It can happen anywhere. At a restaurant, in the checkout line, in an elevator. You’re minding your own business ― and bam, a stranger asks you a question that stops you in your tracks. For me, it happened at the airport on Memorial Day weekend when my husband, 1-year-old daughter and I were flying home from visiting family.
The security line was one of the shortest I’d ever seen, so I thought we’d get through it in a breeze. But just as I was carrying my daughter through the metal detector, a Transportation Security Administration officer came up to tell me they had finished swabbing our stroller and it had set off the machine, so they would need to pat one of us down and search our belongings.
I was already through and had set my daughter in her stroller, while my husband gathered our things, so a TSA agent, a middle-aged woman with wide glasses and Farrah Fawcett hair, said she could pat me down. My daughter was crying at this point, so she offered to turn her around in the stroller to face me.
She explained what she would do and I nodded along. I had done this before when I was pregnant with my daughter and volunteered to be patted down instead of going through the X-ray machines. She began to make small talk as she swiped the back of her hands across my arms, the inside of my legs and along my back.
“What a cute baby,” she said. “Thanks,” I replied, calling my daughter’s name to try to get her to calm down. Then, as the woman stroked her hand against the waistband of my yoga pants and across my belly, she said, “Is there another one in there?”
Suddenly the noise and lights around us seemed to dim. I couldn’t believe she just asked if I was pregnant. I laughed nervously, shocked.
“Nope, just the rest of the first one,” I said sarcastically.
“Oh, I know, it took me forever to lose the baby weight,” she replied.
What? Did I hear this correctly? Did a perfect stranger just assume that I was pregnant and then, when I said no, assume I was trying to lose the weight she felt that I carried?
Here’s the thing, it’s never OK to make comments about women’s bodies. But it was even worse coming from a stranger who was touching my body.
“What? Did I hear this correctly? Did a perfect stranger just assume that I was pregnant and then, when I said no, assume I was trying to lose the weight she felt that I carried?”
What if I was pregnant, but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet? What if I had just had a miscarriage and couldn’t bring myself to speak about my swollen belly without crying? What if I had been trying to get pregnant for several years and my belly was puffy from month after month of infertility shots and drugs? What if my daughter was adopted and that “baby weight” was from a few extra desserts I had over the holiday weekend?
It’s none of your business. Let me repeat that with more emphasis. IT’S. NONE. OF. YOUR. BUSINESS. Small talk should not include comments about a women’s body, and it especially should never make assumptions about a women’s body.
What I would have liked to tell this TSA agent was: No, I’m not pregnant, and no, I’m not trying to lose weight right now. I am trying to take care of myself amid the stress of new parenthood and start providing my daughter with a decent example of healthy body image. I feel amazing.
There is no simple response to a question about my body ― because any question about it is a loaded one. Here is the truth strangers don’t know: My body has endured infertility drugs, carried a beautiful 10-pound baby to 41-and-a-half weeks of pregnancy, survived 48 hours of labor, four hours of pushing, a cesarean section surgery and slow recovery. I feel like a warrior.
Yes, I choose to wear a one-piece swimsuit because my deflated tummy still sags over my C-section scar, but that scar is a memory of my daughter’s entry into this world. My body is strong and beautiful in my eyes. And it’s beautiful in my daughter’s eyes too.
Every day my body lifts my child up, carries her through this world, feeds her when she’s hungry and rocks her when she cries. It is a sacred home, a resting place, a vessel that brought life into this world, and possibly will bring another life into this world if and when I decide. You, stranger, have no say in this.
Many friends I have talked to say they have experienced similar encounters with strangers. But this was the first time I had, and I was flabbergasted. What I should have done was look that woman in the eyes and said, “I can’t believe you just said that” to regain my thoughts. I obviously have many. But instead, I laughed a nervous laugh at how outrageous it sounded coming out of her mouth.
“When is it ever OK to ask a woman if she’s pregnant? Let me answer that for you: NEVER. If a woman is pregnant and wants to discuss it with strangers, she will. That is her choice.”
I was ready to get out of there quickly and find our departure gate. So we left and found a place to put our shoes back on at a bench nearby. I told my husband later what she had said and he was as floored and immediately as angry as I was in that moment.
I know what this woman was trying to do. She saw I was uncomfortable with the situation and she was trying to make me feel less so by making — what she thought was — small talk. I know she meant no malice. Probably neither did countless others who open their mouths to ask women this question every day around the world. But let me suggest some popular topics appropriate for small talk: the weather, vacation plans, favorite sports teams, the brand of my shoes ... the list goes on.
When is it ever OK to ask a woman if she’s pregnant? Let me answer that for you: NEVER. If a woman is pregnant and wants to discuss it with strangers, she will. That is her choice. Not yours. Let’s stop using women’s bodies in small talk. The only thing small about it is small-minded.
Tori Masucci Cummins is the former digital editor of Sactown magazine and now a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom. You can follow her adventures in writing and embroidery on Twitter and Instagram @toriucci.