A few weeks back I was with a familiar orchestra in a familiar hall, a place in which I have spent so much time that many of the ushers know me by name. One early evening, before the doors were open, I was walking the corridors around the hall where ushers were stacking program books and preparing for the audience to arrive (side note – it gives me such immense pleasure to say that – that the audience is arriving – for me it’s a tangible indication that the live music industry is coming back!).
An usher approached, an older man, and his face lit up when he recognized me. Coming right up to me, he asked, “How is your pregnancy going? I hear you were expecting. You don’t look pregnant though.”
There is so much here to process that I’m not sure where to begin, and for a moment I was frozen, uncertain as how to even respond to these comments. First of all, my childbearing years are well behind me and a pregnancy would be a freak of nature or a miracle of modern science. Second of all, what the fuck?
As it was, I told him that I wasn’t expecting, and asked him where he heard this “information”; he indicated that a rumor had been passed around the front of house staff.
To say that women’s bodies are constantly objectified is a statement of the obvious, and I wish this topic would stop cropping up in my professional life. As a public figure, I understand that I give up some of my privacy, and just by the act of standing onstage or posting pictures or attending events or being on widely distributed videos, I’m set up for a certain amount of scrutiny.
But I think that broaching the topic of possible pregnancy totally crosses the line. First of all, that is a private matter for any woman, and none of everyone’s business. My friends with kids tell horror stories about people in elevators wanting to touch their pregnancy bumps, as if a fertile woman somehow belongs to everyone. Second, it is a direct comment on not only fertility but also appearance, and if someone asks if one is pregnant when one is not, one can only wonder if they might have put on a little lockdown weight (I did not, but even if I did, it is absolutely no-one’s business).
The corollary to the pregnancy query is the truly awful “You look great, did you lose weight?”. First of all, unless one was morbidly obese and weight loss presented a tangible improvement in health, this question it totally inappropriate. At best, it’s a backhanded compliment that implies that one didn’t look good before. In truth, it’s a passive-aggressive insult.
Then there is the generic “You’re a beautiful woman” (acceptable from a significant other but not from a stranger). I realize that many view this as a compliment, or a statement of fact. What could possibly be wrong with telling someone they’re attractive? Let me explain. Commenting on a woman’s face or body, indicates that one is judging a woman by her face and body. It says that the face and body are things to be gazed upon and are appropriate topics for commentary. It tells us that those things that have nothing to do with a woman’s intelligence or compassion or talent or power are worthy of discussion. Commenting on beauty is meaningless – you’re basically saying that the genetic material one was born with has yielded a countenance and entity that is somehow requiring praise. We didn’t choose that genetic material. That had absolutely nothing to do with us, who we actually are.
Well, I take some of that beauty-talk back. I think it’s perfectly fine to comment on the individual choices a woman makes about her appearance. “What a fabulous outfit, I love that you added those statement bracelets”, “Your makeup is fire! How do you get the color of that lipstick so saturated?”, “Did you change your hair color? It looks more red. It’s beautiful”, “Those are amazing heels!” (I get that a lot).
These are choices women make about how they present themselves, how they express themselves, how they have developed their sense of style. If you like it, by all means appreciate the fashion choices or the new haircut. It’s an acknowledgement of those individual choices, it’s what a woman does and not what she is.
We live in a visual society that is obsessed with appearance and a beauty and fitness and diet industry that prey on women’s insecurities about their bodies, an insecurity built from scrutiny, objectification and the impossible beauty standards of airbrushed and photoshopped perfection. We don’t want to be known, to be ogled, to be judged by our bodies. They are merely the vessels that contain the passionate and bright and funny and loving and brilliant humans that we are. A comment about our attributes and accomplishments is always welcome. Please leave our bodies to ourselves.