It might be intended as humour, but it’s also a reflection of what we think of pregnancy and women. Photo: Iain Farrell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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How should we celebrate pregnant bodies? Not with twee maternity T-shirts, for a start

In a world where women are shamed for their bodies, we should recognise how empowering, and phenomenal, a wanted pregnancy can be.

Bad news for anyone wanting to purchase an annoying, objectifying maternity T-shirt: A Pea in a Pod have pulled their Wake Me Up When I’m Skinny shirt from sale, following complaints about how offensive it is. Not to worry, though. One can still buy the classics: Baby On Board, Under Construction and (worst of all) It Started With A Kiss. The choice is yours: reduce yourself to a dehumanised vessel or offer the world a twee reminder that you – yes, you! – have had at least one shag. Oh, and there’s also Pink or Blue, Either Will Do (so you can make sure everyone knows that you are going to stereotype the hell out of your kids, not that gender matters to you AT ALL).

It’s hard to convey just how depressing I find all this stuff. You’re pregnant – you are making a real, live human being inside your own body – and all you’re supposed to be thinking is “Christ, I’m fat” or “Way-hey! I’m like a Renault 5!” I know it’s humour but it’s also a reflection of what we think of pregnancy and women. Can’t we do a little better? I think of my pregnancies as a time when I felt immensely proud of my body and its capabilities. So I’m not the first woman to have a baby – so what? It’s still amazing. If I were to design my own maternity T-shirt, it would say “GOD-LIKE CREATOR OF HUMANS” (either that or “Pro-choice – wanna make something of it?”, depending on my mood).

There are few things that I would seriously describe as empowering but a healthy, wanted pregnancy has to be one of them. Despite the enormous physical toll (plus the minor annoyance of not being able to sleep on your stomach for months on end) you can have moments when you look in the mirror and think “Ha! I am a total genius”. Who cares if you’re only doing what humans and other primates have been doing since time immemorial? It is an actual person being made in your actual body. For me it brings to mind The Onion’s spoof moon landings headline: Holy Shit Man Walks On Fucking Moon. It is that ludicrous. A separate consciousness – someone who will have their own thoughts, feelings and passions – is being formed right under where you’re digesting your dinner. And yes, perhaps strictly speaking all you’ve had to do to get there is have unprotected sex but still: you rock. It’s just a pity the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way.

It seems to me tragic – but not coincidental – that the group of people most likely to gestate other human beings have constituted an oppressed class for millennia. Like many feminists, I do wonder if that is a large part of what’s behind misogyny: not just the desire to control reproduction, but sheer, naked jealousy at what most people with wombs are able to do. Forget penis envy, it’s womb envy we really should be talking about. To be able to conjure up another person from inside you may be mundane, but it’s also mind-blowing. There is nothing that any other human can make that measures up to that, but what do we get in return? A rigid gender hierarchy which rewards those at the bottom with low pay, pension poverty, domestic exploitation, hard-line resistance to individuals making their own reproductive choices, and last (and, to be fair, probably least) totally rubbish T-shirts.

This does not seem to me a decent recompense. Why can’t we be appreciating pregnancy, and the pregnant, a little more? I’m conscious this is easier said than done. Already we tread a fine line between ignoring pregnancy altogether and idealising it with the sole purpose of viewing women as walking wombs (and, post-menopause, as mere spent forces). The media is fond of treating wanted pregnancies as morality tales, in which women who behave virtuously get to take home their little bundles of joy, but as anyone who has struggled to conceive (or to not conceive) will know, a huge part of it comes down to luck. It would be unfair to heap praise on individual women for something which they may or may not have desired, and which may or may not have been due to any exceptional effort on their part. Nonetheless, broader recognition of pregnancy as both a social good and as something really bloody miraculous still wouldn’t come amiss.

Especially in a culture where women and girls are frequently made to feel ashamed of their bodies, shouldn’t we be trying to provide as much space as possible to appreciate their full potential? “Wake me up when I’m skinny” does the precise opposite. “Wake me up when the world fully appreciates just how utterly phenomenal I am” would be a step in the right direction.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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On World Aids Day, let’s end the stigma around HIV for good

Advances in treatment mean that being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence, but attitudes still lag behind.

