Serena Williams’ Photo Backlash Is a Sad Reminder That Pregnancy Body-Shaming Still Exists

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Fact: Pregnancy is related to sex and the naked female body. So, why are women being shamed for connecting to their innate sexiness and showing off their bare bellies?

Serena Williams recently appeared pregnant and nearly nude on the cover of Vanity Fair. Her beautiful image made me proud to be a woman, causing words like empowerment, courage, and goddess to float through my mind. But for others, words like “disgusting” and “trashy” floated from their minds and onto the internet, contributing to a disappointing trend of body-shaming pregnant woman who publicly display their pregnant form.

It’s not just celebrities who are being told to put their bare bellies away. When I was eight months pregnant, I went to the beach in a two-piece, trying to survive the triple digit temperature of the day. As soon as I plunked down into a beach chair, a woman rolled up to me and said, “Ma’am, please cover your belly. There are children at this beach.” I didn’t cover my belly.

I also recently received a tearful call from a pregnant girlfriend who had received negative comments from her in-law’s friends telling her the exposed-belly photos she had been posting on Facebook were “shameful.” She took them down.

Enough with the chastising.

Feeling sexy is one of the most powerful ways for a woman to connect with her body before birth. Feeling safe to exude that sexiness to the world is a pregnant woman’s right.

In my childbirth preparation classes, I give women the homework of standing in front of their mirror naked and examining their body until they feel comfortable and in love with what they see. And sure, we all have flaws we would like to tweak, but the goal is for them to accept their whole being — flaws and all — because that whole being is what’s allowing them to produce new life.

In the childbirth preparation class that follows, the pregnant women often report a heightened intimacy with their body and senses, and even greater sense of desire for their partner. This connection to their body, senses, and partner allows them to be more in tune with their needs during labor and more receptive to their partner’s support.

Even though this tapestry of intimacy and sexiness should be one of the most natural aspects of pregnancy, there’s an element of our culture that stills believes women should suppress all forms of sensual expression immediately after conception. This cultural restriction not only causes pregnant women to feel embarrassed about their growing form, but disconnected from the experience, fearful to craft their own journey though pregnancy and into motherhood. Women shouldn’t have to feel as though they need to hop into the “box of appropriateness” in order to feel supported.

To begin dissolving this restrictive trend and empower women to choose how they process and present their pregnancy, I offer the follow strategies to the women in my childbirth preparation classes:

1. Get clear on how you want to express yourself.

Are you someone who loves to show off your belly and curves? Are you more private, preferring only to present your belly to your partner? Whatever your answer is, it’s right – as long as you feel good with it. We all have different levels of comfort and preferences for expression. Each individual should be encouraged to share themselves in whatever way makes them feel most connected to their true self.

You may want to snap and post gorgeous photos of your bare belly, or blog about all the crazy thoughts and desires you have during pregnancy. Then again, you might be happy skipping the photos and keeping a private journal. As long as you feel like you’re staying authentic to you, you’re doing great.

2. Have your go-to responses for judgment.

Regardless of how you present your pregnancy, there will be someone happy to serve up a slice of judgment. When that verbal or digital judgment comes, have your go-to response prepared so you don’t have to expend too much energy on the negativity.

Maybe your preferred response is to completely ignore the comment, or maybe you’ll say, “You have the right to your opinion, and I have a right to mine. We’ll agree to disagree.”

3. Practice regular self-love.

No matter what is being slung at you from others, you always have the right to love yourself as you are. To stay full of the love stuff (so there’s no room left for criticism), practice the “naked mirror exercise” outlined above. You can also journal, have sex, get a massage, do a sexy maternity shoot, or say yes to anything else that makes you feel nurtured – you deserve it!

(And, if you happen to post a photo of your belly in all its glory, I’ll be sure to comment with a barrage of big heart emojis.)

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