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Re/Assembling the Pregnant and Parenting Teenager

Narratives from the Field(s)

Edited By Annelies Kamp and Majella McSharry

In 2003, Wendy Luttrell posed an important question: what might result if we were able to turn questions of judgement about pregnant and parenting teenagers into questions of interest about their sense of self and identity-making? This book takes up the challenge, offering a re/assemblage of what is, can be and perhaps should be known about teenage pregnancy and parenting in the context of the twenty-first century. The collection presents original contributions from leading commentators in four key contexts: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Aotearoa New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, all sites of elevated incidence of and/or concern around what is commonly articulated as the «problem» of teenage pregnancy and parenting. In offering a multi-disciplinary reading of the narratives of young men and women, this volume engages with the ambiguity shared by all of us in confronting the life transition that is pregnancy and parenting.

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3: What’s Happening to My Body?: The Growing, Glowing and Grotesque Teenage Belly (Majella McSharry)

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3 What’s Happening to My Body?: The Growing, Glowing and Grotesque Teenage Belly


As I write, I am thirty-seven years old and pregnant with my third child. I have taken the ‘right’ girl path – degree, PhD, career, marriage and babies. My path professes the victories of post-feminism and neoliberalism. It also screams of the mainstreaming of social ideals for women. My path is virtuous only because I suppressed, ignored and optimized my own fertility at the appropriate moments. For women of my age our bodies often become time bombs we frantically race against. Just as the mother under twenty is thought to be foolish, the mother over forty is frequently thought to be selfish.


My personal pregnancy journey will demarcate this chapter. I will use my story of pregnant embodiment to explore and question the possible experiences of teen mothers. I will discuss the corporeal assemblage of mother and baby during pregnancy to problematize how this might be experienced for teenage girls whose bodies are merely evolving to maturity. The physical expansion of the body during maternity undoubtedly presents challenges for all women, but this must be particularly acute for teenagers living in Western contexts obsessed with healthful slenderness. Equally, the bulging belly implies a symbolic weight as much as a physical one, loudly proclaiming ‘the sexually active girl’. Teen mothers make unique decisions around ‘corporeal generosity’ (Diprose 2002; Hird 2007) where they negotiate giving to their growing babies while also giving to their own developmental and aesthetic needs as teenagers. Although research and policy have focused on controlling the behaviour of the teenage girls’ body, they have remained silent about the changes and needs of the female body (Pillow 1997). In this chapter I question how a teen mother might negotiate the space that is her own body when presented with the unpredictable corporeal challenges of maternity, combined with the normal ← 51 | 52 → maturation of the body during puberty. At moments, I will reference the Irish context I am writing from, but much of the discussion is applicable to other Western contexts and beyond.

The body inside

January 1st 2017

Today is New Year’s Day and some family members came over for dinner. I am six weeks pregnant but they are not aware of this. Who would have thought cooking one meal could be so utterly exhausting and nauseating? I began to feel physically weak at the smell of cooking meat and had to go outside for air. I held a mint flavoured sweet in my mouth to keep the imagined taste at bay. I have felt continually nauseous this past few days but with an insatiable appetite for white bread and Bakewell tarts! I feel guilty about this. Surely this type of food can’t give the baby all the nutrients it needs. I don’t seem to have any control over this constant nauseous feeling.

The giving of one body to another is one of the unique markers of the period of maternity. Hird (2007) draws on Diprose’s (2002) ‘corporeal generosity’ to explain maternity as a debt one body owes to another through the process of ‘gifting’. This parallels with Crossley’s (2005) concept of ‘reflexive body techniques’ in some respects in so far as they involve one body working back upon itself or one body working upon another body in order to maintain it. However, while reflexive body techniques are ‘for the body’ (ibid. 10), with a focus on tangible returns, corporeal generosity is not driven by outcomes. Rather, the cyclical process of giving and returning that is ‘gifting’ is its own rewarding purpose. In terms of pregnancy, ‘gifting’ suggests a commitment to the idea of mother and baby as a connected assemblage. Luttrell notes that each individual woman will experience this ‘bodily tandem’ or ‘two-in-one-ness’ in unique and personal ways (2011: 298). It is arguable that the physical challenges of early pregnancy, ← 52 | 53 → such as fatigue, nausea, breast tenderness, dizziness and frequent urination, may mitigate connectedness, particularly for mothers who did not seek to become pregnant and where feelings of shock, resentment, confusion, denial and/or devastation abound. Yet research on teenage pregnancy has avidly avoided mentioning girls’ bodies and ‘the leaky needs’ (Lesko 1995) of pregnant teen girls (cited in Pillow 1997: 352).

