolation in public. Modern culture does not reject unsolicited talking to strangers or unsolicited assistance. It only rejects them when they become harassment. Unfortunately, the limit or degree until something becomes harassment is not clearly defined, and there’s also the problem where multiple people’s tiny actions add up to make someone feel harassed even if no one person did anything too extreme.
It sucks that some people are taking things to a point to make you uncomfortable. I would say be sure to be very clear with whether their actions or comments are appreciated or not, and if enough people feel the same way and are similarly vocal, then society can shift towards a less uncomfortable standard. I’m sure it’s stressful, but unfortunately it won’t change overnight, so it’s just something you’ll have to fight for awareness of. I’ll keep your thoughts in mind next time I’m talking with a pregnant woman and tread carefully!