Wendy Besel Hahn
Where the Sexual Meets the Sacred
i reclined on the obstetrician’s examination table and stared at my exposed stomach. My white skin was taut, but soft. Weeks earlier I had announced my pregnancy to my colleagues and my students, seventeen-year-olds in my junior-level English classes. Since that time my department chair had taken to cheerfully greeting me each morning, making eye contact, and quickly lowering her gaze to assess my “progress.” A male student in my eighth period class had blurted out, “Mrs. Hahn, you didn’t look pregnant before break—what happened?” Weeks later, a female student had whispered, “I can see your belly today.” She smiled so hard that she squinted. I tried not to feel insulted by the attention—it wasn’t my glowing personality or wit that garnered these outpourings.
As the doctor looked at my chart, I thought of the maternity clothing catalog. Its bikini-clad swimsuit models reminded me of Vanity Fair’s August 1991 cover picturing Demi Moore in a scandalous combination—pregnant and nude. In the photograph, she stood nearly in profile, partially covering the breast closest to the camera with her left hand to show off an enormous diamond ring on her middle finger. Her right hand cupped the underside of her belly as her eyes looked away, revealing three-quarters of her face. The lighting emphasized her pregnant abdomen, perfectly smooth and free of stretch marks. She looked incredibly sensual, a modern-day twist on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. On first viewing the magazine cover over ten years earlier, I had judged it critically; it hadn’t seemed appropriate to depict the pregnant form as sexy. Yet it had become an image to emulate in American culture. I hadn’t ordered a bikini for the upcoming summer months, but I diligently applied cocoa butter to my growing appendage daily to keep my options open.
After asking about the baby’s movements, my doctor produced a tape measure. She must have seen the face I made, the same involuntarily wrinkling of my nose that happened as the nurse adjusted the scale at each visit, because she smiled.
“Just remember that you are a walking miracle,” she instructed as she stretched the tape measure from my pubic bone to my navel.
I smiled blankly at her, unsure of how to take that remark. Several million “walking miracles” inhabited the planet with me, contributing to overpopulation. My major life accomplishment seemed to be getting knocked up.
While I fastened my pants, I thought about our high school’s upcoming commencement for our graduating seniors, at least two of whom were pregnant also. Did their doctors call them walking miracles at their visits? I had a license to breed on my ring finger and had reached a respectable age; therefore, I received congratulations.
Despite my cynicism, I had felt like a walking miracle at times. In the early morning or late at night, while I sat still, I felt the flutter of something moving deep inside me. My uterus was an opaque fish bowl containing a tiny fetus that occasionally bumped up against the glass so I could feel her. For several weeks, my husband Pete placed his hand on my belly without feeling the movement. These quickenings were private moments, like kneeling to pray in an empty sanctuary; I was the only one who could detect the amazing communication from within.
In Biblical times pregnancy was a sign of God’s favor, and barrenness, conversely, a curse in response to some wrongdoing. The Old and New Testaments each contain a story about God intervening to bless a husband and wife who are well beyond their childbearing years. In Genesis, Abraham becomes the father of all nations when his elderly wife Sarah bears a son, Isaac. In the Gospel of Luke, the Angel Gabriel announces Elizabeth’s pregnancy to Zechariah while he works in the temple. In their old age, husband and wife become parents to John the Baptist, who prepares the way for Christ.
The Virgin Mary receives a similar visit from an angel who explains that God has found favor with her and wants her to carry the Messiah. When Mary questions how this could happen to a virgin, the angel responds, “‘The Holy Spirit’ will come upon you, and the Power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35 NIV). This divine conception is a spiritual rather than sexual experience. Interpreted literally, these stories describe miraculous births.
Although the Biblical account of the Visitation, found in the Gospel of Luke 1:39-45, has Mary only three months pregnant at the time, many painters have exaggerated her swollen abdomen to make her look further along, closer in shape to her cousin Elizabeth who is at least six months pregnant with John the Baptist. These works of art commonly depict the sacredness of pregnancy with halos around the women’s heads or the placement of hands on one another’s extended abdomens. The women are typically located at the center of a scene, sometimes with men pictured off to the sides.
A reverence for pregnant women predates the Bible. Archaeologists have discovered statues of women with swollen bellies alongside prehistoric remains throughout Europe and Asia Minor dating back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. These icons represent the origin of all life: sexuality and spirituality united in the pregnant form.
I never did get used to grown men calling me “mama” during my pregnancy. These were not construction workers yelling “hey, sexy mama,” but rather, men with graduate degrees who were old enough to be my father using what they perceived to be a term of endearment. “How’s the mama doing today?” one male colleague inquired. With another, the talk of my pregnancy took on a more sexual tone.
“You’re looking very ripe today, Mama,” John commented, as he sipped from his coffee cup in the teacher’s lounge. My cheeks felt hot as I noticed his gaze fixed on my cleavage.