Bodily changes are more dramatic and rapid during adolescence than at any other point in the lifecycle. Biological growth significantly alters pubescent bodies, with the emergence of new outer contours and inner sensations and new physical pains and privileges, making bodily awareness unavoidable during adolescence (McSharry 2009). Budgeon (2003) describes the body as central to identity, and control of the body, its cultivation and regulation, seen as the responsibility of the individual. In contemporary times individuals are increasingly held responsible and accountable for control of their own bodies and construction of their own identities. Bodily control, in fact, becomes a key signifier of successful identity construction. For McRobbie (2009), carefully staged bodily control is particularly imperative for feminine identity, where, within a post-feminist masquerade, the young woman is viewed as ‘a highly efficient assemblage of productivity’ (ibid. 59). The field of work known as ‘corporeal feminism’ has become diverse and immense (Frost 2005: 65), seeking to understand how girls and women take up positions within the physical and social assemblage that is their bodies.

Physical, emotional and cognitive changes in pregnancy amplify and are amplified by the developmental pressures of adolescence (Zaltzman, Falcon & Harrison 2015). Indeed, pregnant teenagers may be particularly focused on maintaining body control during pregnancy because they see this as a way of retaining some degree of normal ‘teenage life’ (ibid. 104). Pregnancy complicates and disrupts bodily changes that are already unpredictable and unfathomable for many teenagers. Therefore, as the teenage girl attempts to assert control over her embodied identity, the pregnant, labouring and lactating body can feel inexplicably out of control (Fox & Neiterman 2015). The surge of unfamiliar hormones arising from the growing baby may result in a series of unpleasant and painful symptoms for the mother, causing her to feel like a stranger in her own body. The body ← 53 | 54 → can feel alien, unfamiliar and volatile. Women frequently experience the pregnant body as fragmented, distinguishing between ‘my pregnancy’ (the bump) and ‘me’ (the rest of my body) (Padmanabhan, Summerbell & Heslehurst 2015). De Beauvoir (1949) describes the pregnant woman as a victim of the foetus, characterizing the foetus as a parasite that feeds on the mother as prey (cited in Hird 2007). This implies a giving over of one’s body to the foetus, whether this is desired by the mother of not. Yet even mothers who experience detachment from the foetus will be aware that through their bodies they sustain the foetus, deliver the baby, feed the baby and provide for its care, and that doing mothering in other ways is deemed inferior (Fox & Neiterman 2015: 671).

Interrogating the body

February 22nd 2017

Today I went to the hospital to register my pregnancy. I was advised to attend alone due to the sensitive nature of the questions. I was asked a long series of personal and medical questions. They included:

What age am I? What is my occupation? What is my partner’s occupation? What is my religion? Am I a member of the Traveller Community? Is the baby’s father my cousin? Am I in an abusive relationship? Is there any history of disability in my family or in the baby’s father’s family? Have I or the baby’s father ever had a sexually transmitted disease? Have I ever had an eating disorder? Do I drink alcohol, smoke or take recreational drugs? Was I taking folic acid prior to becoming pregnant and if so, for how long?

A large number of questions revolved around my medical history, my husband’s medical history and that of our respective families. I sometimes wondered if I was giving an accurate answer.

