Belly Dancing and Resistance to Cultural Discourse
by Angela M. Moe, Ph.D.
posted November 12, 2010
Pregnancy and early motherhood in the United States are subject to a dominant cultural discourse that position them as central to normative femininity — a cultural rite of passage Letherby 1994). Within this guise, women face a host of gendered expectations regarding selfless devotion to (impending) motherhood. The pregnant and postpartum body becomes a subject of distinct patriarchal critique, with a range of activities and behaviors related to diet, exercise, and appearance deemed necessary for healthy pregnancy, birth, and postpartum recovery (Bailey 1999). Such critique sometimes poses contradictory expectations on women’s gendered performances (Bordo 1993; Butler 1990; Dyer 1992). For example, women may be expected to suspend certain normative practices related to their non-motherhood identities (e.g., being thin, acting sexually alluring) and prioritize, even if only temporarily, others (e.g., gaining weight, honing one’s “maternal instinct”, becoming asexual) (Bailey 1999; Dworkin and Wachs 2004).
Thus, while the pregnant woman symbolizes maternal potential, she also becomes aesthetically problematic. She is both an admired subject and a physically unappealing object, according to contemporary standards of beauty. As such, the postpartum torso is to be modestly clothed and/or masked according to culturally appropriate standards.
Given the common public view of belly dance as erotic and seductive, it may seem quite inappropriate for a pregnant woman or new mother to be engaging in belly dance. In this article, I examine the ways in which belly dance during and after pregnancy may subvert the cultural discourse surrounding maternity. To do this, I present the thematic findings of 24 semi-structured qualitatively-based interviews with women who belly danced while pregnant/postpartum. The interviews focused on: 1) why the women belly danced, 2) how belly dancing affected their views of their bodies, and 3) how their experiences challenged the cultural discourse surrounding pregnancy and motherhood. The women ranged in age from 24 to 58 and their belly dance experience varied from 1.5 to 35 years. They averaged two children each and five were pregnant at the time of the interviews. These women shared many thoughts, perceptions and experiences that suggested their awareness of the dominant discourse surrounding pregnancy and motherhood, the first of which related to physical displays of the body.
Appearance: Masking vs. Revealing
The women were quite cognizant of the fact that the pregnant and postpartum body is not typically seen as physically or sexually appealing in our society, recognizing that certain social expectations drive the ways in which they are to physically appear as pregnant women and as new mothers. These expectations were specifically targeted at the torso, as a part of the body that ought to be covered in the name of modesty and social appropriateness. As Jaiye (belly dance hobbyist, mother of four) explained, “I think people want you to try to keep that belly covered. I think it embarrasses people who see your bare stomach when you are so long into your pregnancy as far as actually showing.” Julia (hobbyist, mother of two) indicated how this expectation to mask the torso extends into the postpartum period as well: “You have to stay covered. That’s a big thing. It’s forever.”
While cognizant of such expectations, the women were frank about explaining how belly dancing specifically provided them a direct means of subverting expectations of hiding their pregnant and postpartum torsos. In particular, there was a strong sense that exposing their bodies on their own terms in this way was liberating regardless of the reactions by others.
For instance, Naia (semi-professional, mother of a toddler) described her experience of having maternity photos taken in a belly dance costume: “Somebody asked me, ‘Did you show your belly?’ Like that would be an awful thing to do! I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I showed more than my belly!’”
Such emboldened resistance extended to the postpartum period as well. It was specifically during this time that the women dealt with social expectations to hide the physical consequences of pregnancy, namely weight gain and stretch marks. Dana (hobbyist, pregnant with fifth child) asserted, “It’s like you’re supposed to be dissatisfied with your (postpartum) belly pooch. You’re supposed to want to get rid of it. As a belly dancer you embrace that part of your body.” Indeed, embracing one’s body engendered a sense of greater self-acceptance for many women. This point is quite salient, as it is during the postpartum period that women face extreme social pressure to re-conform to the social standards of beauty to which they were subjected prior to pregnancy. Through belly dance the women were able to accept and appreciate their bodies just as they were. Bella (professional, mother of two) vividly recalled her experience of viewing her dancing body soon after birth: “I went down to my studio, turned the music on and I stood there and looked at my body. I watched that belly roll. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life, and I was 30 to 35 pounds heavier…”
The same held true for the women’s handling of stretch marks. Often a source of embarrassment and shame, belly dancing again proved a means through which women could reclaim their physicality, in all of its manifestations, and resist social scripts that would have them mask their midsections.
