Policed Bodies: The Joy of Pregnancy and the Silent Loss

By Sanae Elmoudden


Remember “What to expect when you are expecting?” My first encounter with the book was eighteen years ago. I revisited the book recently only to discover that the cover still shows a white, young, and pregnant woman with a “perfect bun.” The book advises pregnant women on how to protect their pregnancies. I was stunned that despite all these years, minority bodies nor sized bodies made it to the cover. In this paper, I examine the stigma of the pregnant body underscored in bodypolitics–the hegemonic power performed on/through the body. I consider how the pregnant body is disciplined from prior pregnancy to after pregnancy, which I categorized in tight bodies, cannon bodies, and vacant bodies. I use the idea of body politics, the policing of the body via power structures (Butler, 1993; Foucault, 1977) to discuss the stigmatization of the pregnant body.

Against the celebratory term of pregnant bodies like books such as these seem to advocate, I suggest the celebratory term of pregnancy comes at the mercy of hormonal efficiency. When hormonal deficiencies occur, which happens in many pregnancies, the mother’s bodies are mostly castigated. I take Collins’ motherwork (1992), the empowerment and survival of mothering require the empowerment and the survival of the group identity, as a starting point. I argue that the empowerment of this group requires focusing the conversation on the continuum of the pregnant body prior and post-pregnancy and its body politics.

I realize discussing stigmatization is a debatable matter for who gets to talk about the stigmatized. I agree I discuss it from personal experience. In sharing this storytelling, I hope that others may relate or compare to their own stories. Using my own experiences with pregnancy, I discuss the motherwork body in practice that comes in forms of fat-shaming, postpartum depression, and premature hormonal deficiencies which lead to premature and silent loss of babies. Ultimately, an examination of motherwork bodies in practice may help other women be more in control of their own body image during the continuum of pregnancy.

Stigma and Pregnancy

Obviously, the term stigma has a long history. A Greek word stigmatos meant marking the abnormalities of the society leading to markings of the perceived deviants from the dominant society (Goffman, 1963). Most recently, stigmatization is about experiences of being berated, humiliated, and ostracized (see Rachel A. Smith, Xun Zhu, and Madisen Quesnell, 2016 for a review). For the purposes of this paper, stigma is the alienation due to shame, disclosure, or silencing of the body and stigmatization is the act of enacting this alienation. In short, stigma is communicated by our actions as we alienate people who do not fit a certain agreed-upon “norm.”

It is no surprise that stigma materializes in bodypolitics, the practices and policies that regulate certain bodies based on societal stereotypes and powers (such as institutional or media power). The female body as a site of difference is well documented in feminist scholarship (de Beauvoir, 1949; Butler, 1993; Smith, 1987). Women’s bodies have been constructed femininely historically. The difference is marked through the body in socially constructing race, gender, or cultural background clothing. But the axes of oppressions are more pronounced at the intersections of these single categories (Collins and Binge; 2016; Crenshaw, 1989). Otherwise stated, bodies are linked to power in order to be structurally and institutionally disciplined (Butler, 1993). Therefore, making sense of the female pregnant body requires an understanding of how the body is communicated discipline in the different discourses (Foucault, 1977). The concept of body politics provides a foundation in understanding the stigmatization of the pregnant body prior, during, and post-pregnancy. Women’s bodies (I am discussing bodies that are able to be pregnant) have been policed through this stigma for the way we communicate is inevitably “mediated through our bodies” (Sorrells, 2018). Our daily communication constructs and reinforces the stigma. So for instance, if a pregnant woman has coffee, she is automatically criticized for bringing harm to the baby. She is a “bad mother” before becoming a mother. In short, motherwork happens before the arrival of our children.

Motherwork Bodies in Practice

Motherhood has been both empowering and restricting for women (Sawicki, 1999). Since social and historical injustices constrain the practice of motherhood (Badruddoja, 2015), it’s vital that we consider how pregnant bodies are disciplined into social norms. Pregnant white women with the perfect bun, for instance, still appear as the highlights of popular pregnant mainstream books. But at the intersection of gender and race, a discourse of a white privilege woman and a pregnant sized woman may take a different turn. The pregnant body is constantly seen as being in need of discipline (Cummings, 2014). For example, the American actress, Megan Markel, a biracial and now a British Royal princess, portrays a celebratory small size pregnancy. Yet, the multitude of pregnant bodies at the intersection of people of color and sized bodies might not get such positive attention. But mostly the connection between motherhood and pregnancy is via women as a protector to their children, polarizing the private versus public discourse. And certainly, it has nothing to do with the normativity of the good and the bad mothers that start before motherhood.

