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.