I am standing at the counter of the small bookstore where I work. A woman, about 50, glances at my breasts. This is fairly common, but always uncomfortable.
“Are you pregnant?”.
Blood rushes to my face. My ears grow hot and start to ring. I want to take a deep breath but I feel puny, pushed into a tiny box, and my lungs can’t expand enough.
She looks down to my gut and pulls the side of her lip up in a question.
“Are you sure?.”
I want to throw up and dissolve into the stained carpet.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
She says a few things that I won’t remember as the ringing in my ears gets louder, but I will remember that she never apologizes. My jaw will hurt from clenching my teeth. My palms will have little half moons from my nails. She will leave, not embarrassed. Alone in the store, I sob. I can’t stop shaking. I have to call my boss to take over for the rest of the day. As I drive home, finally alone in my car, I scream, wishing I had said anything. I felt ugly and useless. My brain was on fire and filled with smoke. It was my actual nightmare. This is the thing that keeps me up at night.
Since I graduated from University and began to work in retail three years ago, ten people have asked me this question. These ten people were not cruel, they did not mean to hurt me. They were only trying to engage in small talk. I understand that. I secretly relish small talk. Seeing a stranger who looks interesting and searching over them for a reason to start a conversation. It is not necessary, however, to rely on their appearance for this. I once met a girl by asking “Do I have shit in my hair?” after I had this incident with a bird while I sat under a tree. We are still friends.
Asking a woman when her baby is due is lazy. Best case scenario: she is in fact pregnant. You talk for a moment, maybe tell her that your son is having a child around the same time. Then you move on. If have judged wrong and she is not pregnant, you have just insulted her in an intensely personal way. You have not only asked, “When is your baby due?” you have also told her, “There is no way that you can look the way you do without having a baby inside of you,” and “A woman like you must be pursuing a family.” I have never been pregnant. I do not want a child. I would describe what I look like, but that would not be helpful to you, dear reader. Regardless of how large my breasts and my middle are, this should never happen to me or to any other woman.
That encounter was two years ago. The next time was a month later. The last time it happened was six months ago. Each time, I feel like a sheet of foil crumpled into a ball. All ten times, I spoke no fighting words and demanded no apologies. If someone had insulted me out of cruelty, I would have shifted the blame back to them and been done with it. But every time it happened they were filled with good intentions, so I blamed myself. I deserved these words because I didn’t have the self control to shape my figure. I apologized to those who comforted me that I was not strong enough to let those comments flow over me and disappear. I gave away and threw away the clothes I had been wearing when it happened. I would wallow and then try to turn the frustration into something productive. Something that wasn’t a blue-black feeling.
I’d like to say that I’m better. I’d like to say that in the likely event that this will happen again, I will be able to finally stand up for myself.
I stand in front of my bathroom mirror and speak to my reflection in defense, as if it was the next person to ask the question. I am preparing for next time, saying all the things that I’ve never said before. Things that only come to me when the smoke in my brain clears.
“I need to speak about what just happened and you need to listen to me for a few minutes,” I say. “You owe me that much. This is the most devastating thing a stranger has ever said to me and you are not the first person to say it. The first time someone asked me if I was pregnant, I was 15. It was the boy I held hands with at age 12; he was my first boyfriend. Once, when I was laughing, a woman came to me and said, “You have that pregnancy glow about you.” What could have been a lovely compliment turned sour. A woman can be radiant without an influx of pregnancy hormones and I’ve always been proud of my nice skin. I have looked the way I do for a long time. I am healthy and I feel good. I have followed diets and exercise plans, but each time I couldn’t sustain the routine because it came from hatred. It was a panicked attempt to shake off the unwelcome parts of my body like they were burrowing ticks. I’ve contemplated a conscious descent into bulimia, but I had the mind to reach out to someone who knew just how destructive that path is before I began. Only recently, I have realized that this is my body, this is my metabolism, I have to love it before I can try to change it.”