“Pete thinks I’m getting that pregnancy glow.”
“Oh yeah, I can see it in your cheeks. You’re radiating.” He smiled and held the door to the faculty lounge open for me.
“I’ll be radiating all over the place by June,” I quipped.
Strangely, I did feel sexy for awhile during my second trimester. It seemed odd to feel desirable. I could remember cringing as a teenager when my pregnant religion teacher informed our all-female class that it was possible and even pleasurable to have sex during pregnancy. I would never divulge such personal information to my students, yet I understood how being pregnant could make a woman feel confident and daring while still safe. My body testified to my sexual experience, inviting a sort of eroticism at the same time it was supposed to symbolize something miraculous and pure.
An Episcopal priest once told me how strange she had felt celebrating the Eucharist while pregnant. She could never shake the suspicion that the members of her congregation were staring at her, thinking, “She had sex.” Aside from the Biblical exceptions, pregnancy attests to sexual intercourse. Sexuality and spirituality remain problematic even in contemporary Christianity.
According to a Platonic view of the world in which the body and the soul were separate and competing entities, women were thought to be more susceptible to bodily appetites than men. Yet our culture had reversed these roles somewhere, making the male libido acceptable and celebrated, while women were assigned one of two roles: temptress or virgin. As a pregnant woman living in the twenty-first century, I could, at least for a few months, feel like both.
Being pregnant during my third trimester was far removed from the glamorous Vanity Fair cover. My stomach changed shape as the fetus kicked or moved. In adhering to fashion of the day, I wore more tailored clothes that sometimes made my belly button look like a doorbell waiting to be pushed. I bumped into desks in my classroom when I miscalculated how big I was and got chalk on my belly from brushing up against blackboards. Although the cocoa butter, or maybe great genes, warded off stretch marks, I never did work up the nerve to parade around at the pool in a bikini.
Although I felt clumsy in my own body, people seemed drawn to me. A woman at church gave my stomach a “Buddha rub” for good luck. A neighbor’s mother apologized for placing her hand on my stomach when I recoiled at the touch. While I wore increasingly larger necklaces to draw attention upward, I felt the gaze of men, women, and children focused on my protruding belly.
Supermarket tabloids have long used protruding bellies to garner readership. In 2002 the disappearance of Laci Peterson, then eight-months pregnant, captured national headlines. A picture of her wearing a sleeveless, crimson dress that accentuated her pregnant form appeared in the media long after her body washed ashore in California and her husband was captured and convicted. Somehow, her pregnancy made her murder all the more tragic, as if hope and goodwill for the future had been extinguished in her form.
It would be easy to dismiss her murder as the work of a psychopath; instead, her case highlighted an alarming trend. A variety of sources attribute twenty to twenty-five percent of deaths for pregnant women to homicide, with the father as the most likely suspect.
Would-be-fathers who murder their pregnant wives are not the first to view the pregnant form or women’s reproductive capabilities as something sinister and threatening. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, viewed women’s wombs as the source of disease, able to travel throughout a woman’s body creating instability. Hysteria (wandering of the womb) became a malady attributed to many female patients. Medieval scientists who rarely conducted autopsies, especially on pregnant women, believed that the womb was permeable. Barbara Duden, a seventeenth century doctor, regarded the female body as fluid¹.
Three years after giving birth to my daughter, I succumbed to a fascination with the pregnant form as I sat in my friend Karen’s living room surrounded by pink and blue streamers watching her open gifts. Toward the end of her shower, she stood up to let us inspect her physique and offer our guesses about the baby’s sex. I thought about the card I had selected for her depicting a cartoon pregnant woman standing in profile. Actually, it wasn’t a woman—just a headless, legless, pregnant torso whose curve formed the edge of the card’s front. The inside read, “Some miracles happen instantly, others take nine months.” Rather than conveying a saccharine sentiment, I intended the card as a parody. I hoped that Karen would have a sense of humor about it, and that she knew me well enough to realize I found the attention that a pregnant belly received rather bizarre and insulting. As I watched Karen model her form, I couldn’t tell whether she genuinely enjoyed the attention or did it to mock people’s propensity to look.
As I studied her profile, I thought about my other friend Elaine, whose doctor had told her she could never carry a child. Her baby was due the same day as Karen’s, except her son resided in the womb of another woman who lived a thousand miles away. That card with the pregnant torso would have been entirely inappropriate for Elaine. Yet her situation seemed far more miraculous.
Several of the guests at Elaine’s shower were former colleagues she hadn’t seen recently. They had arrived in my living room anticipating the sight of a swollen stomach, but politely refrained from asking questions until Elaine brought up the subject of her surrogate. As the host of the shower, I hung back and watched Elaine expertly educate them. She explained that doctors had used her egg and her husband’s sperm to create the embryo that they then implanted in another woman’s uterus.
