I’m pregnant, which means that I’m fatter than I was before, and I’m insisting upon finding this a cause for delight. I’m doing this stubbornly and triumphantly, and I’m not demanding that anyone else do the same, because I know that finding oneself attractive is tied up in a whole complicated network of privileges. But this privilege is one everyone deserves and one I dare to hope that one day everyone will have, and I promise to work toward a world in which this is possible.
So I’m 16 weeks pregnant, and although it’s been weeks since my pants fit, for the first time someone came up to me and congratulated me – though she’d been unsure whether to do so, she said, because I’d been working on my comprehensive exams and she imagined that being holed up all early winter doing that work might make someone look pregnant when not. Luckily, though, I am—which is strange because never in my life did I imagine I would one day be. I grew up not wanting children because I then believed you had to make a choice between children and a rich intellectual life. Then I thought maybe I wanted to adopt. Then I thought I wasn’t sure. Then, last October, I told my partner that I wanted to have a child right now. He asked to think about it for a week and—because there was no way to determine if it was the right choice or not—decided we might as well abandon ourselves to yes. That month we tried, and that month it worked.
Which means that not only does this feel miraculously lucky but it also has the benefit of feeling uncharted. Though obviously others have been pregnant before, I never have been—and because it’s me, it feels to me deliciously oxymoronic—since I’ve never once seen a pregnant woman and thought: maybe one day I will be like that. I have always thought of a pregnant woman as other than me: “Oh, there’s that kind of person, a pregnant one.” Because I’m mixed-race and queer, white-passing and straight-passing, I thought I was familiar with the practice of appearing to myself as my other. But now it feels like that wasn’t, until now, true.
I’ve been wanting to contribute to The Curated Body for a while, but I had been too shy because I know little about fashion. I started talking about fashion with Addie because I wanted to think about finding ways of dressing that might signal to others that I’m queer. I’ve been identifying as femme, but I realize I’ve just done it by default: because I’ve been seen as femme by others, and because I found “femme” a good way to describe my straight-passing queerness. I wanted to learn from Addie about ways of dressing less femme and/but more fashionable, and so she began to give me fashion assignments, and I promised to write about them on here.
Now that queer-dressing assignment is temporarily on hold—or about to transform—because I have a new fashion assignment presented by my changing body, which no longer can really wear my clothes. The most interesting thing about this body is that it is (or soon will be) no longer thin.
Until now I’ve always been thin, by which I mean two things. First, that I have thin privilege: that my body’s always been a conventionally “desirable” size. Second—and this one is rarer and maybe more interesting—that I’ve almost always felt thin. Though there have been exceptions, especially during periods of depression, the fact is undeniable that compared to my friends, even to friends who are objectively thinner, I’ve struggled much less with feelings that my body was too large. When I’ve felt ugly, it’s been for other reasons: my hairy legs and eyebrows and chin, my abundant wrinkles that for some reason other people pretend not to see. The truth is, though, that after age eighteen or so I mostly haven’t felt ugly. When I was a kid I was unpopular, then in an abusive relationship: recipes for “ugly.” But then I went to college, and “unpopular” slid seamlessly into “artsy,” and when I was nineteen I took Intro to Queer Studies and found my people and discovered a magical thing called theory, which emphasized that almost everything about the body was a fiction, especially sexual attractiveness—which suggested to me that if I thought I was hot then I would be, even if I didn’t wear makeup (I was too unpopular ever to learn) or remove my profuse facial hair. And (because I was also young and cis and light-skinned and able-bodied, etc.) it turned out to be true.
And I want to believe that it’s really, really true: that people can be attractive just because they think they are. That—just as Butler argues that gender has no necessary relation to biological or material fact—attractiveness doesn’t either.
Since then it’s always been easy—if inconclusive—for me to assert this with regard to my own body. I’ve decided in the last few years that my sense of myself as attractive has very little to do with how I actually look and much more to do with the messages I got from my mother, a South Indian satellite engineer with a PhD from CalTech. Though she emphasized that it was very important to worry about my grades and about whether I was successful, that success and intellectual achievement were necessary prerequisites for happiness—she never once suggested that my appearance was relevant to anything. For my mother, who also doesn’t know how to wear makeup, appearance—at least this is what she communicated to me as a child—is irrelevant to a woman’s well-being. Looking back, I can’t imagine a more important gift for a mother to give her daughter: the belief that her mind is everything, that it will get her everywhere. Even, it turns out, to a belief in her own beauty.
Case in point—I meant to talk about my body in this post but I am talking about ideas. But now that I’ve written this, maybe in the coming months I’ll write more about style, about the exciting formal constraints of a larger belly, larger breasts, a lack of clothes that fit, a lack of money to buy many more. There’s a really cool used maternity clothes store, ReBlossom, in my town, and on a snow day last week I was bored and drove there, for the first time, over the icy roads, and I bought the clothes that inaugurate this new era: a maternity pencil skirt with a giraffe (I think) print, for example, and flared jeans that are too short, though I’m trying to pretend I want them that way.
I’ve always been sort of reckless and lazy with my style because I’ve been afraid that if I think too much about it I’ll lose my handle on the crucial fictional trick, described above, that allows me to be sexy. But the truth is that I love fashion and want to take part. As I grow more pregnant, and post-pregnant, and after that, as I age, I want to inhabit a fashion that does not disguise the unruly or excessive features of my body—graying hair, profuse hair, wrinkles, stretch marks—but does celebrate its own constructedness.
I’m excited by the prospect of getting larger and being maybe a little fat—because, though I understand that this is not the same situation as possessing a body that is already read as fat—and though I understand that it’s because I possess significant thin privilege that I am excited to become fat—my relationship to fatness has always been one of solidarity, a desire to act in alliance—and allies, we’ve learned, are not the same as comrades. If I can understand myself as beautiful while fat, I somehow think that it’ll be the beginning of more triumph for us all.
Though I’m an unabashedly confessional writer, this feels strangely like the most revealing, embarrassing thing I’ve ever written—maybe because writing about fashion is stigmatized as frivolous. Or maybe because I’m writing about being happy, and not manic, just happy. Or maybe because for a woman to call herself pretty—especially when she’s not a model or anything, just a regular-looking person with dramatic ideals—feels like breaking a rarely-spoken taboo. Regardless, it’s sort of nice to imagine that the ways of productively embarrassing oneself are abundant, maybe endless. Here’s to the conversations to come.
Shamala Gallagher is a poet and essayist. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, Black Warrior Review, The Missouri Review, Verse Daily, Copper Nickel, West Branch, Eleven Eleven, VOLT, The Offing, and The Rumpus, among other journals, as well as in the anthology Completely Mixed Up: Mixed Heritage Asian North American Writing and Art (Rabbit Fool Press, 2015). Her chapbook I Learned the Language of Barbs and Sparks No One Spoke was published by dancing girl press in 2015. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin, and she has received fellowships from Kundiman, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute.
Shamala grew up in an Indian/Irish American family in a predominantly Asian American community of San Jose, California. She has worked as a case manager for homeless families in San Francisco and for HIV+ individuals in Austin, TX. She has volunteered and worked in several domestic violence shelters, and she has taught writing workshops in public schools and community centers. She currently teaches creative and critical writing at the University of Georgia in Athens, where she’s pursuing a PhD in English.