Posted by: emjb | October 18, 2005

No Sleep in Brooklyn

My new schedule is wreaking havoc with my sleep cycle. Or maybe it’s hormones. Or both. Either way, when I lay down, no matter how tired, my eyes fly open and I am staring at the ceiling. Worse, I often start chatting with Matt, keeping him up, which is hardly fair, as he actually has to go to work in the mornings.

So, just to wear myself out, here’s something I was thinking about today after reading about the Miers thing, how she may or may not have told some friends that she’d rule against Roe v. Wade. And I started thinking about how the men on the prolife/anti-abortion (take your pick) side partly seem to be motivated by a sentimental view of women’s bodies that is not at all the way women themselves see their bodies. And that this is part of the great divide between men and women that makes the abortion debate so ferocious, that makes women say such infuriating things as “you just can’t understand” when this topic comes up.

This came home to me in one of those discussions online that drifted into Seinfeld territory, with the male posters (and some of the women) maintaining that while female bodies were works of art, male bodies looked silly naked. Not only does this belie several hundred years of artworks like Michelangelo’s David, it ignores the reality of all bodies…which can look both divine and exceedingly silly. From the wrong angles, women’s bodies, just like men’s, sag and bobble and scrunch up like an old pillow. Even when we’re young and firm, there are times when a belly pooches out, or boobs flop unbecomingly, or a double chin appears. And of course male or female, we deal with gravity as we age, when everything heads south.

And yet, when I pointed this out to one poster, he refused to consider that a naked woman (or perhaps just the naked women he could imagine himself with) could ever look anything but beautiful. And while this should have been taken as a compliment to our gender, it irritated me. Because it seems to deny something about our humanity. Why is it ok for men’s bodies to be comic and varied…short, squat, hairy, thin, gangly, saggy or firm–but women’s bodies are always being held up to some ideal? I mean, there is a way in which the person you love is always beautiful to you, yes. But that doesn’t really blind you to their physical imperfections. You see them, you just don’t care about them. And hopefully they do the same for you. Because sometimes, you will not be beautiful. Sometimes you will be torn and hurting and sweaty and ungraceful, or saggy and old and wrinkled. And you will want the person you are with to be able to deal with this reality, as you have to deal with it.

I think all this is related to the fact that paeans to the miraculous, spiritual, nurturing beauty of the female body–and the horror when that role is rejected–always come out when the idea of abortion is discussed. And yet, many many women tend to become silent when such things are said, or even seem uncomfortable about assuming such a role. Not out of shame at our bodies, but out of a certain, unspoken unsentimentality about them, and about childbearing in general. It’s the reason books like the Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy sell, and why women sit around swapping horror stories about their births. We want down from the pedestal, we want to tell our experience without the heavenly glow of sacred maternity around it. We want acknowledgement that being the child-bearing gender is hard, unglamorous work.

From the time we start getting periods, women are forced to start thinking about our bodies as something to take care of…something that is messy, is not an idealized madonna-figure. Like all bodies, ours leak and sag and scar. And childbirth exacerbates all that. During and after pregnancy, when you cannot eat without vomiting, when you see stretch marks and varicose veins, when you get constipated, when your boobs leak or you bleed or have episotomy stitches, when you are forced to deal with all sorts of bodily unpleasantries, you do not feel like the beautiful gender. You may indeed feel like a warrior, strong and proud at what you accomplished, but you have no illusions about your body. It bears the marks of what you’ve gone through. You are proud of it, but you know its weaknesses, too. You know them and you deal with them.

And it is this knowledge that can make you, sometimes, brutally unsentimental about the pregnancy itself, especially in the early stages. You can suddenly understand, completely, why a woman might choose an abortion, why she might wish to step out of the way of the massive, life-spanning responsibility rolling towards her. Why sentimental thoughts about the fetus pale next to a terror for her own survival, and a determination to preserve her own life and freedoms as best she can. You are not a goddess of motherhood peacefully gestating the future. You are a woman, mortal and afraid for your life and your health and your future. The wonder is not that so many women have abortions but that so many don’t. Those who decide to ride out the fear, or at least close their eyes to it, are choosing to walk through a fire that will change them, and possibly, destroy them. There may be joy on the other side, but there are no guarantees about that. There may also be suffering; a handicapped child, poverty, the loss of the mother’s dreams for herself. Or even injury. Or even death.

When the anti-abortion side talks about birth, about the moral imperatives of a woman facing a pregnancy she feels unsuited for, they don’t, or can’t, acknowledge any of this. They do not acknowledge that there is a terror to to the whole endeavor, a risk of death itself, of injury, of lifetime sacrifice. They don’t acknowledge these things because it would weaken the argument that there is no good reason for abortion.

I left the pro-life movement after college for this reason; the growing sense that I could not look a pregnant woman in the face and tell her what she must or must not do with her body. I could not assure it would be all right, that it was worth it, that there would be no terrible price to pay for carrying her pregnancy to term. I could not deny the non-physical forces also arranged against her; the lack of health care for her, no maternity leave at her job, the cruelty of welfare, the grimness of poverty that visits young single mothers. I could tout adoption, but only if her baby was white and healthy…and even then, there was no reassurance that such a decision would not tear her in two, or make her worry all her life about whether her child was being mistreated, whether she was a bad person for making that decision.

I walked into pregnancy with a ready made support team. I have a good job with decent insurance. I have a husband who loves me and wants this baby too. I have a family who would take me in if I needed them to. I have friends who would do the same. I am in good health. And this allows me to face the uncertainty with a reasonable amount of optimism. It allowed me to fight the fear that threatened me in the first trimester, to ride it out, and to go on. But without those things, I can’t say what I would have done.

I have other reasons for ending up on the pro-choice side, but this entry is long enough. More to come, maybe, when I can put it in some kind of articulate form. Time to try sleeping again.



  1. Wow. You’ve said something I’ve been struggling to articulate for a long time.

    Despite your professed bleary-eyed state, this is maybe the clearest articulation of the “It’s my body, and I’ll make the choices for it” argument I’ve ever seen. Specifically because it’s not about simple defiance or independence, but about common sense with regard to the human body, which is, let’s face it, very imperfect. We can be beautiful and ugly in turns.

    As a teenager, I managed to not be jerked around by my nether bits by keeping one simple mantra in mind: “Even hot girls have smelly farts.”

    This helped me not take beauty too seriously, or get too hung up on the pretty girls. I still worshipped beauty occasionally, but I needed to really like that person to really find them beautiful.

  2. “Even hot girls have smelly farts.”

    so true Kevin. So true. and thanks for the comment.

  3. > “Even hot girls have smelly farts.”

    What’s always relieving about this fact is that it relieves men of the pressure–impressed upon us by the silly, sacrosanct, airbrushed view of women’s bodies–to hide our physical imperfections with bluster, machismo, or even by being too afraid of women to approach them.

    Not that it has anything to do with abortion….

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