The pregnant body is the subject of continual medical interrogation and inspection. The baby’s body is scanned, assessed, photographed and ← 54 | 55 → measured while the mother’s body is scrutinized, questioned, patrolled and regulated. The mother’s body becomes the Panopticon – the central watchtower through which the baby can be observed. Intrusive interrogation of the pregnant mother and routine surveillance of her body have emerged from a pathologizing and medicalization of pregnancy, which have been normalized to such an extent that we speak of pregnant bodies almost solely through the language of medicine (Lee & Jackson 2002). Invasive questions such as those cited above are sure to give rise to concern amongst mothers who are related to the baby’s father, who have had a sexually transmitted disease, who have consumed alcohol while pregnant or have not taken folic acid prior to becoming pregnant. They will also be of concern for mothers who simply do not know the answers to many of these questions. ‘Good’ mothers with planned pregnancies are likely to have commenced taking folic acid prior to becoming pregnant to reduce the likelihood of neural tube defects. By contrast, mothers who may have never heard of folic acid are placed in a maternal deficit position. They are reprimanded for making choices that potentially clash with the welfare of their baby (Nash 2015) and infantilized for not knowing the difference. The bodies of mothers of unplanned babies are deemed to require a particular type of medical and moral surveillance, while they act as ‘incubators’ for the ‘tiny and vulnerable patient’ inside (Lee and Jackson 2002: 122).

Most teen mothers will know that risk-taking behaviours potentially threaten the foetus. This knowledge comes through a process of ‘normalization’, the identification and scrutinizing of ‘abnormal’ behaviour such as smoking during pregnancy and the celebration of acceptable behaviours that serves as a powerful socializing force in defining normality (Lee & Jackson 2002). As pregnant women internalize prenatal nutritional norms and implement these in their daily lives, they construct a particular type of ‘self-as-mother’ (Copelton 2007: 470). The wide availability and public visibility of health promotion information means that pregnant women are ‘continually encouraged to act responsibly in order to promote normal fetal development’ (Lee & Jackson 2002: 124). Pregnant women often feel consumed by lists of dangerous food and drinks and by the rules and regulations of pregnancy (Nash 2015). The pregnant teen will be aware, therefore, that corporeal generosity is a risky exchange. The choices she ← 55 | 56 → makes to try to control and/or satisfy her body and what she consumes may impact on the development of her baby in favourable or unfavourable ways. Hird (2007) warns, therefore, that the process of embodied ‘gifting’ brings with it as much likelihood of threatening the integrity of bodies as of opening up new possibilities. This takes up Ringrose’s (2011) description of ‘affective assemblages’, which she derives from Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) suggestion that bodies affect other bodies to damage them or to be damaged by them or to exchange passions with them and join together in composing a more powerful body.

Weighing the body

March 16th 2017

I am currently sixteen weeks pregnant and I returned to the midwives’ clinic for a check-up. The attending midwife checked a urine sample, took a blood pressure reading and weighed me! She didn’t comment on my weight but I could see I have gained 14 lb since becoming pregnant. This is in excess of ‘normal’ weight gain at sixteen weeks. The information leaflet given to me at registration suggested that it is common for women not to gain any weight in their first trimester and in fact some can even lose weight. Most women should expect to gain 30 lb during the course of their pregnancy but I have already gained almost half of this. I felt a slight sense of panic.

Visual and social media habitually target body regulation regimen at teenage girls and pregnant women, leaving the pregnant teenager in a particularly complex position. Thinness depicting and promoting (TDP) media showcases slenderness, and in doing so promotes body distortion amongst teenage girls (Malachowski & Myers 2013). The power of images to manipulate logical thought lies largely in the fact that the images are themselves manipulated. Harrison and Hefner (2014) suggest that even though young people are developmentally capable of distinguishing between fantasy ← 56 | 57 → and reality, image-editing technologies have come to be so advanced that even competent adults cannot accurately identify retouching. Essentially, ‘developmental gains cannot compensate for technology that is capable of outsmarting human perception’ (ibid. 136). Harrison and Hefner (2014) go on to draw on Social Comparison Theory to describe how teenage girls make upward self-comparisons to slender media images, decreasing their self-esteem and increasing appearance related self-consciousness. Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat and Anschütz (2016) use Negative Contrast Theory to arrive at a similar conclusion, explaining that the contrast girls feel between themselves and the thin ideal leads to lower body satisfaction. However, while media images are particularly powerful and influential, body validation amongst teenagers is often more meaningfully negotiated and assigned at the level of interaction with peers (McSharry 2009). Teens see the peers they encounter in their physical and digital circles as more comparable, real and relevant. That said, the level to which photos of the self are manipulated amongst ordinary social media users cannot be underestimated either, meaning that the appearance of peers may be as unrealistic as that of celebrities (Kleemans et al. 2016). The hegemonic status of the thin body ideal inevitably impacts on teenage girls’ embodied sense of self, in both pregnancy and non-pregnancy, whether they strive to obtain it or not. Yet there is a paucity of research examining teenagers’ embodied experiences of weight gain in antenatal and post-natal periods.