Patricia Collins castigates (white) feminist theory for normalizing the experiences of emotional nurture which benefits white middle-class Americans. Collins Motherwork, on the other hand, breaks down the liberal dichotomies implicit in these experiences between public and private, community and individual. Collins relies on the intersections of the physical and emotional labor that mothers do given the situations, experiences, and the power structures they may underline. Unlike the celebratory image of the perfect bun, motherwork in practice is not isolated nor is it romanticized. It is messy and it is challenging. It starts prior to pregnancy and it continues to post-pregnancy all the way to menopause. Let’s face it, childless women will still be stigmatized for her reasons against pregnancy. The choice of a childless life still makes people uneasy in the private sphere. The thought of abortion still makes people debate forcibly in the public sphere. The latest Alabama law of banning all abortions of any form including rape and jailing doctors who aid in such decisions (Associated press, 2019) is just the latest of the long body politics on the pregnant body. Ultimately this is the result of a patriarchal system that sees the body of a woman as restricted to its relation to bringing a new life. Particularly, the stigmatization of women’s bodies happens prior to pregnancy. And so I start with tight bodies for prior and during pregnancy, continue with cannon bodies during birth, and finish with vacant bodies during baby loss and menopause.

Tight Bodies

The stigmatization of pregnant bodies begins before and during the pregnant body. In mainstream discourses, women’s bodies are still connected to pregnancy. Moreover, when they are, they need to have perfect buns when they carry. Namely, stigmatization draws on body politics of femininity, the beauty of the feminine pregnant body is perceived to be a certain shape that of a tight body. Women’s bodies’ commodification is an old concept and pregnant women commodification is mostly related to the place holder for the baby (Cummins, 2014). This body “the place holder” needs to be perfect in order to avoid fat shaming. A women’s “perfect” pregnancy in the USA, in general, is celebrated. So it follows the perfect buns of Beyoncé or Meghan Markel are celebrated by media and social media alike in forms of Goddesses, but somehow this celebratory tone changes when a woman’s body fails the perfect perception of a pregnant woman. When women gain weight during pregnancy or thereafter, their bodies are “mercilessly shamed” by magazines or other mainstream media (Gupta, 2015). This is well captured by Sarah Harris, an Australian news anchor by her statement “On behalf of all of the pregnant women out there who might be feeling a little bit chubby and bit flabby, I want to say to the haters, get stuffed!” (Bryant, 2018). In her Facebook post, Janice Dean, the American meteorologist shares “I’m pregnant and I’m so excited! Yes, my body is going to be changing drastically and I will be growing so the negative comments about how I dress and look are unnecessary and will not be tolerated — it’s bullying!” (Mazziotta, 2018 ).

I have dealt with similar negative judgments in my own pregnancy. With my second child, I had to be bed rested for twenty weeks. Naturally, I gained much weight. Fat-shaming jokes among some acquaintances were casual. Alas, what seems to be forgotten in these spheres, whether public or private, is that a pregnant body is prone to emotional agony due to negative judgments. While there is a recent movement by TV personalities and different blogs to raise awareness on fat-shaming, the deconstruction of the tight body is incomplete if we stop with the duration of pregnancy. Childbirth is supposed to be miraculous but unfortunately, the aftermath tells a different story. Fat-shaming extends into afterbirth body shaming, which marks the beginning of the trend of the motherwork body in practice stigmatization. When a body gives birth the stigma comes in terms of disclosure.

Cannon Bodies

Cannon bodies address the stigmatization that comes as the result of childbirth. More specifically this category relates stigmatization to disclosure. To begin with, pregnant bodies get stigmatized in the way they deliver their babies. There seems to be a generalization that the right way of giving birth in the “natural birth.” To be direct, for a body to be worthy of natural birth, it should have no epidural nor C-sections. In addition, an entire debate on a doula natural birth seems to be favorable. But here is the caveat, a doula is reputed and practiced in middle to upper class and in many cases white suburban bodies. Claiming this type of birth a natural birth makes any other type of birth “unnatural” and therefore dismisses many diverse bodies’ births. The tacit shaming comes at the result of suppressing a body from feeling natural. Never mind health reasons that could be reason enough for C-sections for instance.

