Mothering and the Body

A pregnant body becomes a body subject to heightened public commentary.

When pregnant others told me what was signified by my size, small for four months for five and for six, then big, big enough at eight months to elicit comments—“should you be out?”—startling me, should i be in confinement… appropriate growth measured by midwives, old wives tales: girls steal your beauty, a high bump means…i forget. The body seemed obscene.

At nine months red scars across my abdomen, wide and deep. I gave birth, 41weeks+6days. Nine pounds two ounces baby. Boy.

Post-partum body cantankerous with ailments, i gave little thought to appearances. I barely thought of myself as visible.

My body, a sight. Seen from above.

The Bodies of Mothers by Jade Beall

 

I came upon Jade Beall’s photography through a body positivity blog. Each photograph reassuring of the miraculous naturalness, the particular ordinariness of the transformations a woman’s body generates. And learning of her kickstarter, contributed. In return i received a signed copy of her book, The Bodies of Mothers, on publication. A truly beautiful and uplifting collection of photographs of women postpartum  accompanied by heartfelt personal accounts of women’s experiences in their bodies as mothers.

When my child’s father insisted my body, already an object in his eyes, was a thing i needed to “get fixed”, i thought he was wrong; turning to the photographs so lovingly arrayed in this treasury of images, i could see nothing broken, nothing in need of fixing, nothing but beauty, compassion, and courage. Women whose bodies in their diversity share similarities with mine. In a bleak time i felt heartened by their faraway sisterhood. For this The Bodies of Mothers is a book i cherish and hold with great gratitude to Jade Beall and all the women who bravely, joyously collaborated with her in creating it.

 

You can find out more about Jade Beall’s photographic work documenting the stories of women’s experiences in becoming mothers at http://www.abeautifulbodyproject.org

Representation Matters: For Black Girls

Prompted by the Free Black Women’s Library reading challenge to select a book i read as a child written by a Black woman, i could think of not one. I was an avid reader throughout my childhood, but i grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, raised mostly by my white relatives. Still, it was a somewhat startling realisation. Over the years i’ve heard intermittently conversations around the self-esteem of Black boys, their need for positive role models in the formation of their sense of self. I’ve not heard comparable conversations relating to the need for Black girls to also be raised in an environment that fosters in them a sense of themselves as capable, beautiful, able to flourish and receive love. Might such seeing representations of Black girlhood have altered my own self-conception?

The abiding memory of my naissant sense of appearance, how it was perceived by others, how i was reflected in the world, was of not mattering, and of being less of a girl for being Black. My Blackness negated my girlness, any potential for pretty, and left me feeling both less and more visible. More visible in that i stood out, my hair grew in long, voluminous kinky-curls, my skin a deeper tone than the other children in the school i attended, my lips fuller, my nose distinctly African in its shape. I was conscious of this difference, and was made more conscious still of its connotations by the comments, the looks. It marked me out in a way that felt uncomfortable, and yet obscured me by its very definiteness. Whoever i was inside, that person was less perceptible behind the stereotypes.

I read. I must have engaged in reading more than in any other activity. I was searching for clues. For how to access this liveability the other girls seemed to wear with so much ease. In reading I felt more a person than in any other area of life. I could think through books without needing to be conscious of race, the word itself felt embarrassing to me, warmed me with a sense of having been implicated in something despicable about which I should be ashamed without knowing why.

It has only been in adulthood i’ve come to comprehend this was never my shame to bear; and it has been through reading the work of People of Colour that this understanding has blossomed into pride in the ancestry we share. All this brings the questions again to the forefront of my mind, how might my path have been altered had I learned to find joy and strength and beauty in Blackness, in Black womanhood, through hearing stories told of girls who looked like me? Seen books in which Black girls were neither absent not marginalised, but centred and celebrated?

I don’t yet have a daughter, but here are three books I’ve been reading with my son (I believe in the importance of ensuring that boys too read books with female protagonists, perhaps a subject I’ll return to at another time).

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Homemade Love by bell hooks, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Melodic language and endearing, vibrant illustrations make this a heartwarming book for children. Bell hooks has created a beautiful portrait of a loving family and the sense of safety within. A favourite in our household and still much requested by my child.

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Frisettes en fete by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Rauschka

Lively, bright, and joyous, this book is a delightful celebration of Black girls and the diversity of their hair. Bell hooks’ melodious language and Rauschka’s vibrant, whimsical illustrations make Frisette en fete a pleasure to read.

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Niama’s Adventures by Renina Johnson, illustrated by Tiffany Gholar

A delightful book, ideal for stimulating imagination and inquisitiveness in young readers. The illustrations are enchanting and the story uplifting. In her reveries Niama encounters inspiring black women through the ages each one affirming her sense of magic and possibility. Carefree and fearless, Niama’s sense of adventure makes for a captivating, highly endearing character, one I hope to see in more books to come!

Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale

As a book that received a wave of renewed attention in the wake of the election, earlier this year i moved Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to the top of my reading list, requested it from my local library (waited a while, it was clearly surging with requests from several others also), and anticipated a reading experience more compelling than The Year of the Flood, one of only two of Atwood’s novels i had previously read.

Stylistically The Handmaid’s Tale is very much written similarly to The Year of the Flood (part of the MadAdam series–the subsequent parts of which i did not wish to go on to read), without lyricism or literary interest, with a certain coyness. Thematically also these novels cover the same ground. Hegemonic power, the ways individuals fail to resist it, or resist solely in their own minds, a fleeting sort of glance at the impact the juggernaut of rampant industry and technological advance has on the environment. Little attentiveness is paid to what is gained by the holders of such power, what motivates them. Rather the lust for and the wielding of such power is displayed as implacable.

Specifically, given the current zeitgeist, the recurring watch word having become ‘resistance’, i had an expectation of The Handmaid’s Tale that the forms of resistance, the struggles internal and external of movements agitating for change, the strategies that become missteps and those that render significant blows against the hegemonic structures and institutions, would be explored.

In The Handmaid’s Tale Atwood declines all this. There is a patriarchal, war mongering government–how it came to power, who is fighting against them from beyond their borders and how–remain opaque. And whilst the intention behind this seems to be the mirroring of the experience of the people living under the regime and without access to information or the freedom to communicate with one another, to immerse the reader into this restrictive frame, i was left perplexed as to why it is that the novel has become this book of the moment of Western resistance.

This is a book about compliance, it’s various forms only superficially different, distinct only by the different categories to which individual characters are assigned. I suppose this could be an accurate portrayal of how dictatorial power functions, arranging such strenuous constraints, carefully coded hierarchies, that the people are unable to see where real solidarity might be formed, or develop the capacity to think around what is to consider what might be.

In this way, The Handmaid’s Tale strikes me most strongly as, not a dystopian future presciently foretold, nor an example of how dissidence can prevail in opposition to force, but an allegory of the world in which we live and have been living in for at least some decades. We already live in a world wrought by hierarchies fiercely imposed, by wars waged against the powerless in the favour of the powerful.

The political regimes of the West, bolstered by a populace of either unknowing or compromised accomplices, outsources pollution, refuse, the consequences of environmental destruction and the worst impacts climate change to the poorest, those with least political leverage to make their demands for a habitable land heard. When dissidents working for such necessities, considered too luxurious for them in the march of neo-liberal progress, are heard it is not with the respect of listening ears, instead dissidents are all so very often disappeared, held as political prisoners (even when some other charge is produced against them as cover to the powers-that-be), reviled as opponents of–what else–the advance of civilisation, or crassly ridiculed as lacking pragmatism (coded language, pragmatism comes to mean a staunch defence of whatever the corporations deem requisite to their expansion).

Like the Atwood’s allegorical system of government our own societal systems keep huge numbers of people in poverty whilst affording a few enormous wealth. The regulations holding this system in place are written and enforced by a certain small population of white men, mostly, in shadowy halls, far from oversight of the democratic structure we’re told makes us better than any other, except rarely is there a true opposition for which we could vote; our options curtailed once more by the classified, the behind-closed-doors-operatives engaged in illegal, unaccountable conduct. Yet we continue to believe that these are glitches to be ironed out, rather than inherent outcomes of neo-liberalism and neo-colonialism.

Another of the prominent issues Atwood focuses on is of the role of women, who are divided by the commanders into several different roles. The wives, the handmaids, the aunts, and the hidden from view class of prostituted women (the women in the colonies are too inconsequential to be categorised, noted only for what is presumed to be their pitiable state–yet although purposefully ostracised and pauperised they seem to me more free than those women caught in the systemising of men). Reflect a moment on the current global situation of women in the globalised society in which we too are enmeshed; the roles for women here too are circumscribed by the value to which men can extract from them. A certain population of women are indeed kept hidden from view, whereby they are siphoned into prostitution. Another is kept in obscure poverty where child-bearing is seen as their primary value, whether by a husband or through the expanding surrogacy market. A relatively small number of women are granted freedoms by their families and communities, freedoms that are continually facing restriction, whether via political policy or by what would sensibly be called terrorism (domestic abuse, rape, the threat of rape, stalking, virulent public pushback, prostitution and the production of pornography), if we could socially conceive of it as such.

It seems the potential of The Handmaid’s Tale, to wake its readers to what already is, the presence of hegemonic power in our polity, has been lost in a fervour of prognostication of how much worse things might yet become. Like the characters living under the nameless regime of the novel, we cannot think around our own current socio-political situation to see it for what it is, nor can we properly imagine alternative ways of being. We still believe in the commanders we cannot name.