Recently I was out to dinner for a dear friend’s birthday. It was a steakhouse and the orders around the table called for rare, medium rare, rare and medium.
When the waiter got to my friend she said “And you’ll have yours well done.” to which my friend replied “No, thanks, I’ll have medium too”. The waiter then explained that as she was pregnant the restaurant could only serve her steak well done. After a collective gasp around the table and various comments along the lines of ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ and ‘that can’t be right’, the waiter offered to go and check with the chef. While she was gone I was struck by the hurt and humiliation on my friend’s face. We were out to celebrate her birthday and she’d just been treated like a child. I could see her eyes glistening. The waiter returned and confirmed that yes, the chef would not serve a steak to a pregnant woman unless it was well done. Some negotiations with the manager later and we “won” the “right” to have her order changed. It’s an unofficial sport in our society to speculate on the bodies of women – are they too fat, too thin, pregnant yet, not pregnant, showing stretch marks, using contraceptives, having abortions, having too much sex, not enough sex, or wearing “appropriate” clothing. In every culture, women’s bodies are battlegrounds where patriarchy and capitalism intersect to make life difficult for women trying exercise bodily autonomy. Women’s bodies are scrutinised and policed from every angle, and this process only intensifies during pregnancy. So when Chrissie Swan made the emotional confession yesterday that she’d been smoking cigarettes from time to time during her pregnancy, I immediately braced myself for the inevitable orgy of public outrage. It came.
So far I’ve read that she’s a bad mother, a disgusting person, selfish, stupid, and irresponsible. I’ve seen people say they feel sorry for her children. I’ve seen others conflate her inability to stop smoking with a lack of control over her weight, and suggestions that if she can’t handle the stress of her many jobs, maybe she shouldn’t have them. I feel certain that all of these commentators would welcome a photographer trailing them all day to capture their every move, so that the public may pass judgment and decide whether they’re living their lives correctly. Leaving aside that this public conversation is only happening because a photographer caught her smoking alone in her car (a practice I find disturbing and unethical, the photography not the smoking) Chrissie Swan admitted today that she’s been unable to fully give up smoking while pregnant. She’s addicted to smoking and she’s struggling to cut it out of her life. Medical professionals and anti-smoking campaigners are in agreement that it’s one of the hardest drugs to kick, so shouldn’t we be supportive and empathetic towards someone struggling to do just that? In my experience, shaming, judging and lecturing addicts doesn’t help them beat their addictions. In fact, it may contribute to the spirals of shame and self-doubt that fuel their reliance on the drug. If you’ve never smoked, or been an addict, it’s hard to understand. But I see Chrissie as someone who is turning to something she knows and responds to in a time of stress and pressure. This is hardly breaking news. The difference is that she’s pregnant and pregnant women’s bodies don’t belong to them. People will freely tell you this, without realising the terrible impact it has on women and expecting mothers. They’ll tell you “her body belongs to the baby now” but what they really mean is “her body belongs to everyone with an opinion (whether they have a clue or not), women and men who know better, and society”. The waiter and chef in that restaurant felt completely entitled to casually assume control over my friend’s body and the cultural weight behind this act of rudeness is clear. In the past thirty years, the medical community has come to agree that the way we used to ‘do’ pregnancy is not okay, and I agree that having more information on risks and dangers allow mothers to make better choices for them and their baby. But to put things in perspective, many of us over the age of thirty were born after nine months of 70s women making absolutely zero changes to their diet, alcohol and cigarette consumption. In my case, I’m fairly sure my parents put away a pack a day and sampled many a tinnie and cask in the months between October 1976 and June 1977. I’m not saying you should do that now but if you did, a) everything might still be okay and b) I wouldn’t hang you out to dry for it, having a sense of proportion about a period not so long ago when it was the norm. I would also not observe your actions during a particular moment of your long pregnancy and think that it reflected your parenting ethos. I would not decide that your choice on that day was so terrifically irresponsible that I could extrapolate out from that and cast aspersions on your character and your fitness as a mother. And frankly, I would mind my own business. Because make no mistake, none of this apoplectic rage and judgment is about the welfare of children or a belief in the constant stream of warnings from the medical community about which foods and behaviours might affect pregnancy and birth. It’s about finding new and more justifiable ways of controlling women. Sanctimony may feel good but it says a lot more about the person doing the judging than whoever is being judged. What do you think? Are pregnant women easy targets? Do they rightly bear the burden of society’s concern for the unborn, or should people back the hell off?
Karen Pickering (@jevoislafemme) is the creator and host of Cherchez la Femme, Melbourne’s monthly talkshow on current affairs and popular culture from a feminist perspective. More information @cherchezlafemmo and mskarenpickering.com.au