My story is no different. In my first pregnancy, I was attacked by preeclampsia toxemia, a serious hypertension condition that may cause the death of the mother or baby. Roughly 5-8 percent of pregnant bodies develop at least mild Toxemia (Preeclampsia Foundation). In my case, I believe the doctor’s incompetence or racism was the cause. My body showed no signs nor a bun of pregnancy for the first four months. My periods were regular and I was spared the nausea of pregnancy. My female doctors at the time never once thought to test for pregnancy. They instead assumed a tumor growing and one of the doctors even X-rayed my stomach at 20 weeks claiming my body was bucked up from constipation. Eventually, when I found out I was pregnant with a boy all at once, I was told that the medications given by my doctors were one degree away from fetus natural abortion. Since I delivered my first child prematurely at 30 weeks, I had to stay away from my firstborn baby for the first few days due to high blood pressure my body’s reaction to toxemia. Was it doctors’ incompetence or doctors’ racial tendencies to deny me a pregnancy test? I will never know. But the prematurity of the baby-led to a quick C-section. Yet in my daily encounters or in media discourses, when a woman discloses C-section, the stigmatization of unnatural birth is demoralizing. In short, the disclosure means marking of such bodies as inferior and unnatural leading to extreme motherwork in practice of defending a self to own a right of motherhood.

But stigma as disclosure goes beyond childbirth. Postpartum depression is documented. One in five women suffers from depression and feelings of detachment from their children. In 2015, 12.8% of American women were diagnosed (americashealthrankings.org, 2015). Yet when such disclosure happens in daily encounters or in the public spheres, women are still made to feel like insufficient mothers. “I felt like admitting that I was struggling meant I was a bad mother, so I kind of put on my best face and best foot forward and soldiered on,” says a patient of Angela Incollingo Rodriguez (Wisner et al., 1999). This type of stigma hinders treatment. Rodriguez says, “We really need to be thinking about how family members, friends, doctors, and even society treat pregnant women regarding their weight because these weight-stigmatizing experiences could have long-term deleterious consequences.” (Markets Insider Press Release, 2019). These consequences at times culminate in postpartum depression.

Consequently, bodies are stigmatized even after the relationship between a mother and the baby was established. I am talking about breastfeeding body politics. Which body is attached to good motherhood that breastfeeds? Body politics, as used here, refers to the practices and policies through which power is marked, regulated, and negotiated on and through the body. Coming from an Arabic country originally, the pregnant body meant a continuation of species and therefore breastfeeding meant a natural event that could happen anywhere with no hiding and no shaming. While in the USA, I discovered that breastfeeding is stigmatized when disclosed. I was told to breastfeed in bathrooms while at work or cover myself while in public. I came to understand that breastfeeding in public equates over-sexualization. Put differently, the disclosure stigmatization draws on the body politics of femininity. Therefore my body and that of others like me who wish to breastfeed are subjected to body policing from the society and the institutions alike. Exposing the stigmatization in the digital media via blogs, for instance, is not enough, however. The destigmatization of the over-sexualization of breastfeeding needs to happen on many levels.

In short, motherwork in practice cannot be only about raising awareness on body stigmatization, it should be about empowering the stigmatized body. For instance, Tammy Duckworth is one of 10 women to give birth while serving in Congress. We talked with nine of them. Here’s how they would change Capitol Hill. The congress, Tammy Duckworth proposed a resolution to allow newborns on the floor of Congress which was approved by the senate as an institutional change (Haberkorn, 2018). Moreover, Duckworth proposed that most airports add a breastfeeding room. She relates “I’m a progressive female Dem member, and I didn’t think of it until I had my baby,” Duckworth adds, “What does some other working mom do who do not have a team of people around her who can call the airport and say, Congresswoman so-and-so is coming through, can she use your health unit?’ (Hossain, 2018). Therefore such changes from the top down and not only from the grassroots will aid in the destigmatization of the breastfeeding body.