It has been suggested that younger women find the emergence of a larger, expanding body during pregnancy more upsetting than older women in secure relational and material circumstances (Fox & Neiterman 2015). The extent to which teenage mothers are able to adapt to the physically expanding body is significant. Teenage girls’ fear of being perceived as fat is widely recognized, and this fear of fat is hardly surprising given its cultural association with laziness, unnaturalness and a lack of discipline (McSharry 2009). The fat body is not only viewed as ‘unattractive’, but fat individuals are accused of moral failings due to their perceived inability to control their own body and for generally letting themselves go (Gill, Henwood & McLean 2005). Even from early childhood, children prefer not to play with overweight peers and assign negative adjectives to drawings featuring overweight individuals (Connor & Armitage 2000). According ← 57 | 58 → to Monaghan (2005), while fat may not be a four-letter word, it carries implicit negative connotations. There appears to be a general social ‘fattitude’ amongst all age groups that condemns loose and fleshy bodies. The fear of fat and associated labels may be particularly problematic for teenage girls, whose femininity is intrinsically linked, not just to controlling their bodies as discussed earlier, but specifically to the thin body ideal. For the participants in Nash’s study, ‘to be “fat” was to fail at being a contemporary woman’ (2012: 311). Bell and McNaughton (2007) draw on the work of Nichter (2000) and Ambjörnsson (2005) to describe how teenage girls position themselves on a continuum of fatness as a way of establishing peer connectedness and successful femininity. Nichter (2000) describes how girls participate in ‘fat talk’ which involves self-declarations of fatness, only to be met with strong protestations from the rest of their peer group. In doing so a girl uses her body insecurities to maintain her position within the group and to confirm that she is no more self-assured than any other member of the group. Similarly, Ambjörnsson (2005) suggests that worrying about fat is normalized within girls’ peer groups and expressing body dissatisfaction is a key strategy for performing girl identity. Defeating fat has become an important aspect of girls’ verbal and visual narratives. This is endorsed by rhetoric in popular media which confirms the need for bulges to be attacked, fat to be burned and stomachs to be busted and eliminated (Bordo 1993). Stomachs, buttocks and breasts are identified as the areas of greatest concern for girls (ibid.). As these are the areas that expand most dramatically during pregnancy, it is little wonder that body dissatisfaction can become more pronounced during the maternity period and anxiety over the permanency of weight gain more acute.

The cultural expectation of body dissatisfaction that exists amongst teenage girls in the West is particularly problematic when combined with the corporeal transformations that occur during pregnancy. However, there is little research exploring the impact of negative body image in teenage pregnancy on eating and dietary behaviours during the maternity period and the possible impact these might have on mother and baby (Zaltzman et al. 2015). In 2003 Luttrell found only two articles examining pregnant girls’ perceptions of body image, and by 2015 Zaltzman et al. found only six, claiming no relevant research had been conducted in almost ten years. ← 58 | 59 → Of the articles reviewed by Zaltzman et al. (2015), two studies found positive attitudes amongst pregnant teenagers towards maternity weight gain (Matsuhashi & Felice (1991) and Simon et al. (1993)). The remaining four articles reviewed (Hellerstedt & Story (1998); Birkeland et al. (2005); Stenberg & Blinn (1993) & Benton-Hardy & Lock (1998)) found the physical changes of pregnancy, especially weight gain, caused body shape disturbance amongst the teenage participants. Given that women of all ages often report body dissatisfaction during pregnancy regardless of how satisfied they were pre-pregnancy, this indicates that teenagers who are generally noted for having heightened body concerns will probably feel particularly body conscious during pregnancy. According to Zaltzman et al., ‘pregnancy adds further stress to a possibly already vulnerable adolescent and may have serious repercussions on how pregnant teenagers view themselves and their bodies’ (2015: 141). Transformation of body shape has been reported as one of the biggest stressors of pregnancy, especially in the early stages of pregnancy (Hopper & Aubrey 2011). Indeed, where Zaltzman et al. (2015) found a positive correlation between pregnancy weight gain and body image, it was in studies focused on the third trimester. In early pregnancy women continue to compare their bodies to those of non-pregnant women (Duncombe, Wertheim, Skouteris, Paxton & Kelly 2008) and are conscious that weight gain is perceived to be as a result of getting fat rather than being pregnant. Although ‘bump’ related weight gain is acceptable during pregnancy, weight gain elsewhere on the body implies a lack of self-control (Padmanabhan et al. 2015). The implications of the distinction between being ‘fat’ and being ‘pregnant’ are significant, since adjectives such as ‘gorgeous’ and ‘glowing’ are associated with the pregnant belly, whereas the fat belly attracts adjectives such as ‘gross’ and ‘grotesque’. Nash suggests, therefore, that ‘looking’ pregnant is critical for women as they emerge from the ‘in-betweenness’ of early pregnancy, and establish themselves as visibly pregnant (2012: 313). However, it is questionable as to whether teen mothers are so keen to be visibly pregnant at any stage in pregnancy (a point I will return to later).

