Image: illustrated image of Mary Toft, a British woman who in 1726 claimed that she had given birth to a litter of rabbits. Credit: Public Domain Review, via University of Glasgow Special Collections Department.
At Death Salon Mütter, we pondered and analyzed the male gaze and the privileged gaze of the living, and so when I came across Stephen T. Asma’s essay “Look Not Upon Them: Maternity & the Monstrous Imagination” in The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, I could not help but be inclined to ponder the challenges presented by the beliefs surrounding the pregnant woman’s gaze.
Superstitions and the ‘Reason’ for Teratology
Almost every society from across the world has superstitions when it comes to pregnancy – and they often involve limiting the activity of the pregnant woman. She is not to gaze upon arresting or disturbing imagery; she is not to allow herself to be frightened; she is not to engage in any sort of devilry, out of fear that her unborn baby will be harmed. This harm, in the minds of different societies, most often materialized in the form of deformity.
The word ‘teratology’ means the study of monstrous births. It is still the word used today to describe the study of babies who are born with deformities, whether the result of an incorrectly copied gene or some other unknown factor. It’s certainly an archaic term, and I wonder why we have not gotten rid of it. It’s misleading and upsetting, and calls upon all of the unfortunate connotations associated with the term.
The Mother-To-Be is Always Faulted
It was commonly believed in the pre modern and modern eras that the reason for deformity was the result of a mother’s transgression or outward behavior. This was another way to place a burden on women – any ill circumstance to her baby was attributed to her, leading her to believe that it was her actions that had caused her baby’s misfortune. This was an easy way to keep women under “control” as well; if a mother-to-be feared what she’d see in the outside world would harm her child, why, what would be the reason to venture outside? Her male counterpart was, of course, burdened with none of these worries.
The Impressionable Woman
The reason for these beliefs surrounding the pregnant woman stemmed from the thought that she was “impressionable.” Though less impressionable than a child, she could not hold a candle to a man, and thus her mind and spirit were vulnerable and susceptible to being warped if she looked at or gazed upon “monstrous things.”
“A disturbing sense impression,” on the mother’s part, would inevitably trickle down to her womb, leading to “a distorted fetus.”
In some weird way, this speaks to the power that the pregnant woman had, a power that perhaps men were afraid of. The bond between mother and unborn child, connected in one body, the unborn completely dependent on its mother, is the most intimate relationship and bond that exists, says Asma. As I’ve examined in my previous posts, women have the ability to bring new life and new death into the world. There is great power that lies in that ability.
Cultural Beliefs and their Reasoning
Asma surveys some of the cultural beliefs that served as the reasons for why deformities materialized – remember, in the pre modern and modern eras, we did not have gene sequencing and DNA analysis. There was no insight to gene mutation. But interestingly, many of these beliefs persist today. In China, the mother-to-be is advised against gazing upon disturbing imagery. In India, it is believed that looking at “temple decorations of lion figures or disturbing deities” will cause the pregnant woman to birth a monster.
Yet the reasons for these beliefs are not altogether unfounded. “High stress in the mother can lead to shortened gestation and increased chance of miscarriage or premature birth,” says Asma, who argues that “perhaps a little superstition about maternal imagination and monsters helped generations of mothers and babies stay healthier.” Of course, it is of paramount importance that a mother-to-be is in a healthy environment where she feels her and her baby are safe, and it certainly helps her own mental sanity if she feels relatively at peace throughout her pregnancy.
A Pregnant Woman Is Already Burdened Enough
That said, often a woman is under enough burden when she is pregnant. She hopes her baby will come to term. She hopes her baby will be healthy. She hopes she will be a good mother. She does everything in her power to make sure she is the best possible vessel for bringing this child into the world. It places unnecessary stress on expectant mothers to ensure their mental behaviors are completely infallible. There are few circumstances when the mother’s behavior directly and severely alters her infant – and they usually stem from alcohol,drug use, or an extremely poor diet while pregnant – not her mental faculties.
Source: “Look Not Upon Them: Maternity and the Monstrous Imagination” by Stephen T. Asma. From The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, edited by Joanna Ebenstein and Colin Dickey.