A couple of weeks ago I was standing outside my house chatting to my neighbour who every few seconds would subtly glance at my belly. I’m 35 weeks pregnant, so I’m no stranger to having people’s eyes make a bee-line for my bump.
“Wait, are you….pregnant?” she asked. Before I could answer, I watched her hand slowly reach towards my stomach and start to rub it like it was about to grant her three wishes.
“Yes!” I replied, laughing uncomfortably before making an excuse about leaving the oven on and hot-footing it inside.
It’s not the first time I’ve been on the receiving end of an unwelcomed “belly rub”.
I’ve had an uncle touch my stomach at a family gathering, a woman next to me in the café line give me a little pat. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was at a wedding when a drunk male friend came up to me on the dance floor and did some weird circular “jazz hand” motion around my stomach. I simply stood there frozen, jaw open.
When Ali Wong appeared on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show and told an anecdote about having a middle aged male comedian come up and rub her belly, I shuddered in recognition.
"He came up to me while I was pregnant the second time and he touched my belly with his fat, sweaty hand,” she told the audience.
Not one to mince her words Wong continued, “It’s like, ‘why don’t you finger me while you’re at it? This is so not ok. Just because I’m pregnant doesn’t mean it’s ok for you to touch my belly’.”
Wong highlights, in her unfiltered way, just how violating it can be to touch a pregnant woman’s stomach without consent. From unwanted belly-touching, comments about your size and weight (“gosh you look like you’re about to pop!”), to questions about whether the pregnancy was “planned or a surprise”, the daily experience of being pregnant sometimes feels like you are no longer a person but a baby carrier.
I get it, it’s exciting to talk about babies (I love baby chat!) and the comments are well-meaning.
It’s easy for people to forget that the baby in your stomach is attached to an actual living person. A person whose body is going through crazy physical changes, who feels every movement, who is experiencing weird side effects (the heartburn, the overheating, the weak pelvic floor!). And this person is going to through a most-likely painful experience to deliver the baby in the world.
When pregnant women deal with unwanted touching of their bodies, it’s a reminder that society doesn’t see your body as yours. It’s like the debate around reproductive rights – it turns this intimate thing happening to your body into an abstract idea. You become a mere vessel, not the person going through life-altering changes. It may not be a Gilead-level lack of agency, but it does make you feel like your body is not yours.
Ali Wong likens having a new baby to having a less-communicative Tamagotchi, and she’s not wrong. But the baby in my stomach isn’t a cute little beeping toy that can detach from me. So when you fondly rub my pregnant belly, you’re also disrespecting my boundaries.
Caitlin Chang is the editor of SBS Voices. You can follow Caitlin on Twitter @caitlinchang.