“Regardless of all of the failures, I have lost weight. I thought I looked better, I thought I finally looked good. Every time this happens I feel subpar again. I have never seen a woman who looks like me on TV. Even plus sized models are proportional. I am angry. Angry that my appearance belongs to the eyes and opinions of so many people. When I dress to go unnoticed, to blend into the carpet, to avoid the gazes of strangers, I don’t feel like myself. When I dress for myself, I feel powerful and happy, but I risk the hurt of those words again. I am angry that I have to choose between the two, that being happy all the time will never be an option. Even when I surround myself with people who care for me and think that I am beautiful, I am terrified that they are lying because they think my spirit is frail. I want to be fierce and unafraid.”
After a few minutes of speaking out loud, alone in my apartment where I should revel in my freedom and privacy, I’m a mess. The fire and the smoke are back in my brain. I can’t form any more words. If this happens again, I want to stand straight, look them in the eye, and say these things, but I’m terrified that I will crumple. So consider this article my Public Service Announcement. Never ask a woman when her baby is due. I have dreamt of those moments and woken up shaking. In a selfish way, I hope that these words will save me from having to confront my fear again. Maybe I want to save someone else: the young professional who has a thyroid issue and has never had control over her weight; the woman who works as a doula and a midwife and wants to have a child, but due to her polycystic ovary syndrome is unable to become pregnant; the young mother who has put many priorities before her own shape; all the women who want to move freely through the world to pursue their errands, romances, and careers. None of us deserve to be stopped by a stranger who is trying to figure out: what is that under her dress?
I’m at the bookstore again. There is a man, maybe 50 or 60, very eager to talk about nothing at all to anyone in earshot. He looked at me and gets a smirk that says, Oh, this will make your day. “When is your baby due?” he asks. It is the first time a man has asked me this. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. “Oh,” he says. “I’ve said the wrong thing, haven’t I?” I nod my head. He apologizes, tells me he has done this once before, and leaves after telling me apologetically and pointlessly how much he loves bookstores. I am soundless, lifeless, and monochrome.
About six months later, I see him again. I recognize him already, but when I hear him say “I just love bookstores” I know absolutely who he is. He tries to tell me a joke; it isn’t clever and I don’t laugh. I just stare at him impassively. “It’s okay. My sense of humor is pretty out there – most people just don’t get my jokes.” I am beginning to bubble. I know that if I don’t say something in this moment I will regret it. “Actually, the last time you were here you said something very offensive to me.” He looks surprised. He doesn’t remember. “What was it?” I’m starting to crumple but I stand tall. My voice is loud enough that other customers look over but I am calm, clear, and eloquent:
“You thought that I was pregnant. I’ve always been sensitive about my body and it hurt me deeply when you said that. I am incredibly offended that you do not even remember because it was very painful and it has stayed with me. You told me that you had done this once before, so please. Please. Please. If you remember nothing else from this: say anything else, just never say that to another woman again.”
He is amazingly silent for a moment. He looks at me seriously and says, “Thank you.” I am shocked. I thought that the first words he would say would be “I’m sorry.” I am shaking. I was so worried about seeming offensive and hateful. He continues, choosing his words slowly and thoughtfully: “I didn’t think my actions could have this much of an effect on anyone. I need to think about what you’ve said. I am going to take a long, hard look at the way I treat the people around me. Really, thank you.” When he leaves this time, I am full. I am tall. I feel so me that I shine the color of myself onto the shelves nearby. I am fierce.
“I think I just helped someone” I say to myself.
I will always support the body positive movement, but I want more. I want images of every type of body to flood our screens, our pages, our streets, and our galleries. Not erotic. Instead: compassionate, intimate, and impartial. We could look upon someone else’s body without shame and see her hair grows in a dark patch on her arm. He has a large surgical scar down his back. She has stretch marks across her hips and belly. That is the way his skin hangs after losing 200 pounds. She has a roll on her back when she wears a bra. Those are his ribs. She grows fine black hair above her lip.
Aren’t they all fascinating and gorgeous?
Written by Helen Maringer