The Sexist

My Body Is Not Defined By Pregnancy

"The Belly Project" has been hailed as "sad, beautiful, empowering, overwhelming." I'll add another: problematic.

The product of sex educator Karen Rayne and midwife Christy Tashjian, the blog records user-submitted photos of women's disembodied bellies, accompanied by the belly's age and reproductive history. The point of the blog, the creators write, is to "put our bellies in perspective," as bellies are "intimately related our sexuality and to our reproductive lives. It's a complicated interaction, that confluence of sex and babies."

A typical submission looks something like this:

It is complicated, that "confluence of sex and babies." My midsection's ability to create proto-humans is something I have to fight against every fucking day. Getting a birth control prescription. Paying for it. Taking it every day. Wondering if I'm pregnant. Buying pregnancy tests. Defending why I don't want children. Swallowing painkillers for my ovaries. Bleeding out of my vagina. Dealing with CVS while bleeding out of my vagina.

Being able to make babies sucks. But I do a lot of other things with my belly, too. I fill it with tacos. I lay on it. I put beer in it. I do the odd sit-up. I bend it over when I bike to work. Most of the time, though, it just sits above my legs and under my boobs as I type on the computer all day, and I never think about the thing.

This is not a perspective on the belly supported by the Belly Project:

I understand the point here: Women's bellies are expected to be both sexual objects and reproductive agents, it's a huge bitch to strattle that fence. I don't want to deal with satisfying either of those unattainables. I'm about as interested in defining my body by abortion, c-section, and "horrible vaginal birth" as I am by a hotness rating. At some point, belly after belly after belly, the blog becomes—excuse the pun—unstomachable.

Many Belly Project submissions are detailed to the point of absurdity. One belly includes this identifying information: "32 years old, 1 pregnancy (0 babies, 1 abortion), currently ovulating when this picture was taken." Why not also say, "32 years old, 1 pregnancy, just ate a sandwich"? Most problematic to me, though, is how all the belly submissions define their abortions as "pregnancies." In the Belly Project world, a tiny uninvited fetus that you choose to flush out six weeks in is defined in the same way as those nine months a woman spent growing and birthing desired offspring. I understand that some women consider their abortions this way. I would not.

That's what unsettles me about the Belly Project: It defines the female body by the very things I have to struggle every day to not let define me. Age, pregnancy, abortion, and ovulation are important to the Belly Project. Tacos and  biking and careers are not. Maybe, as the project develops, the submissions will diversify. We're not there yet: today, I searched the Belly Project Web site, and couldn't find "None of Your Goddamned Business" anywhere.

Meanwhile, the "Man Belly Project" has begun posting photos of male bellies accompanied by the belly's age, alcohol consumption, and exercise regimen. Honestly, this guy speaks to me more than a reproductive history ever could:

  • Erin

    Wow looks like my dad submitted.

  • Karen Rayne

    Amanda and readers,

    We would be delighted to publish a belly with the heading "Just ate a big sandwich" or "Bike to work daily" and nothing else. What information people want associated with their bellies is expanding, as you've noticed if you've looked through them all. Pushing that boundary sounds fabulous!

    Our submissions seem to come in cohorts: Right now we're in the middle of a bunch of 20-somethings with no pregnancies. For a long while we had only 30-somethings with multiple pregnancies. Feel free to take us out of both paradigms and into a place where people are defining their body by whatever rubric they find most appealing and relevant.

    Choosing to be child-free is frankly a choice I wish more people felt comfortable making. And most women, even those who choose to become mothers, feel that same bothersomeness of fertility. With the exception of about three months I've spent a lot of time since I was 17 working to not become pregnant.

    Karen Rayne

  • Amanda Hess


    Thanks for writing in! Perhaps when I get home I will submit a "23 years old, 6 fried plantains" belly.

    One thing I didn't mention in my post is that I by no means mean to take away from the experiences of women who DO consider their bodies in terms of their reproductive histories. As a woman with a very abbreviated reproductive history, perhaps I can't share in the body-image dynamic. I do hope, however, that if I choose to expand my reproductive repertoire, it doesn't come at the expense of the other ways I use my body.

    A simple "35 years old, lawyer" might tell us as much about body-image expectations as a pregnancy history---I hope some women decide to contextualize themselves that way, too!