Performing Pregnancy As A Black Woman

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A reflection by Women’s center staff member, Kayla Smith.

 

Full disclosure: I’m a Beyonce stan. I support pretty much everything she does. There are very few things Beyonce can do that I wouldn’t damn near worship. Needless to say when she released pictures from her maternity shoot I was ready to bow down.

 

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Beyonce’s pregnancy announcement on Instagram

I scrolled through her website looking at all the maternity pictures in awe. The symbolism of a black woman evoking the Virgin Mary and the goddess Venus was not lost on me as I looked through the pictures feeling overjoyed for her and hopeful for my own future. She looked regal and glowed  with pride. This pregnancy announcement was radically different from her first, and was shrouded in much less mystery. I was reminded that in 2015 Beyonce suffered a miscarriage and I was so happy that she could announce another pregnancy with confidence. I even lamented to my boyfriend hoping that I would be as beautiful as Beyonce whenever I decide to have kids.

 

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Beyonce as the Goddess Venus, pictured with a bust of Nefertiti.

To my surprise, outside of the BeyHive bubble, not everyone responded to the maternity shoot in the same way I did. Comment threads are filled with comments that call the maternity shoot “tacky,” “extra,” and “self absorbed.” Articles were written criticizing not just the image, but Beyonce and the announcement itself.

I can understand criticism, and I’m sure Bey can handle it. But one article in particular really felt like something was off. The author calls the Instragram picture “a brave woman who has the optimism to kneel down in front of a million flowers, get their wedding veil back on again, and know that bar the bump, the rest of their body is in perfect condition. People, this is not what pregnancy looks like.” A stranger, telling the public that Beyonce’s actual pregnancy isn’t what a pregnancy looks like. The author invalidates the actual pregnant woman, who is controlling her exposure and the narrative surrounding her pregnancy, by saying that, because it doesn’t look the way she expects pregnancy to look, it isn’t valid. In the days following the announcement I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of reading more and more articles criticizing Beyonce and her announcement. My excitement for her began to fade, and I wondered if maybe she should have avoided the criticism all together by being less flashy, or less “extra.”

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Beyonce being pregnant on a car. I’m not sure why, but I’m here for it.

I started to think about women who hide their pregnancies in order to avoid backlash from their employers and peers and the expectations thrust onto women about the proper way to compose themselves during their pregnancies and once they become mothers. In 2016, when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave birth to her child, she didn’t tell anyone when she was pregnant because she didn’t want to “perform pregnancy.” She’s quoted saying, “I just feel like we live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy. We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood. I went into hiding. I wanted it to be as personal as possible.” Knowles-Carter and Adichie are both controlling the narrative around how much access the public has to their pregnancies.

I know I’m not nearly as famous as Beyonce or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so I’m probably not going to have any articles written about me whenever I get pregnant, but I will still be a black woman carrying a child in a society where people feel entitled to comment on a woman’s appearance and police how she carries herself. Black women are not only harshly criticized for their appearance, we are also subjected to racist perceptions around black pregnancy. There is the assumption that black women are someone’s “baby mama” or that the pregnancy was an accident. Black women are not afforded the same respect as other women when they decide to bear children.

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Beyonce and her first child Blue.

I still have a lot of life to live before I have children, but in the digital age I wonder about what my own pregnancy announcement will look like, if I have one at all. Would I be willing to weather the storm of criticisms thrown at me or would I be more private? I often wonder what kind of mom I will be on social media. Will I be Beyonce, performing pregnancy from the day of my pregnancy announcement to the child’s birth or will I be Adichie, and keep the public away from the very personal and miraculous process that is pregnancy?

Two years ago, when I decided I wanted to have kids one day, I fantasized about telling anyone who would listen about my pregnancy; however, after seeing the backlash women of color face online it’s easy to understand why it would be tempting to keep a pregnancy quiet altogether.

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Beyonce being flawless during her Grammy’s performance.

This is where I come back to Beyonce. Instead of covering her pregnant belly up when she performed at the Grammys, she evoked the image of a Nigerian fertility goddess. She performed covered in gold and jewels, literally beaming like the sun. She took every criticism about being over the top and threw it all right back at her critics.

Women of color are already told how to act, how to sound, how to dress, and how to treat other people;however, like Beyonce, I refuse to let society tell me how to carry a child.

 

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