I hate the expression “baby bump.” I hate the phrase itself, the disingenuous tweeness of it, as though it were trying to elide the fact that the “bump” in question is a part of the human anatomy. It hints that words like “stomach,” “belly” and “uterus” might be too physical and visceral, that we need a cuter and more sterile way to talk about the tissues and organs involved in the process of making life.
I also loathe the term because of the way it disembodies pregnancy, takes it both away from the body and, in the process, away from the mother. It’s not her belly swelling, but some kind of external, eponymous “bump” that has become attached to her. It allows us to reduce expectant mothers to a swollen belly, a changing shape. It allows us a comfortable kind of voyeurism, zooming in on any slight roundness in a woman’s midsection (especially a famous woman), taking the opportunity to speculate about her fertility and her reproductive plans.
The term is most troubling, however, because of the way that a pregnant woman’s body becomes public property. While everything that female musicians, actors and celebrities do is up for microscopic scrutiny all the time, the moment a woman already in the public eye becomes pregnant, her every move is scrutinized and analyzed with ever-greater intensity. Every particle of food she eats, any vices she indulges in, every ounce she gains and every public appearance is up for debate. If we, the media, could shove a camera up into her very organs, watch the tissue in her body gradually grow and develop into a person, that would be front-page news. The moment a woman becomes pregnant, we somehow believe that we have the absolute right to critique her smallest gestures and choices. The pregnant body becomes viewed as the collective body.
In May, Aubrey Hirsch wrote a beautiful piece for The Rumpus entitled “On Pregnancy and Privacy and Fear,” which detailed how difficult and frightening the prospect of sharing the news that she was pregnant had become for her. She wrote: “I want to hold onto my ‘pre-pregnancy self’ as long as possible. I like that self. I like the way people speak to her, react to her. I don’t want things to change. I have enough friends with babies to know how this works. Once you let people know you’re pregnant, you’re entered into lots of conversations about your belly, your weight, your breasts and how you plan on using them, what medications you’ll take, and why you’re right or wrong about them. I don’t want to have these conversations. I like the kinds of conversations I already have.”
As an academic, a writer, Hirsch already feels her identity changing to mother-to-be and fears the potential erasure of her accomplishments and sense of self that comes with it. She contextualizes her experience and anxiety within the political agenda of the political right in the United States, who are waging an active and vicious campaign to strip reproductive rights from women and locate them firmly under the power of the state – to quite literally make the female body, especially the fertile/pregnant female body, public property.
It is this political agenda – to make pregnancy a public concern – that makes the way the media addresses female performers so deeply creepy: we write about them and photograph them as though they already are public property, as though the pregnant body is our body, and it is our absolute right to comment on and control it. As a thinking person, as well as someone in possession of a uterus, this profoundly freaks me out.
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On June 29, via her personal website, singer Adele announced that she was expecting her first child with her partner, Simon Konecki. While Adele’s body has always been scrutinized by the media in ways that range from inappropriate to downright offensive, the tone has shifted from being all over her curves to all up in her vagina. It took the website Cinema Blend only a few hours to publish an article, along with a readers’ poll, wondering if Adele’s pregnancy would lead her to write happier songs.
While referring to the singer as a “songstress” is enough to raise an eyebrow, as is calling her immensely successful record 21 a “breakup album,” the musings about how Adele’s personal life will now bleed into her career get positively intimate: “While motherhood will give Adele reasons to smile, raising a child is also an incredibly stressful ordeal. How that balance of emotions will translate to her writing is unclear, as is how her fans might take any alteration in her tone. Some will surely be excited about the singer tackling more pleasant subject matter and embracing her new life as a girlfriend and wife, but just as many will most likely be disappointed if she loses her angst.” The sense of ownership in this writing, when it comes to both Adele’s pregnant state and her career, is palpable.
Even more upsetting is a piece that recently appeared on music journalist Alan Cross’s website. The monologue, which mused on Adele’s pregnant state and how her fertility somehow increases her appeal as a celebrity, may not have been written by Cross (the article falls under the heading “The Wife Says” and so presumably was penned by Cross’s partner), but certainly was approved by him. After referring to Adele’s partner as “some charity guy,” the post expounds on how much the author likes “Adele as a pregnant woman,” how her identity as a fertile female makes her more attractive and appealing. The piece is a list of all of the motherly aspects the writer imagines Adele to possess, reaching beyond her currently pregnant state and even picturing her parenting: “She will breast feed, not hire a milk mama to do the deed and avoid the stretch marks and inevitable sagging. She will hover in a good way. Making sure the kid eats his or her veggies and doesn’t watch too much TV.”
The implication here, of course, is that all of the pregnant and motherly qualities the article appreciates about Adele (entirely imagined as they are) are also implicit judgements. Were she not to behave like this in the future, the author would like her less. In praising these positive motherly behaviours Adele has yet to have any opportunity to exhibit, this strange and possessive piece is nothing less than a directive: you are public property now; behave this way or else.
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There is a video online that always makes me grit my teeth. It is a performance by legendary Canadian grindcore band Fuck The Facts, one of the hardest working groups in this country today, performing at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood during August 2010. The title is “PREGNANT GIRL SINGS FOR GRINDCORE BAND.” That “pregnant girl” is Melanie Mongeon; she has been a permanent member of Fuck The Facts for years. She is founding member Topon Das’s partner and together they are primarily responsible for writing and recording the act’s music. She has an incredible voice and a startling presence on stage. But in this moment, she is reduced to a swollen belly, her pregnancy and fertility.
The comments that follow say more about the discomfort the audience has for her performing in a visibly pregnant state than about the music itself. They cluck over what the music is doing to the baby, wondering if it will have brain damage, reacting in horror that a foetus is exposed to music that they themselves supposedly listen to and enjoy. What is clear in these comments is that the audience not only assumes the right to reduce Mongeon to her pregnant state, but also that it gives them the right to comment upon, and attempt to exert control over, what she does in that state.
We need a new vocabulary to talk about pregnant performers, one that doesn’t focus on baby bumps and critiques of changing bodies, and especially one that does not presume to exert control over women’s bodies, choices, pregnancy and (potential) mothering. We need a lexicon of respect and celebration, one that gives power to women and reproduction, one that both privileges the process while acknowledging the pregnant woman is wise, competent and doesn’t need to be controlled by the larger culture. We need to craft a way to write about pregnant performers in a way that doesn’t reduce them to their reproductive organs.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a poet and music writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Her second book of poetry, DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains, was published by Insomniac Press this spring. You can follow her on Twitter at @NatalieZed.