By Karly Stilling
All images used in this article are in the public domain and are sourced from Wikipedia.
Trigger warning: this article contains references to stories of sexual assault.
Back in January, before the world changed, I wrote about trying to love my body.
I have a confession, I admitted, I weigh more now than I ever have in my entire life and trying not to care about that fact is one of the hardest and most radical things I’ve ever tried to do.
A lot has changed since then—including a pandemic that forced my world into lockdown and the fight for racial justice that’s shot to the front of public consciousness.
In lockdown and through London’s gradual reopening, my expectations of my world and myself have shrunk. I’ve stopped paying attention to my body in the same way. I still dress the same for work every day, but now I know that what I always said is actually true, that my interest in fashion actually is purely for myself. My one concession to life indoors is that I stopped wearing eyeliner, and I don’t miss it. I’m healthy, and I’m grateful for my healthy body every day.
As I’ve watched the US struggle to reckon with the deep inequities that drive racial violence and police brutality, and my gratitude for my own body has deepened. I feel sorrow for those who experience the world differently than I do, who live in fear because of the colour of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the kink in their hair. My body is a white, heteronormative body. I fit in, and I did nothing to deserve it. That sorrow I feel, it goes hand-in-hand with gratitude.
Is that terrible, to feel grateful that I don’t suffer like others do? I wonder. But I know that my discomfort is part of reckoning with my own privilege so I am doing it quietly, privately. I only write of it now because it’s part of how my relationship to my body is changing.
And there’s something else that’s changed, something that has made me see my body in a completely new way: I got pregnant.
My body has taken to pregnancy like it’s what it was designed to do. I am now inhabiting a strange space that is shifting everything I’ve been conditioned to think about my physical self.
Pregnant bodies walk a strange line between sexuality and maternity. A visible baby bump is both the ultimate signal of sexuality—visual proof that yes, this person has had sex! she is fertile!—and a comforting sign of motherhood. Baby bumps are cute, adorable. People want to touch them (I hear, COVID-19 has saved me from that so far), strangers will ask about your due date, comment on your size. That much doesn’t change—people still feel the urge to comment on a body that reads as female, but the comments are different. Less threatening, more conversational (but still objectifying).
Pregnant bodies are sexual, but not threatening. They’re not out to get your man—they’ve got their own. They can be admired without being pursued—they already belong to a man. Of course that’s bullshit, but that’s the message we get.
A few weeks ago, my partner and I went to the newly-reopened Titian: Love, Desire, Death exhibit at the National Gallery. With masks on and freshly sanitised hands, we followed the one-way route through the Italian Renaissance painter’s six paintings that form his Poesie series. Based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the paintings depict scenes from classical myths such as the Rape of Europa, in which Europa is carried off by Jupiter disguised as a bull, and Diana and Callisto, in which Diana shuns the nymph Callisto for falling pregnant after being raped.
The series is dramatic, full of violence wrought upon female bodies—I was particularly affected by the fate of poor, pregnant Callisto. But the paintings are also incredibly beautiful. They feature fulsome nudes, glowing white and pink torsos with lots of jiggling female flesh. They are both erotic, innocent, and distressing.
Stopping in front of the painting Danaë, which depicts the princess Danaë reclining on a settee while the god Jupiter impregnates her through a skylight via a shower of golden droplets, my partner commented that she has a belly like mine. He’s right; it’s soft and full, with a little sag, and I looked at it thinking how beautiful it was.
Six months ago, I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction. I don’t know if it’s because this was the first art I’ve seen since lockdown, or because of the way I experience my body is changing, but I looked at all these women—at their fleshy, dimpled bums and rounded, nearly pre-pubescent breasts—and all I could think was how innocent they all looked.
Now the fullness in my own belly pleases me. I’m on the verge of visible pregnancy—people who know me will notice it, but to a stranger I could still just be a bit paunchy. The difference now is that I don’t suck it in (I couldn’t if I tried), and I don’t try to hide it with my clothes. I wear what feels comfortable, and I love my paunchy little bump. I am amazed that my body can do this, create another life. As a person in her mid-thirties with severe endometriosis, I had my doubts—but here my baby is, growing in my belly, showing its little face on the ultrasound screen. It feels like magic. It feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Before we left the National Gallery, we stopped to look at one of my partner’s favourite paintings: Rubens’s Samson and Delilah. It depicts Delilah’s betrayal of Samson, ‘distracting’ him with her body so that his enemy can snip his hair, the source of his strength.
My partner loves the painting because of the figure of Samson, looking utterly spent and satisfied. He gets a kick out of such a steamy, intimate portrayal of a religious story that’s meant to be about the dangers of lust. Sure, Samson’s lost his strength, but he doesn’t seem too fussed about it.
Personally, I’ve always liked the tender look on Delilah’s face as she strokes Samson’s back. If you can block out everything in the background, they could be any couple. But there is also something sinister about it: the crowd of onlookers make the moment a spectacle, and Delilah’s breasts are vividly on display.
It’s a beautiful painting, but it’s not a nice painting.
Classical art is often accused of objectifying the female form—and it does, copiously. You only have to count the number of naked females bodies to naked male bodies in any gallery to see the glaring disparity. But for all the nubile maidens frolicking on gallery walls, there are very few matrons or pregnant bodies. Take away the Virgin Mary and there are almost none.
Except poor, pregnant Callisto, of course. Her story is particularly tragic. Not only has she been raped and impregnated by the god Jupiter against her will, but it’s her own female cohorts who expose her pregnancy to Diana. And because Diana insists on celibacy among her followers, Callisto is expelled from the group. Not only is Callisto’s body the site of violence wrought by a man, it’s also the cause of her rejection by other women, her sisters.
Like many Greco-Roman myths, Callisto’s story doesn’t end particularly happily. She’s cast out of Diana’s group and turned into a bear by jealous Juno, Jupiter’s wife. Years later, she’s nearly killed by her own son while hunting, but Jupiter intervenes at the last minute and sets them both among the stars. Callisto becomes Ursa Major and her son Ursa Minor.
Not the worst outcome for a Roman nymph, but a far cry from a happy motherhood.