I naively thought a prominent pregnant belly would provide me with a protective bubble from street harassment
I’ve been a victim of street harassment since I was a tween. It’s just par for the course. I usually dealt with it in a passive way: ignore it and get away as quickly and quietly as possible. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t acknowledge them. Just keep walking. Focused ignorance.
I was catcalled one day shortly after I found out I was pregnant. I blissfully imagined what my belly would look like in a few months time and how the harassment would stop. I was (and am) pregnant, and naively thought a prominent pregnant belly would provide me with a protective bubble, although admittedly temporary. Never did I imagine that not only would I experience catcalling while pregnant, but harassers would be even more aggressive.
I was walking to work the first time it happened. A man was walking toward me and I could feel his eyes examining every inch of me. He evidently decided my breasts were the best place to keep his gaze, and as I hurried to pass him, discontented, disgusted, a little afraid, mostly angry, he muttered comments about my body. Wonderful.
I wanted to scream at him to keep his eyes and comments to himself, and learn a little respect. Instead, I defaulted to my usual focused ignorance.
The incident left me shocked, disgusted and confused. My pregnancy was clearly showing, and I had assumed pregnancy would provide some relief from the sexually objectifying gaze of street harassers. Imagine, walking down the street without being catcalled — what a world!
Generally in American society, pregnant women are seen as beautiful, but in a non-sexual way. Because they are preparing for motherhood, pregnant women are to remain asexual, keeping a holy mind and body, focused solely on motherhood. But some men have found a way to separate pregnant women from their bodies. The pregnant body itself is no different than any other female body in that it is subject to inspection and commentary, including sexually, especially in public spaces.
One only has to look at the covers of entertainment magazines to realize that a woman’s body is never her own, including a pregnant one. Tabloids are always making comments about pregnant celebrities — who’s fat/sexy/rockin’ the bump — and are relentless in pointing out women who they claim have “let themselves go” during pregnancy.
But sometimes magazines overtly sexualize a pregnant woman, not in a powerful way, showing that the pregnant woman can be sexual, but in an objectifying way, creating a sexy image for the viewer’s gaze.
Interestingly, the first magazine cover to present a naked pregnant body was done so as a feminist statement. The now well-known 1991 Vanity Fair cover displayed a proud and pregnant Demi Moore, whose eyes gazed off camera, with little makeup or jewelry. A simple image that tackled complex issues surrounding the pregnant body, it was groundbreaking.
Fast forward in time and the pregnant cover and spread conveys a whole new message — sex. Heavy eye makeup, flashy jewels, seductive pose, and bedroom eyes are par for the course. The images scream “sexual object,” reminding our society that these bodies are here for our enjoyment.
When you’re pregnant, your body is not your own; complete strangers feel entitled to say something to you. Some of these comments are nice (e.g., asking when you’re due or saying congratulations), while other times the commenters should have probably kept their mouth shut (e.g., remarking how huge your belly is, asking if you’re having twins, etc.).
Usually I’m by myself when these comments are made, but once a dear friend happened to be with me. We were going to an art museum and the ticket collector made a comment about my belly. It was nothing offensive, and clearly intended as genial, but my friend joked “Gee, it must be great having everyone comment on your body at all times.”
I shrugged it off — I’d become used to the fact that people felt the right to discuss my body like it’s public property. But really, I was just glad that the comment wasn’t sexual in nature. Yup, my standards have been lowered. I never imagined that I would be sexually harassed while pregnant, but that’s the reality. A disgusting and frustrating reality.
As my baby bump continues to grow, each lingering gaze and crude comment continues to be a source of distress. I’m not certain what these men are thinking, but for some reason, they act like their advances are compliments.
For me and the women I know, these comments have never been perceived as compliments and they never will be — especially now. Each whistle, each lip-smack, each wink, each “Mmm, hey baby” feels like a threat aimed not just at me, but to my unborn child as well. No, I don’t need your praise on how good you think my body looks, or need to know what you would do to any part of my body. Bugger off!
Although I’ve always dealt with catcalling in a passive manner, this new violation brings out the angry mama bear in me. Still, I dare not say anything for fear of the repercussions. Sure, I might be able to get them to shut up, but then again, I could also trigger one of the harassers to do something extreme, something that we’ve seen in the news far too often this year (e.g., the woman shot and killed because she refused to give a man her number, or the woman whose throat was cut for, again, refusing her catcaller. Sadly, I could go on…).
This underlying fear is paralyzing. As a woman, there are too many risks in calling out your aggressor, especially when there is another life at stake. Not to mention I’m moving slower than normal these days, making it even more difficult to escape from the situation in a timely manner.
So what’s a girl to do?! I wish I had the answer. I’ve debated printing off “What would your mother think?!” cards, but again, I can’t waddle away fast enough to not fear retaliation.
But I have decided on one thing, I will not start wearing baggy clothes to cover up my body. I’m proud that I’m growing a human inside me; it’s freakin’ hard work, so you better believe I’m walking with pride! In the meantime, I’m working on my resting-bitch-face and walking without eye contact, belly-poppin’ pregnant-waddle and all.
Terra Olsen is a writer and game content manager for an indie mobile gaming company.
TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email email@example.com.