The Worst Thing You Can Say to a Woman, Brought To You By Fatphobia

The first time someone ever asked a friend of mine “when are you due?,” I was in college. My friend had a baby blue empire waist top in a soft flannelly fabric that she like to wear. She felt beautiful when she wore this top; however when she would sit down while wearing it, her belly was accentuated. One evening she wore this top and went out to dinner with her boyfriend. She came back devastated because the server had asked her when she was due.

My heart sank. This friend had a history of eating disorders, including a flare-up in the past year. When I heard that the server had asked when she was due, I felt so angry and scared for her that she was going to have another flare-up.

Over a decade later, when my son was about 2 years old, I had taken him to the park to meet up with a friend. We saw another mother that we didn’t know, who had a four or five year old child, and I felt sure that she was pregnant, as her belly look so round compared to the rest of her body. And I was super excited for her and I asked her when she was due with number 2.

She was not pregnant. I couldn’t believe I had made such a mistake.

Rookie moms like me are not the only ones who can make an error in guessing whether a woman is pregnant. Jennifer from Mama Lion Strong, who is a personal trainer specializing in prenatal and postpartum training, has admitted to making this mistake as well. She wrote a blog post about how embarrassed she was. She couldn’t believe that she had made this mistake of humiliating this woman, when she should know better.

Today, I am in some online groups where women talk about healthy habits and self care and treating their bodies with love. Sometimes a woman will start a thread in which they say something like “Ladies, I’m so I’m so embarrassed and angry. A friend I hadn’t seen in a long time / my uncle / the stranger on the bus / another mom asked me when I am due. I feel so angry and embarrassed and I feel so bad about the way I look now.”

And other women will start to try and comfort her and empathize with her:

“Oh honey. I’m so sorry that happened to you. That is the worst. Hugs!”

Or they will say “what kind of asshole says that to a woman? Don’t they know you should never comment on a woman’s pregnancy unless she tells you she’s pregnant, or she is crowning?”

Now, I happen to agree with those people who say “don’t they know you should never comment on the woman’s pregnancy unless she tells you she is pregnant?” However, not for the reason that I think society means. 

I agree with those people because I am in favor of not commenting on another person’s body unless I have been invited to do so. Many people have fraught relationships with their bodies, and even if they don’t, there are more interesting things we can talk about than the way somebody looks. Sometimes people have painful histories with infertility, infant loss, eating disorders and well.

BUT….

I don’t actually agree that mistakenly assuming a woman is pregnant is the worst possible thing you can do to a non-pregnant woman.

When we ask a woman “when are you due,” what we are really saying is “your belly looks round and I have noticed that, and I have come to associate round bellies with pregnancy, so I am trying to connect with you in a positive way by commenting on what must be a very big and exciting thing in your life.”

And when a woman feels devastated because somebody has asked her when she is due and she is not pregnant, what she is likely feeling is “somebody noticed that my belly looks round and I am so ashamed because in our society a round belly is about the worst physical feature you could possibly have. Unless you are pregnant; then it is okay. Since I am not pregnant, my round belly is an embarrassment and I feel shame.”

And when all her friends chime in to say “oh honey! That was a horrible thing that person said to you. Nobody should ever say that to a woman. How insensitive of them”…what they are really saying is:

“You are correct. There is no worse thing you could possibly say to a  woman than ‘your belly looks round,’ unless she is pregnant; then it is okay. If she is not pregnant, it is not okay for a woman to have a round belly, and it is certainly not okay for others to acknowledge that they have noticed that she has a round belly. Round bellies are taboo and if we do notice them, we shouldn’t say anything because having a round belly is shameful and calling a woman’s attention to it will embarrass her. Nobody should have ever said that to you and I am sorry that happened to you.”

Think about that. Why is saying “I noticed you have a round belly” the worst thing you could ever say to a woman? It’s because we’re trained to hate round bellies, unless somebody is pregnant. We are indoctrinated into the fatphobic belief that round bellies are horrible. We are indoctrinated into the belief that a round belly means you are ugly, that you are worthless, that you’ve “let yourself go.” We are indoctrinated into the belief that a round belly is shameful, unless you are pregnant.  So when a woman who is not pregnant hears “when are you due? ” all those feelings and issues can come up for her. And when her friends agree with her, that cultural programming about round bellies is reinforced. 

As a fat woman with a round belly, I am no longer willing to reinforce that cultural programming. Yes, I have a round belly, even when I am not pregnant. No, I don’t think it is shameful. And next time I hear a woman saying “I am so angry/embarrassed/ashamed; someone just asked me when I am due,” I am not going to tell her that is the most horrible thing anyone could have said to her and I am sorry that happened. I am going to instead say “I am sorry that our cultural programming makes that question so hurtful. I am sorry that our cultural programming makes you feel ashamed and embarrassed when someone points out a round belly and glowing complexion. I am sorry that our culture makes you feel like a round belly is a badge of dishonor. Despite what you may have heard, there is nothing wrong with you if you have a round belly, and you are okay just the way you are.”

If I were to continue to reinforce that cultural programming,  I would be oppressing myself as well as all other women. I am not going to speak that way about my own body or other women’s bodies anymore.

And if someone asks me when I am due, I plan to answer matter of factly that I am not pregnant; I just have a round belly. I am not ashamed of it.

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