In light of the discussion to date, it is slightly ironic that food cravings, even for ‘deviant’ non-food items (Copelton 2007), have been typically associated with maternity. Cravings are described as natural and ← 59 | 60 → often linked to happy moments during pregnancy (Bojorquez-Chapela, Unikel, Mendoza & de Lachica 2014). In many ways, pregnancy represents a unique time for women where succumbing to cravings is acceptable (Clark, Skouteris, Wertheim, Paxton & Milgrom 2009). In fact, pregnancy could be viewed as the only period in a woman’s life where indulgence is sanctioned and relinquish of body control is permitted. Zaltzman et al. (2015) suggest that both pregnant adults and adolescents acknowledge the importance of pregnancy weight gain and consider it to be a necessary and acceptable consequence of motherhood. The large pregnant body can be viewed as a sign of a successful pregnancy (Duncombe et al. 2008), while ‘thinness’ during pregnancy can be seen as foetal neglect (Nash 2015: 489). The large body symbolizes corporeal generosity in abundance where a mother has allowed her body to be re-shaped and re-formed in order to satisfy the needs of her growing child. However, despite an expectation that women’s bodies will expand during pregnancy, there is an equal expectation that weight gain should remain within accepted parameters. The participants in Padmanabhan et al.’s (2015) study believed that pregnancy was a time to relax around the rigid rules of dieting and exercise for themselves, yet they were aware that consuming healthy foods was necessary for the creation of an ideal gestational environment. Essentially they ‘faced emotional conflicts between limiting weight gain for “me”, and being perceived as acting morally by gaining enough weight for “the baby”’ (ibid. 1). Medical advice continually warns women of the need to practise self-discipline to minimize weight gain and to maximize the health of the foetus (Nash 2015). The notion of ‘eating for two’ often referenced as permission for indulgence during pregnancy has been emphatically corrected within medical discourse. Enormous pressure is placed on women not to exceed recommended guidelines for pregnancy weight gain (Nash 2012). The medicalization of maternity weight gain has resulted in a clear distinction between ‘weight’ and ‘fat’, where the former is permitted to the extent that it does not result in an unhealthy or permanent manifestation of the latter. Fat is portrayed as a medical evil that poses dangers to the mother and body in the pre- and post-natal periods. This, combined with the social damning of fat described earlier, means indulgence during pregnancy has the bittersweet taste of euphoria and fear. The prevalence of celebrity bodies ← 60 | 61 → that have quickly reclaimed their pre-pregnancy shape reminds women that only temporary weight gain is permissible. It is unsurprising that the association between depression and body dissatisfaction is stronger in the post-pregnancy period than during pregnancy, because women believe they no longer have an excuse to be large and have internalized unrealistic expectations of the speed at which they can return to a pre-pregnant shape and size (Clark et al. 2009). Women for whom it is their first pregnancy, the group to which teen mothers are most likely to belong, express most concern that the body will not return to its pre-pregnant state (Hopper & Aubrey 2011). The general obsession with weight management that surrounds maternity in the West ultimately displaces any meaningful exploration of the internal experiences of pregnancy (ibid.). Narratives depicting the lived uniqueness of pregnant embodiment are continually neglected in favour of a preoccupation with external physical aesthetics.

