April 30, 2010

Be Thin, But Have a Baby: The Paradoxes of Performing Femininity With the Female Body

The female body is a highly contested topic. When is it too thin? When is it too fat? When is it natural? We talk a lot about teenage girls and body issues, but at no point is a woman's body more contested, in my opinion, than during pregnancy and post-partum. Women in today's society are NOT supposed to get fat. Fat is considered some sort of character flaw associated with lazy women who do not give a damn. But, at the same time, all women are told that they are supposed to have a baby, that pregnancy is one of the defining experiences of womanhood. And what, exactly, pray tell, does pregnancy do? Well, it makes you FAT!

It is ironic that women are meant to perform their bodily femininity both by being thin and by getting pregnant. These are basically polar acts. No wonder women post-pregnancy report feeling like shit about their bodies, and no wonder some women don't want to have babies because they worry about getting fat. Getting fat is not a trivial concern. Do not dismiss such women as superficial - they have been raised in a society where thinness is associated with self-worth, so the desire NOT TO GEET FAT is akin to a desire NOT TO BE WORTHLESS. Still, it's a catch-22, because while women who have gained weight due to pregnancy are seen as less attractive, women who stay skinny but never have kids are seen as selfish. You can either have the personality a woman is meant to have (maternal, caring, self-sacrificing) or the body a woman is meant to have (thin).

Femininity is therefore set up to be something we can never perform perfectly. If I have a baby, it will make me fat, but if I don't have a baby, everyone will call me selfish! It is quite the conundrum.

How do I deal with this? Well, at some point, regardless of the physical price of having a child, I would like to have one. That is something I would like to do for myself. I do not, however, think it makes me any more of a woman because I want a baby compared to someone who does not. Just as I do not think if I gain weight during pregnancy that this would then disqualify me from being an attractive woman.

For more thoughts of femininity and the postpartum body, please go here. It's a very good editorial I found on the subject.

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