Pregnancy, Performance, and Perfection

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Laurie and Debbie say:


We are both fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s writing, so we noted last month that she is now a mother, and were impressed with how and why she kept her pregnancy very quiet,.

… only a few knew about her pregnancy and the ensuing birth of her child, and explained that her decision to withhold information about it to the public stemmed from the ever-growing performative aspect of pregnancy.

“I have some friends who probably don’t know I was pregnant or that I had a baby,” she said. “I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy. We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood.”

Adichie … refused to answer further questions about her child after her prescient take. When the [Financial Times] reporter asked about the baby’s name, she simply replied, “no, I won’t say,” accompanied by what the interviewer described as a “disarming smile.”

In this very audience-focused age, many human experiences have become performances. Most life performances, however, at least can be done by people of both genders. Pregnancy is limited to people with biologically female bodies, and is most commonly the experience of people who identify as women.

And like all things women do, it provides the patriarchy with an endless source of ways to oppress women. A pregnant woman is known as an “expectant mother,” and here are some of the things she can expect:

  • Complete strangers will feel free to judge her failure if she drinks alcohol in public.
  • Her boss and colleagues will simultaneously hold her to at least as high a work standard as she has ever been held to, and to a complete, unwavering commitment to being delighted at the prospect of having this child. Failing at either counts as failure.
  • Her medical advisors will often hold her to a ridiculously high standard of diet, weight, and exercise, while also again demanding that complete commitment to delight. Failing at either again counts as failure.
  • Everyone will feel free to tell her how well she’s doing, and where she’s falling short.

Historically, there have been periods when visibly pregnant women were housebound because they were “unseemly,” periods when maternity clothes were supposed to hide the pregnancy as long as possible, periods when (affluent and rich) women were instructed to do nothing during pregnancy and periods when they were advised to be extremely active, regardless of how they felt.

Most cultures have some level of claiming pregnant women as a social resource, an unspoken “You’re breeding for all of us, so we can manage your pregnancy.” In 2016, that claim takes the form of “let us see your performance so we can decide if you deserve a 10.”

Adichie is, in a very powerful way, refusing to play in the cultural sandbox. She claims her life as her own and no one else’s, and it would appear that she will do the same with her child’s life. She is forcing the world to treat her as the fine writer and thinker that she is.

We salute her.


No Surprise: American Women’s Gymnastics’ Racist History

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Debbie says:

simone biles

I don’t usually watch much of the Olympics, but last night at the home of friends I did see Simone Biles’ amazing vaulting performance.  So I was especially interested this morning in Lindsay Gibbs’ piece at ThinkProgress:  “America’s Painful Journey From Prejudice To Greatness In Women’s Gymnastics.”

We pretty much have to assume that every place where African-American people succeed has a history of struggle and exclusion. Gibbs lays out exactly how women’s gymnastics fits this narrative:

Here’s Zerrell  (correct spelling may be Zerell) Johnson Welch, a coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in Rio (text from the video):

“I was probably the only black girl, African American, in my class,” she told ThinkProgress. “It was very daunting… stressful, frustrating, isolating, and hurtful at times.”

Welch stuck with the sport, but was constantly bombarded with reminders that she was different, particularly by coaches who were unfamiliar with hair and body types that didn’t fall within the narrow confines of typical gymnasts.

“I remember [a male coach] making a comment about my rump, my bump, my butt,” she said. “I didn’t really become self-conscious of that until he actually brought it to my attention. And it was done in a joking way but it wasn’t a joking way to me at all. Not at all.”

Welch is amazingly hard to research on the Internet, regardless of how you spell or hyphenate her name. (She didn’t compete because by the time she was 17, her family simply couldn’t afford to keep her coaching going.) Gibbs implies that Welch is the coach of the whole Olympic women’s gymnastics team, so features about her should be everywhere. Her obscurity is hard to explain by any argument other than simple racism.

Her message, however, is deeply familiar. Laurie and I have been saying this since we started working together:

“The idea of seeing someone that looks like you is so profound, and it has such an impact on your understanding of what you potentially can be,” she said.

Gibbs’ article goes on to

  • tell some of Gabby Douglas’ (defending all-around womens’ gymnastics champion) stories of racism she has encountered,
  • interview Alexandria Brown, mother of two gymnasts of color
  • interrogate the division between “grace and beauty” (European standards) and “power” (more commonly associated with athletes of color)
  • dissect the incomprehensible cost of raising a competitive gymnast

Forbes estimates the average cost of raising an Olympic-level gymnast is about $15,000 per year. Multiply that by the five to eight years of training, and parents can find themselves shelling out around $120,000.

  • profile the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, started by an African-American former gymnast to bring gymnastics to American communities of color
  • and return to Welch for the other side of the “people who look like me” coin:

“It is just as important for those who do not look like you to be exposed to you.”

That is a point Laurie and I make less often, and I’m grateful to Welch for making it so clearly. It is incredibly important in whatever you do to see people who don’t look like you. And at the same time, those of us who may look like those who have gone before us in any arena, then really really need to understand, in our bones and our guts, that we don’t represent the only way people should look.

When Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas show their stuff in Rio, I’ll be appreciating them not just for who they are, but for the battles they — and the women who went before them — have fought to make it possible for them to get the acclaim they deserve.