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
Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear