During all of my pregnancies, I have been confronted daily with comments on my physical appearance from strangers, acquaintances, friends and family which range from “Wow! You’re huge” to “Wow! You’re tiny!”. The big vs. small comments breakdown day-to-day is about 50/50. Why do we feel the need to discuss a woman’s size during pregnancy? Because we live in a culture obsessed with quantification and comparison and competition, and because, I believe, the fundamental structure of our society still assumes that women’s bodies are public property–especially during pregnancy.
This propensity to comment inappropriately on size during pregnancy is heightened when it comes to the medical community. Pregnant women are constantly told by doctors and nurses throughout their pregnancies that they are too fat, or too small to give birth naturally, or that their babies are too big, or that their babies are too small. The size of one’s baby is frequently cited as a reason for the recommendation of having ultrasound scans done, despite the fact that ultrasound is NOT a reliable way to decipher the size of a child in the womb. I have heard many stories of women who, after an ultrasound, have been told they are carrying an 11 pound baby. When they are promptly scheduled a c-section (because how could anyone push out an 11 pound baby and SURVIVE? It’s not as though women’s bodies are *meant* to give birth or anything), and then out comes an 8 pound baby, everyone congratulates themselves on wisely having taken the proper precautions, just in case.
When a new baby is born, invariably the first question new mothers receive from friends and family is “How Much did he/she weigh?” as though there is no more interesting a topic of discussion. Because, of course, a mother who gives birth naturally to a 9 or 10 pound baby is particularly heroic, whereas pushing out a 6 or 7 pound baby should be a piece of cake, right?
Let’s stop to think about this for just a minute: The largest part of an infant is its head. Any woman who has given birth knows that once the head has been born, the body slides out with ease. The head circumference between a 7 and 10 pound baby does not differ greatly. In fact, the smaller baby may have a larger head. What I’m getting at, is that it doesn’t matter a hoot how big your baby is. A couple of pounds is not necessarily significant at all. There are many women who have difficult, long and painful birth experiences pushing out 6 pound babies. There are many other women who push out 12 pound babies easily. I know tiny tiny women with narrow hips who have birthed 10 pound babies without a problem.
As soon as a baby is born, it is immediately obvious whether or not that child is a good healthy size. Are you an armful? Are you the size of a big loaf of bread? Great. It is quite astounding to me the number of times, after having told someone that I give birth at home, people have said, “Well, you must have tiny babies, then”, as though this would be the only explanation for being able to birth at home successfully. Similarly, when explaining to people that I choose homebirth, many people have asked me, shocked, “But how do you weigh the baby afterwards?” as though establishing a birth weight is paramount to the health of my children (and as though if this DID matter, it would be difficult to, I don’t know, acquire a scale).
I suppose that in order to keep capitalism and the cultural machine of desperation, consumption and self-hatred going, we have to participate in these little plays: the “how much did your baby weigh” play, and the “gee whiz, you’re SO big” play, to mark us as obedient participants in the overall “childbirth in 21st century North America” play. I guess I’m just supremely bored with it all, and the fact that no one seems to care that the questions and concerns over a baby’s birth weight is based mostly on fallacy. Reality and honesty is becoming increasingly interesting to me. Perhaps after this baby is born, my response to the question of “How much did your baby weigh” will be “I don’t know. Why does it matter? We never weighed her/him. But what I do know, is that she/he is perfect.”
Oh! And for the record, the *only* thing I ever say to a pregnant woman is “You look beautiful.” And this is always sincere. Because we do, don’t we?