At one point in her discussion of the doubling of the pregnant self, the unique split subjectivity of pregnancy, Iris Marion Young notes that pregnancy may be a time when women are able to escape the objectifying gaze. “The leer of sexual objectification regards the woman in pieces, as the possible object of a man’s desire and touch. In pregnancy the woman may experience some release from this alienating gaze. The look focusing on her belly is one not of desire, but of recognition.” (54) In this view, the woman has finally achieved the biological mandate for which she supposedly exists. Her accomplishment of visually discernible fertility allows others to view her in a positive light for no other reason than her clear contribution to the human race.
While I think there is some merit in this discussion of the change in the gaze, I think there is a much bigger issue to address in terms of objectification and pregnancy that Young does not discuss. While a woman may not be viewed as a sexual object once she is noticeably pregnant, I would argue that she is just as much an object as the sexualized woman, if not more so.
The women in our class who have experienced pregnancy will likely attest to the fact that people seem to feel a strange right to access a pregnant woman’s body that does not have parallels in regular embodied experience. How often do complete strangers walk up to a pregnant woman and touch her, rub her belly, and request information on her unborn child? I have not yet experienced pregnancy, but I have witnessed this behavior in random public locations (as well as with my sister-in-law’s two pregnancies), and it has boggled my mind why people think this is OK. I have a hard time believing that an average (sane) person would ever think they have the right to walk up to me on the street and fondle my hair or rub my breasts, but this personal invasion is apparently completely acceptable once a woman is sporting a noticeable bump.
I have always said that the person who touches my belly during pregnancy without my consent will pull back a stump. However, this seems to be an overarching issue that may be difficult to overcome through my own harsh response (although I’m sure I’ll get some inappropriate pleasure out of shaming people who make this mistake). What are the foundations to this idea that the public at large has such access to the pregnant woman? At what point does Young’s recognition turn into entitlement? Along the same lines, is my pregnant experience in some ways not my own but rather society’s at large?
While I think these views on the availability of the pregnant woman’s body (whether she wants to be available or not) come from a kind-hearted place, the implications on the politics of the female body could be pretty intense. Maybe I’ll feel OK with softening my approach once I am actually pregnant, but maybe my intense response could also make people aware of the absurdity of their actions. I guess I’ll see….