The public pregnant body

May 5th 2017

I am now twenty-four weeks into my pregnancy. Today I visited a student teacher on school placement as part of my work. As I took up a place at the back of the classroom I was struck by the uncomfortable tension between my growing belly and the restricted confinements of the school desk and seat. I wondered how pregnant students experience this rigid workspace on a daily basis as their bellies continue to expand during the maternity period. By now I am visibly pregnant. There is no hiding the bump anymore. I try to conceal my pregnancies for as long as possible, not because I want to deny being pregnant but because I lose my private body in pregnancy and it becomes a public spectacle. When I am not pregnant people do not reference or question my body, but now, acquaintances and strangers, stare at my stomach before making eye contact and some even think they have an uninvited right to touch my growing body. ← 61 | 62 →

In early March 2017 investigators made a shocking discovery at a former mother and baby home in Galway in the Republic of Ireland. The particular institution functioned between 1925 and 1961, but was just one of many such homes in operation at the time to cater for the growing numbers of teenage and unmarried mothers and the need of church and state to hide them away. In March large quantities of human remains were discovered, said to range in age from pre-term babies to three-year-old children. They were found concealed in two large underground structures, one said to be a sewage containment system and the other said to be a long passageway containing twenty separate chambers. Irish history and literature are awash with descriptions of rural and urban women surrounded by their large families; their female bodies seemingly unrestrained by adherence to discourses of contraception or constriction. In contrast, teenage and unmarried mothers are largely absent from such depictions, their pregnant and parenting bodies hidden from public view in enclosed institutions. The young pregnant mother stood in opposition to one of the most valued aspects of Irish society at the time, namely, sexuality as prescribed by the Catholic Church. The teenage and unmarried mother represented a decline in religious observance and her body threatened the very teaching and credibility of the church.

The increased secularization of Irish society in the latter part of the twentieth century allowed the teenage mother to be recognized in policy and legislation. However, the tension between the pregnant teenage body and church values was again highlighted more recently when a Catholic school in the south of Ireland refused enrolment to a sixteen-year-old girl on the basis that she was pregnant and, following the birth of her child, on the basis that she was a single mother. The girl and her mother complained to the office of the Ombudsman for Children, which proceeded to investigate the claim. The school management unapologetically responded, stating that is was ‘not a haven for young pregnant people or for young mothers’ and added that ‘the school has an uncompromising ethos and will not become a dumping ground’ (cited in McLysaght 2012). There was a clear sense from school management that pregnant students should not be visible within the school, as the publicly pregnant body compromises the moral standing of a church-run school. The notion of the righteous ← 62 | 63 → learner being inconsistent with a bulging stomach was also highlighted in research carried out by Nkani and Bhana (2010) with school principals in Durban, South Africa. One principal explained that while chasing pregnant students away would be in violation of policy, students must be aware that ‘a learner in a school uniform with a bulging stomach’ is unacceptable, as it sends a message that ‘it is alright to get pregnant at school’ (ibid. 110). There is an inherent understanding here that the learner in a school uniform is incongruent with the bulging stomach and the sexuality it implies (ibid.). There is no doubt that teenage girls in a post-feminist age enjoy more liberated sexual experiences than previous generations. New feminism endorses individual free choice. However, if these sexual choices are only free in so far as they do not result in pregnancy or stagnate educational attainment, then they are not so free at all.