Stigma is a dangerous human construct, principally based on unfounded prejudices. None more so than the stigma surrounding HIV. The condition has been a recognised health issue in the UK for more than 30 years, and the advances in treatment have been staggering. Unfortunately attitudes seem to have remained in the 1980s.

A recent Terrence Higgins Trust poll asked people who are living with HIV for words that they have heard to describe their health condition. “AIDS”, “riddled”, “dirty”, “disgusting”, “promiscuous”, “dirty”, “deserved”, “unclean”, “diseased” – were the most cited.

Imagine turning to someone, who lets say has a long term health condition like high blood pressure, and branding them “lazy”, “fat”, “deserving”. Or someone who has just been diagnosed with diabetes being dismissed as “greed”. Of course, I’m not saying that these health conditions are without their own stigma. Rather I doubt that Charlie Sheen would have been subjected to such a vitriolic witch hunt, had it transpired he had either of those.

Once the nausea of that coverage subsided, it was telling to note the absent voices from most of the media debate around HIV and stigma. The thing that struck most was the total lack of understanding of the condition, the treatment, and the lack of representation of those who are living with HIV.

There was little written about the stigma women living with HIV face. That which those within the black African community, or the trans community, or the over 50s – the first generation of people living into old age with HIV – are subjected to.

Such is the stigma and the shame of HIV in black African communities that it can divide families. HIV positive people can be asked to leave home, resulting in separation from their family and isolation from their community. We know of a woman from the black African community who felt so stigmatised for not breastfeeding her baby – due to her HIV treatment – that she stopped her drug regime. She died unnecessarily of an Aids-related illness. After her death, her medication was found in the attic.

While living with HIV can be stressful for all ages, ageing with HIV can introduce challenges to mental health and quality of life. When compared to their peers, older people living with HIV are disadvantaged in a wide range of ways – from poorer health, to social care and financial security. We’ve found that older people fear that social care services will be prejudiced about their HIV diagnosis. One man shared that he feared hugely going into a home – the attitudes towards HIV that he might find, and ignorance from the staff. This fear is rooted in many people’s historic and continued experience of HIV-related discrimination.  

Often considered to be a lower risk group than gay men, women are sometimes forgotten in HIV discourse and yet women are stigmatised as much as any other with HIV. Women living with the condition face a unique stigma. Some are mothers and have been accused of being “irresponsible” and “putting children at risk”.

For the record, taking antiretroviral medication (ART) lowers the amount of virus in your blood to “undetectable” levels. When the level of HIV in your blood is so low that it can’t be picked-up in tests it is undetectable. This means there is an extremely low risk of passing on HIV.

Because of ART, undetectable women have a very low risk of passing on HIV to their babies. New-borns are given their own short course of ART to further reduce their risk of developing HIV, and undergo a series of tests during the first 18 months of life.

Many transgender people are on a difficult gender journey, which includes lots of access to GPs for onward referrals to specialists, and still they worry about HIV stigma. Some deny their HIV status in settings where possible, as they look at it as a barrier to achieving their goal. Gender specialist clinics are embedded in mental health departments, and some positive trans people worry that the stigma of diagnosis might be seen as an indicator of promiscuity, which they feel might work against their cases.

And what of stigma in the gay community? The poll mentioned earlier found that of 410 gay men living with HIV, 77 per cent experience stigma – with more than two thirds experiencing this most from within the gay community.

Those gay men who take the plunge and live openly with their status are often heckled, and sent abuse on dating apps like Grindr, even receiving messages that they shouldn’t be using it because “they’ll infect others”. It’s all too easy in the digital age for stigma to persist, and ignorance to remain faceless.

Stigma is best countered with fact. But there’s a clear lack of education amongst many – both positive and negative. Growing up with sex and relationship education lessons that only teach the reproduction cycle is not enough. Young people should be given clear and detailed information about the risks of HIV, but also how living with HIV in the UK has changed, and it is now an entirely manageable health condition.

Officially, stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. Let’s turn that around today, and use the red ribbon to stop stigma. Let’s use it a mark of solidarity, compassion and understanding.

Let’s start a conversation about how we speak and write about HIV. Let’s stand together, today of all days against HIV stigma. Start now – join the solidarity on social media by taking a selfie with your red ribbon and #StopStigma.