When You Look Pregnant, but You’re Not

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“Congratulations, when are you due?”

Pregnancy holds a special place in the culture: There are few other circumstances in which someone could glance at a stranger’s body, make assumptions and feel entitled to touch them or offer unsolicited advice.

Even, in my case, when a woman is not actually pregnant.

This happened to me recently while riding a bus in the Bronx. I was standing up on the BX12, holding on to a pole and texting a friend. A white middle-aged man wearing pleated khakis and a blue oxford-cloth shirt sitting nearby turned to me and said loudly, “Please, ma’am, take my seat.”

I shook my head, indicating that I was getting off soon.

He persisted: “Please, ma’am, you really shouldn’t be standing up. Every bump this bus goes over can jostle and hurt your unborn baby.”

I was not, nor have I ever been, pregnant. I was just a well-fed woman in her 30s on her evening commute wearing an empire-waist dress. (Admittedly, that particular style of dress, which cascades down from the fitted bust and helps to disguise protruding stomachs, is a favorite of maternity clothing designers. But that is beside the point.)

This stranger felt as if he was responsible for the well-being of my nonexistent fetus and took it upon himself to scold me in front of the rest of the bus, providing unsolicited and inaccurate advice.

Recently, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie revealed in an interview that she had had a baby, but had kept her pregnancy quiet to avoid having to “perform” pregnancy.

The pregnancy performance also encompasses the notion that pregnant women’s bodies are public property, available for anyone to grope.

Again, even the appearance of pregnancy is enough for many people to think that a woman’s tummy is (literally) up for grabs. When I finally acquiesced and took that man’s seat on the bus that day, he put both hands on my belly and rubbed it as we switched places. By the time I processed what had happened, he got off the bus.

As a bioethicist specializing in reproduction and sexual health, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about various aspects of pregnancy, including trying to figure out why this attitude toward pregnant women is so prevalent.

My theory: Pregnancy happens inside women’s bodies, so it is very personal, but also mysterious, since (with the exception of a few ultrasounds) it is largely unseen. Fascination with pregnancy and pregnant women’s bodies is not surprising.

But that does not provide people with an open invitation to involve themselves in the process.

Women become pregnant under varied circumstances, not all of them planned or positive, so even the go-to congratulatory comments are not always appropriate. A simple “How are you feeling?” is a neutral option.

Concern and comments regarding a woman’s decisions surrounding motherhood are probably coming from a good place; few people actually endeavor to be patronizing. It is absolutely possible to show concern for a pregnant person while still being respectful and not insulting. By all means, make accommodations for anyone – including pregnant people, the elderly or someone on crutches – who may look as if they could use a break.

But if someone declines the offer to take your seat on the bus, move on and let it go. Follow-up comments are unnecessary. It’s possible that a person who appears to be pregnant may have an unwelcome medical condition that she doesn’t wish to discuss.

There also is a connection between the unsolicited advice given to pregnant (or potentially pregnant) women, and the way society views women who are not the ideal Size 6. Once it is discovered that we are not, in fact, pregnant, it does not necessarily stop people from telling us what to do or how to dress. Perhaps they think that if we don’t have enough self-control to eat properly, it gives them the right (maybe even the obligation) to advise us on how to better ourselves.

Once during a crowded subway ride, an elderly woman looked at me knowingly and said: “Here you go, honey. You sit down right here,” gesturing toward my belly.

“Thank you so much, but I’m actually not pregnant,” I responded, feeling my already sweaty face turning a brighter shade of red.

Just when I thought the exchange was over, the woman continued: “Oh, O.K. honey. But really, a woman of your size shouldn’t be wearing those high-waisted dresses. It looks like you’re trying to trick people into thinking you’re pregnant.”

A few weeks later I attended a clothing swap, and got rid of three comfortable cotton empire-waist dresses. I almost felt obligated to tell the woman who took them that they’re not only great in the summer heat, but they may also result in comments from strangers on public transit concerned with a hypothetical fetus.

I hope she’s having better luck with them than I did.