The emblematic weight of pregnancy is undoubtedly as challenging for teen mothers as somatic weight. The school context can be particularly confronting for pregnant teens in this regard. In Pillow’s study nowhere were ‘girls’ voices stronger, more independent, and more resistant than when they were talking about their school experiences’ (1997: 354). As noted previously, the assemblage of a bulging stomach and the sexual activeness it symbolizes, with innocent uniform-clad girls, is irreconcilable. Uniforms symbolize ‘a school’s cohesiveness, levels of discipline, respect for authority, and high achievement’ (Happel 2013: 94). Versions of school uniforms will not be found in the maternity sections of department stores. The school uniform imposes a type of deportment and way of being on its wearer that makes it impossible for young girls to forget the restricted nature of their embodied state (McSharry & Walsh 2014), and this may be particularly heightened for the pregnant uniform wearer. Tight waistbands are unquestionably uncomfortable for expanding stomachs, and skirts are decidedly revealing of swollen legs and ankles. Wearing alternative clothing may be an option for pregnant students in some schools, but while this may be more physically comfortable for the growing body, it serves to further differentiate the pregnant student from her peers and to further invite the focus of their gaze. Vincent (2009) points to the dilemma faced by pregnant students as they want their schools to acknowledge and respond to the physical challenges of pregnancy, for example, soreness, ← 63 | 64 → exhaustion, frequent urination, heightened emotion. However, they do not want the measures put in place to further differentiate them from the rest of the student population. In the midst of uniformed student bodies and corporeal sameness, the pregnant body confronts school life in a most direct and questioning way, and pregnant students fear the stigmatization this might lead to.

Whether in school, socializing or simply going about daily life, the pregnant teenage body is continually subjected to moral judgement and scrutiny. The thought of teens being sexually active can be uncomfortable for adults and sometimes for other teens. Of course babies are conceived through sexual passivity as well as sexual assertiveness, but there is a tendency to view the pregnant teenage girl as sexually experienced. In pornographic imagery this portrayal is extreme, where the pregnant schoolgirl with her pigtails and Catholic uniform is fetishized for her mischievous horny behaviour (Musial 2014). The schoolgirl with a mature body is frequently the target of catcalls and wolf-whistles and even more worrying forms of harassment from older male onlookers, yet she is viewed as a dangerous pariah for boys her own age. If maternity is to be perceived as a type of corporeal gifting, then teen mothers undoubtedly gift their sexual identity in an unparalleled and often misinterpreted way.

Sax, in her work with teenage girls in a Brazilian shantytown, describes how teenage girls with mature breasts and fleshy bottoms were viewed as dangerous to ‘inexperienced’ boys (2010: 326). Within the community, whether a girl was deemed sexually active, or indeed pregnant, was negotiated by the size of her breasts, bottom and belly (ibid.). Through its very being, the pregnant body proclaims a sexual maturity often considered inappropriate and threatening to other teenagers, giving the pregnant teenager a socially contaminated status. It is little surprise that in a study carried out by Conlon (2006) on behalf of the Irish Crisis Pregnancy Agency, teenage parents were amongst those most likely to attempt to conceal a pregnancy. The participants noted that they wished to conceal their pregnancy out of fear of rejection by the biological father and fear of disappointment from parents, as well as trying to conceal sexual activity and to avoid pregnancy related stigma (ibid.). In research recently conducted by some of my own Masters students, similar reasons were given by ← 64 | 65 → teen mothers for concealing their pregnancies for as long as possible. They described wanting to hold back whispers and judgements. One participant explained how her uniform concealed her bump from school management and peers for seven-and-a-half months. Interestingly, she contrasted the self-consciousness she felt around her pregnant body and lack of pride in her bump with the absolute pride she felt when her baby was born. Another participant described how she kept her pregnancy secret for eight months, wearing baggy tops to conceal her bump. However, she regrets that the embarrassment she felt prevented her from announcing her pregnancy earlier and enjoying the excitement that usually accompanies the maternity journey. Findings ways to challenge and/or avoid the ‘looks’ from adults and other teenagers takes lots of emotional energy and self-protective strategies (Luttrell 2011: 304). So long as pregnancy is viewed as an age related event, teen mothers (and older mothers) will likely experience a tension around how to conceal and reveal the pregnant body.

The breastfeeding body

June 14th 2017

The two questions I am most frequently asked at antenatal appointments are: did I have ‘normal’ deliveries with my first two children and did I breastfeed them? When I can answer both questions in the affirmative, I am told that I am in a low risk category and should be able to avail of early release from hospital if I so wish. The engagement becomes pleasant and relaxed and, in spite of myself, I feel like I have just received a gold star for my schoolwork. I wonder if I would feel a sense of failure if I had had Caesarean sections or if I had bottle-fed my children. I was not breastfed and neither was my husband. We were born into a generation and country of formula feeding. Breastfeeding was an uncertain and confusing experience for me, with family unable and, often unwilling, to offer support. In the early days of motherhood I would wince with pain as the baby latched on. I persisted because of the moments of ← 65 | 66 → oneness I felt with my children and the sense of absolute empowerment that came from knowing my body could nurture their tiny bodies.