Vacant Bodies

But beyond childbirth, post-pregnancy stigmatization continues to what I label vacant bodies. This category draws on a notion of motherhood as a child upholder. This idea is found in Karen Zivi (2005) scholarship of mothers as the sole safeguards of their children making sure they protect them from any harm. It also comes in mothering as the sole responsibility and duty of mothers Ruddick (1999). Such scholarship erases the motherwork from the public sphere injustices that constrain the practice of mothering (Badruddoja, 2015). Pregnant bodies who are unable to protect “their fetuses are marked as less-than-mothers” (Cummings, 2014, p. 41). I am thinking of how miscarriages and menopause are prime examples of this post body pregnancy stigmatization.

In her book and recent interviews about her book thereafter, Michelle Obama (2018) writes and talks about her miscarriages and the silence that women subdue. Her hope she says is to raise awareness by telling mothers who have miscarried they are not alone. There is a reason for this silent loss, however. If motherwork is effective when a woman protects a fetus, a miscarriage, therefore, relates stigmatization to silencing. The motherwork in practice is nurturing the vacant body to health that a childless mother subdues. From my own experience I know that after the body rejects the baby, my pregnant body could not recognize the vacancy. At 13 weeks, doctors informed me that the baby is forming well. A week later the same doctors relate that my sac is shrinking blaming it on hormonal deficiencies. What a confusion: one week I was pregnant and the other I was not. My breasts still fill out as if I was pregnant; the placenta still protects the imaginary baby. I was advised to wait for my body to naturally abort. And then my body was purged. I woke up from the surgery drained emotionally and physically. My body finally caught up, it knew I was no longer pregnant. A strange feeling of vacancy that was. When a friend inquired about my miscarriage her reaction was it was time to “tie my tubes.” Yet, I am one of the lucky ones because I had others that supported me. So many women go through this pain alone. Disclosure is usually meant to relieve a self, but in the case of stigmatized pregnant bodies, it is distressing. Terming this silence loss as hormonal deficiencies are part of the stigmatization of silencing. But hormonal deficiencies extend beyond the silent loss. Media medical discourses use them to stigmatize the natural process of menopause.

My own journey took me to early menopause at the age of forty years. I was working on my tenure. This premature menopausal body led to my own divorce in lieu of a tighter younger body. And so in the same year, I learned the meaning of bittersweet for I was menopausal, divorced, and tenured. When Barbara Mark, a Clinical Psychology doctor was 38, she wondered why her body was disturbed by hot flashes. It wasn’t until 1976 when the First Congress of the International Menopause Society gathered and defined menopause. And while the World Health Organization expanded the menopausal vocabulary to include perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause, discourses still avoid any word connected to menopause at work or elsewhere.

In honor of World Menopause Day, Modern Fertility sat down with Mark to learn about the menopause stigma at workplace. One of her patients asked Modern Fertility: Why do you think menopause is so stigmatized, and what can we do to push back against the stigma? Her reply is that people associate menopause with an aging body. Therefore “menopause is perceived as bad, indicating the end of a woman’s best years.” Describing the heights of the stigma, Mark continues, “I think if you looked closely at women who were persecuted for witchcraft throughout history, or women who were institutionalized in mental health facilities (usually by their husbands) you’d find that many of them were going through menopause, but symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, anxiety, depression, memory lapses, hot flashes, and even digestive issues were interpreted very differently” (Dubofsky, 2018).

Conclusion and Implications

Motherwork in practice is about the privilege of being pregnant and the stigma of being pregnant. There is joy in the continuum of the pregnant body from pre to post. Despite discourses of body over-sexualization or fat-shaming, bodies change and grow and feel empowered. There is the privilege of bringing a new life and choice in body breastfeeding. And there is power in menopausal bodies. However, motherwork in practice as a result of pregnant body politics is at the mercy of stigmatization in everyday communication. Exposing the stigma that plague the pregnant body from prior to post-pregnancy is but part of the equation. The other side is exposing some resisting moments to this stigma. Holly Lucille, ND, RN, the author of Bottom Line Inc’s The Natural Side of Menopause blog, advocates for menopause as part of a woman’s life that needs to be celebrated instead of being stigmatized in the workplace or elsewhere. In order to help eradicate the stigma around menopausal bodies, Dr. Mark is changing the workplace for women via menopause education for premature menopause that could happen to young and older bodies

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