Sarah (professional, mother of two) recalled, “It was tough. I can’t count the times that people have made comments about my stretch marks.” Such experiences actually prompted Sarah to take her dance business in a new direction, one that celebrated the totality of women’s shapes, sizes and markings: “I decided to form my own troupe and all of my women were mothers and they all had stretch marks…”
In short, the women’s recognition of and resistance to social standards regarding the appearance of the pregnant and postpartum body informed their consciousness about how and why they belly danced. The ways in which this particular genre of movement challenged public perceptions of how women’s bodies are supposed to be presented during and after pregnancy fueled their commitment to the dance, as well as enhanced the benefits they derived from it. Such was also true in terms of the juxtaposition in the behavior deemed appropriate for pregnant and postpartum women compared to that allowed under the guise of belly dancing.
Behavior: Modesty vs. Reclamation
Belly dancing provided an avenue through which the women balanced their identities as both mothers who were dedicated to their families and autonomous women who yearned to reconnect to their individuality. In recognizing the discourse surrounding appropriate behavior for expectant mothers, Jaiye shared, “Everyone wants you to be this sweet new mom, docile and temperate woman, not making any waves…just sit down and take it easy until you have that baby.” In explaining how such expectations continue well into motherhood, Genevieve (professional, mother of three) also highlighted the suspension of autonomy: “New moms are expected to do certain things, behave certain ways…. It seems like everything is censored…there is this feeling of you disappearing…” Allie echoed such sentiments, and hinted at an aspect of infantilization: “People treat you differently when you’re pregnant. They’ll act like you can’t do things for yourself. Everyone thinks you’re fragile.” Moreover, pregnant and postpartum women are often not thought of as being sensual or sexual beings. As Naia commented, “Nobody ever wants to think about a pregnant woman doing anything sexual.”
However, doing something sensually or sexually provocative was often what the women found attractive about belly dance during and after pregnancy, which elicited predictable responses by others. Dana noted, “I had people who kind of gave me looks, like, ‘Wow, that’s a little risqué for you to be doing as a mommy.’ To be a mom of an infant and to be sensual and appreciate your body is not allowed.”
More to the point, unlike common stereotypes about the dance, which would suggest women are drawn to it for titillating and seductive purposes, the women in this study yearned for the opportunity to reconnect with their physicality via a form of movement that honors a woman’s body and life course.
Their experiences in this regard were tied more to their need to reconnect to their bodies in self-affirming ways, which encompassed empowering aspects of sensuality and sexuality, as opposed to pleasing or meeting others’ expectations. Lynne (pregnant with first child) noted, “The freedom, just being able to go and just move. I really still appreciate being able to do that…. It’s not about the aesthetic. It’s what feels good for you.”
In particular, women who viewed themselves to be fuller figured before pregnancy, and who maintained such physiques after pregnancy, found a particular sense of physical acceptance through belly dance that remained salient throughout their pregnancies. Jordana explained: “Society tells you what beautiful is and what attractive is…. The community of belly dance says ‘It doesn’t matter how big or how small you are.
’ When I first started dancing and I was heavy, I used to wear fabric that would cover my belly. And then I started to dance more and become more confident with my body and then I completely took the cover away. The entire time I was pregnant I never wore a belly cover.”
Indeed, belly dancing providing an overt means by which to challenge the status quo regarding the activities of expectant and new mothers. Moreover, central to reconnecting to their bodies, the women also found the dance to be a means through which to balance their old (pre-pregnant) and new (pregnant-motherhood) identities. Julia (hobbyist, mother of two) commented on the responses she received for taking one night a week away from her family to belly dance: “Tuesday nights are ‘mom’s on strike’ night. I get some horrified looks sometimes.” She, and others in this study, directly countered the social expectation that women suspend their pre-pregnancy activities in lieu of their family responsibilities. While belly dancing is not unique in this way, as various activities may be used by women as an outlet for individual expression and exercise, the fact that these women chose an activity that so directly challenges the discourses surrounding their maternal-familial status was intriguing. As Gail (professional, mother of two) noted, “Seeing pregnant women dance is a whole, kind of a mind altering thing… It’s very sensual and very pretty and so the whole viewing a maternal body in a sensual way is really, really alien to the Western mind.”