For several years, I had talked with Elaine about all of her options for having children. International adoption had become a costly and uncertain proposition that often put prospective parents at the mercy of corrupt government officials or changing political attitudes toward Americans. I had watched my friend, an intensely private person, cry on numerous occasions as she relayed details of failed IVF cycles. Even though we were extremely close, Elaine had approached me cautiously about her decision to try surrogacy, afraid I might disapprove.
Once the process was underway, she had shared that her surrogate suffered from migraine headaches pregnancy alleviated. From Elaine, I had learned that participation from all parties involved a complicated legal agreement. When I mistakenly used the term “birth mom,” she had patiently taught me new vocabulary: “surrogate.” She understood that even well-intentioned people like me didn’t have a frame of reference for this new process of motherhood. The year Elaine and her husband began their journey to parenthood, an estimated 2,000 babies were born to surrogates in the United States. I admired her not only for doing something that society and certainly her Catholic faith did not readily accept, but also for having the patience and confidence to explain to a roomful of people how surrogacy worked.
How different it was to watch her sit on a couch and open gifts without an enlarged stomach to monopolize her lap or the conversation. Her impending motherhood was abstract, leaving me to think about a pregnant woman somewhere acting as the incubator. This married mother of two teenage children was experiencing pregnancy without preparing for motherhood. Elaine had assured me that the fear of this woman becoming attached to the baby was unfounded; the surrogate had done this several times before. Yet I wondered how it felt to have someone else’s fetus pushing against her uterus. Certainly it didn’t physically feel any different than what I had experienced, but I wondered if there were some psychological ramifications in parting with a baby who had shared her body for nine months. As a woman who had experienced the public response to pregnant women, I could imagine strangers approaching her in public to ask her when her baby was due. How would they respond if she told them that the baby wasn’t hers?
Once Elaine concluded her explanation, one guest commented on how lucky she was not to experience morning sickness, labor, and delivery. Elaine smiled and went along with the remark. She had received similar congratulation for not getting stretch marks or droopy breasts. People who tried to emphasize the negatives of pregnancy intended to make her inability to carry a child into a positive; they meant well. Yet they knew, as Elaine and I did, that she had missed out on experiencing certain facets of the miraculous. Even so, Elaine and her husband would have a biological child—something that would have been impossible a decade earlier.
I was nearly three months pregnant with my son when I went to an Annie Leibovitz exhibit. Next to the portrait of Demi Moore that had graced the cover of Vanity Fair hung a plaque explaining that the actress had been pregnant with her second child during the shoot. The nude photographs had been initially intended for her and her then-husband, Bruce Willis. Leibovitz had convinced the couple to allow her to use the photograph for a cover, forever committing Demi’s pregnant form to the public domain.
Across the room, I found a photograph of a pregnant woman’s nude torso. Leibovitz had shot the image with the model facing the camera. A pair of hands intertwined over the woman’s stomach clearly belonged to a man with a wedding band who had stood behind the model, embracing her. The plaque explained that this was Demi Moore with Bruce Willis. The work had a much more intimate feel than the famous magazine cover; it more closely resembled the candid portraits that Leibovitz had captured of her family members and partner, Susan Sontag. While Moore and Willis were posing, this posture seemed natural. Moore exposed her nipples and let her plentiful breasts repose. The image’s beauty had less to do with Moore’s amazing physique and did not even include her attractive face or sleek, short haircut. Everything about the photograph made it more accessible and less glamorous than the Vanity Fair cover. Pete and I might have been that faceless couple captured in black and white for an instant. Yet I found myself retreating from the image rather than studying it. Viewing it felt slightly voyeuristic—as if I had caught a glimpse of some private moment through partially opened window blinds.
In the museum’s gift shop, I found a post card with a replica of Demi Moore’s Vanity Fair cover. I looked in vain for the second image—the pregnant torso unadorned. I admired the woman in that second photograph, who was comfortable in her body. It reminded me of a pagan goddess statue and my own body’s impending transformation.
I debated purchasing the Vanity Fair cover postcard, but finally did so knowing that the iconic image would forever evoke its companion. Together, they constituted a complete image.
¹ Kukla, Rebecca. “Introduction: Impressionable Bodies.” Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies. Landham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
Wendy Besel Hahn remembers a front porch of her youth: “As an eight year old, I never thought I’d find a better front porch than the one at my grandparents’ house in Grand Junction, Colorado. It faced east, receiving the first sun of the day. I’d sit on a weathered, wooden bench that looked more like a church pew than outdoor furniture and gaze longingly at the cherry trees that yielded beautiful, purple-red fruit during summer months. Two thousand miles away and thirty years later, I sit in an Adirondack chair at my home in Reston, Virginia. My husband sits next to me on the front porch, as we sip wine and watch our two children climb a Japanese maple tree at the edge of our yard.”