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Your Body, Yourself

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says “The Commission will presume that the unwelcome, intentional touching of a charging party's intimate body areas is sufficiently offensive to alter the condition of her working environment and constitute a violation.”

Of course we all know that has absolutely no application to pregnant women. You can grab their bellies as much as you want. (Disclaimer: No you can’t! This is sarcasm.)

When people ask to touch Terry’s belly, I’m reminded of an episode of ER where Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) gets some coffee on way to work and a woman asks to touch her belly. Carol says no, that everybody touches her without asking. The woman responds, “But I did ask.” Carol gets her coffee, leaves, and a truck plows into the coffee shop, killing the woman. Pregnant women everywhere cheer when they see that episode.

I think nothing makes a woman feel like a pregnancy vessel more than strangers clasping their cold clammy hands on their bellies. Once I had to stand in for the principal during an eighth grade graduation rehearsal. You don’t really understand germs until you’ve shaken hands with 100 eighth graders. At the end of the rehearsal I contemplated cutting off my own hand, which was now possessed by strange alien germs that had been growing for thirteen years. Apparently eighth graders have some aversion to soap. I reflect on that experience when people ignore Terry’s instructions to “Get Back Jack” and touch her belly.

I’m a passive type of guy until I'm juggling seventy things at once, and then the littlest thing makes me crazy. It usually means that I completely flip out when a cherry tomato defenestrates and lands on the floor. I wish I could be more like my wife. Terry gives clear, cool instructions in a low, calm voice about what she wants. Terry can instantly state her needs without resorting to Celtic oaths. It scares the living hell out of people, because stating something innocuous like the weather in a calm, clear voice sounds sinister. Try it: Without blinking, walk up to someone who knows you and say “Snow is expected this evening” without blinking or raising the tone of your voice above a quiet monotone. If they don’t respond with “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” you haven’t done it correctly. If you try it with a stranger, arrange bail beforehand.

She quickly learned that if she didn’t exclaim “No!” in a slightly agitated voice anytime someone approached her belly, they would rub their hands all over her. She’s learned to shut people down before they can get too close. In America, at least, there is the expectation of a right to touch a pregnant woman. And guess what: only some of them don’t mind being pawed.

This has caused some hurt feelings on my part, because many of my friends, whom Terry doesn’t know very well, want to touch her. One of my favorite former students met us for lunch. “Can I touch your belly?” “No!” Another friend came to visit; she was shot down as well. One person came running out from the cash register at the Park Slope Food Coop. Terry’s firm but polite “No” stopped them all! I feel bad because they don’t mean to be rude. My wife doesn’t want to be rude. They just want to help celebrate the coming baby. But they can’t touch my wife.

I don’t know if anyone’s done a study on the compulsion of people to touch pregnant bellies. I think corporations should use this as a marketing tool. They could pay pregnant women to stand with their exposed bellies in front of stores. When people ask to touch their bellies, they could direct them into the store for a brief sales pitch first. (I’m kidding. I would find this repulsive and immoral. But I’m not a corporation.)

When this issue came up, I tried to remember what I had done in the past. Had I grabbed my cousin’s bellies when they were pregnant? Friends? I have no memory. Are kids exempt from the no-touching-the belly rule, since they ignore pretty much all social convention? Ladies, if I’ve grabbed you belly, I apologize. I didn’t really think about this issue.

Pregnant women have been defending themselves for quite a long time. Either they submit to regular tummy inspections (some enjoy it) or they pretend the baby just stopped moving, or rubbing their stomach makes them vomit, or they back away, or they ask to touch the other person’s belly first, or they slap them. Or like my wife, they just say no.

This of course, posed an interesting dilemma for me. Do I ask permission to touch my wife’s belly? Am I any different from other people? After discussion with Terry, she said it was all right for me to touch her belly, because I am the father and husband. I try to limit my groping to say, 5,000 times per day. Terry seems to enjoy it. Sorry, everybody!


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Comments (2)

I love your blog; saw your posting on PSP for it. Having been pregnant twice I would say that strangers touching my belly would be pretty gross, but I think it is par for the course, that friends and family want to touch it--yes, it is a serious compulsion that cannot be helped--and it would be pretty tiring to say no. I never got upset if friends and family wanted to touch my big fat belly, I mean pregnant women compulsively touch their own bellies all the time, and sometimes that is annoying to watch. I think we gotta just let it go sometimes. I honestly think it has to do w/ women's body image--i mean if we were not pregnant, we would die if someone touched our belly--thinking of it being fat or jiggly or bloated or whatever--so perhaps it is feelings remnant from that, but when I was pregnant, it was the only time my belly didn't shake to the touch, so i loved if anyone felt me up!


I think there are some communities where it's considered good luck to touch the belly or a blessing or something. I would never ask to touch someone's belly, though, frankly it seems sort of a creepy thing to do. However, given the whole social convention deal I'd be equally uncomfortable saying flat out no. I like the "Oh sorry, that makes me vomit" approach. Surefire and everyone saves face.

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