Indeed, part of the draw to belly dance was that it uniquely subverted the social scripts that manage women’s behavior during pregnancy and early motherhood. In this way, belly dance allowed a means through which women may reclaim and balance their public behavior in lieu of social standards that dictate otherwise.
For a woman to belly dance at any point in her life may result in stereotyping and prejudice. To do so during pregnancy and early motherhood challenges the dominant cultural discourses about what are and are not acceptable activities and displays of the female body. The women in this study were well aware of these discourses and referenced them when expressing their own embodied experiences.
That they continue to engage in and defend belly dance, despite its contradictory positioning within socially acceptable behavior, speaks to the lure of this genre of movement.
The findings here offer some insights as to why belly dance is so appealing during pregnancy and early motherhood.
First, women may struggle with accepting their changing physical shape during and after pregnancy. Such struggles are aided by the ways in which our culture enforces somewhat contradictory messages regarding the appearance and behavior of (expectant) mothers (Bailey 1999; Dworkin and Wachs 2004). For example, while it is acceptable for women to gain weight (to a certain extent) during pregnancy, it is incumbent upon them to lose it as quickly as possible afterwards. We often see this presented under the guise of “getting your body back” (Dworkin and Wachs 2004, 610), as if one’s true body is somewhere else, certainly not part of one’s postpartum physique. Belly dance, as it was experienced by the women in this study, allows creative space for women of all shapes and sizes. Of course, individual women’s reasons for belly dancing vary, and it would be inappropriate to assume that a purely aesthetic rationale (i.e., to prevent excessive weight gain during pregnancy and to more quickly lose weight after) is not at play. However, the point made by the women in this study is that the dance helps them to feel good about their bodies, in whatever shape or form they are in.
Second, women seem to be confronted with a disjuncture between identities during pregnancy and early motherhood. Again, this is related to the dominant discourses surrounding these life events (Bailey 1999; Dworkin and Wachs 2004). As the women attested, being and acting sensual or sexual during and after pregnancy is not readily accepted by our culture. They shared ways in which belly dancing helped them to challenge, overcome, ignore, and otherwise disregard such social messages.
Through belly dance, women may find a safe and creative outlet for exploring and reconnecting with their sensual and sexual selves. Such (re)discovery and the (re)balancing of identity can be central to a healthy personal state.
It is indeed interesting that a dance so often dismissed as being overly/inappropriately erotic actually holds value to women on these same grounds. Part of the draw to the dance indeed seems to be the permission it extends to women to claim a sense of sensuality and sexuality on their own terms. Certainly when it comes to the pressure, strain, and adjustment required during pregnancy and early motherhood, an activity that helps women feel good about themselves and retain a sense of individuality, by challenging social scripts and cultural discourses, is worth exploring.
Note—An extended version of this article will be published in the summer of 2011 as a chapter titled “Belly Dancing Mommas: Challenging the Cultural Discourse of Maternity,” in the anthology, Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules, edited by Christine Bobel and Samantha Kwan (Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN).
Bailey, Lucy. 1999. Refracted Selves: A Study of Changes in Self-Identity in the Transition to Motherhood. Sociology 33, no. 2:335-352.
Bordo, Susan R. 1993. Unbearable weight: Feminism, western culture, and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Dworkin, Shari L. and Faye Linda Wachs. 2004. ‘Getting your body back’: Postindustrial fit motherhood in Shape Fit Pregnancy magazine. Gender & Society 18, no. 5: 610-624.
Dyer, Richard. 1992. Only entertainment. New York: Routledge.
Letherby, Gayle. 1994. Mother or not, mother or what? Problems of definition and identity.Women’s Studies International Forum 17: 525-532.
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