About twenty years ago, despite her pleadings, my aunt, sister, and I made my mom laugh so hard that she wet herself during a game of badminton on the front lawn. (Yes, badminton. We are occasionally that white.) We thought that it was the most hilarious thing that had ever happened, but my mom didn’t agree. In her impotent, slightly soggy rage, she cursed the three of us that day, and foretold that someday each one of us would pee ourselves–which, of course, only made us laugh harder.
Nowadays–despite the fact that that curse has come to full fruition over the decades–I don’t really get what she was so upset about. She’d had two kids already and if there’s one thing just these first five months of pregnancy has taught me it’s that peeing yourself isn’t really so momentous a cataclysm as you’d always thought it would be. In fact, if you want one piece of wisdom from me about the process of bearing an infant it’s that you should probably develop a sense of personal dignity that does not depend on you being able to control your bodily functions or fluids. I gag in public. I fart in my cubicle. If I cough or sneeze while walking and there is anything whatsoever in my bladder, not all of it is staying in my bladder. This is just my present reality, but it really doesn’t seem like that big of a deal once you get used to the idea.
Nakedness doesn’t seem like such a big deal, either. I am normally not a very naked person, but various medical people have been regularly all up in my business since my pregnancy was confirmed, and that hasn’t bothered me. It’s not that my body feels like it doesn’t belong to me, like I’ve given up “my power” to the medical establishment and that therefore strangers having access to it doesn’t matter anymore. Rather, what my body is doing has changed, which has resulted in a change in how I think about it, and that has changed how I feel about these people I don’t really know seeing parts of my body for which the viewing public is normally a very short list.
Our culture’s concept of women’s bodies revolves around sex. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a feminist wearing lingerie in a slutwalk or a good Christian girl wearing a loose-fitting “Modest is Hottest” t-shirt at an abstinence rally, the central premise is the same: the female body is a sexual thing, to be treated accordingly. It is there either to be displayed and enjoyed or covered and protected because it is primarily sexual.
Bearing a child may seem like a very sexual thing for a body to do. It does, after all, begin with sex. (Usually, anyway. Science marches on on behalf of those with trouble conceiving that way.) But for me, reproduction doesn’t feel like that. It doesn’t heighten my sense of my body’s sexual nature or, for that matter, even of its gendered feminine nature. Instead, I have a greater sense of my body as biological. Functional.
In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher writes that athletics can shield girls from developing emotional problems that center around dissatisfaction with their appearance because, “They see their bodies as functional, not decorative.” I experienced a subtle shift like that when I first started doing serious exercise and discovered that my body could DO these physically demanding things I’d always thought only other people could do.
Sexuality, despite the fact that activity is involved, seems to be far more about BEing and appearing. The body IS a certain way, LOOKS a certain way, and that’s what makes it sexual and sexy.
But having a baby? That feels like work. My body is working away to do this thing, because it can, because it’s one of the things it was made to do, and circumstances have been such in my life that it has retained that capacity until now and was ready to go for it when all the necessary elements were present.
I enjoy sex in my marriage. Discovering my body’s sexuality was an enjoyable and liberating process. But focusing only on the sexual nature of the female body seems as limiting to me as refusing to acknowledge it at all. What does it say to a person when the flesh that clothes them and allows them to move through this place and DO is categorized as mostly just sexual? What does that imply about their place and space in this world? Like the male body, a woman’s body is about so much more than that, just as women are about so much more than that. It’s alive and active and functional.
It’s human, is what it is.