If pregnant bodies are subjected to medical and social scrutiny, then so too are breastfeeding bodies. Within medical discourse, breastfeeding has obtained a status of moral imperative that is inextricably linked to the conception of ‘good mothering’ (Marshall, Godfrey & Renfew 2007: 2147). Hird describes breast milk as ‘white blood’ where the breast and mouth act as portals for the mobile exchange of immunizing agents, imprinting one body on the other (2007: 13). Breastfeeding implies abundant corporeal generosity such are the nutritional and emotional benefits suggested in medical discourse. Teenage mothers are unlikely to be able to ignore the prevalence of posters and pamphlets on breastfeeding to be found in medical waiting areas and antenatal information packs. These detail the benefits of breast milk for babies’ development, such as counteracting infection, bacteria and allergies. According to Sipsma, Jones and Cole-Lewis (2015), there are benefits to be derived for the teenage mother also, such as economic affordability, weight loss, maternal-infant bonding and reduced risk of post-natal depression. However, breastfeeding is not an inconsequential exchange for teenage mothers. Through breastfeeding, teenage mothers utilize protein and other nutrients, normally reserved for their own physical development, in order to provide for their baby (Stadtlander 2015). Hird’s (2007) interpretation of breastfeeding as an ongoing process of gifting without calculable returns fails to incorporate the very specific tensions faced by teen mothers, who must share nutrients reserved for their own development with their baby. Breastfeeding can prolong a mother’s feeling of her body not quite being her own (Fox & Neiterman 2015). Through breastfeeding, a mother continues to gift her body to her baby, but for some, they may simply need to get their body back.

Cultural and familial support for breastfeeding is much more evident in some parts of the world than in others. Despite breastfeeding promotional campaigns, encounters with actual women breastfeeding are rare in some Western countries (Marshall et al. 2007). In these contexts teenage mothers are much less likely to initiate breastfeeding than older mothers, and when they do they are less likely to sustain breastfeeding (Hunter, ← 66 | 67 → Magill-Cuerden & McCourt 2015; Sipsma et al. 2007). In Ireland breastfeeding rates in general are amongst the lowest in the developed world. At 46.3 per cent, breastfeeding initiation in Ireland lags far behind other developed countries, where initiation rates are 90 per cent in Australia, 81 per cent in the UK and 79 per cent in the US (HSE 2016). Breastfeeding rates in Ireland have improved over the last two decades, but rather than being nationally representative, figures are most likely skewed by higher breastfeeding initiation rates amongst immigrant mothers (84.2 per cent) (Nolan & Layte 2014). Young mothers with a low socio-economic status and without a third-level qualification continue to be the group least likely to initiate or continue breastfeeding in the Irish context (Gallagher, Begley & Clarke 2016; McGorrian, Shortt, Doyle, Kilroe & Kelleher 2010). This raises questions about the social and personal factors that impact on breastfeeding rates in Ireland, particularly amongst teen mothers.

Breastfeeding as the default feeding strategy is very publicly endorsed, yet practical support for breastfeeding is more problematic. Stadtlander (2015) suggests that teenage mothers want to do what is best for their babies but often lack specific knowledge and confidence to initiate and continue breastfeeding. As noted previously, the medicalization of pregnancy can leave a mother feeling detached from her growing body, with little sense of ownership over her own physical being or that of her baby. Arguably, the methodical medical management of birthing can reinforce this lack of ownership. The young women in Hunter et al.’s study (2015) labelled the labour ward as a disempowering space. They described feeling tired, dazed, scared, in pain, overwhelmed and utterly incapacitated as they passively lay while medical staff delivered the baby, stitched vaginal tears and dressed the baby. Many described the initiation of breastfeeding as ‘something that was done to them, rather than something they were helped to do themselves’ (Hunter et al. 2015: 51). Routinized medical procedures left the teenage mothers feeling like physical objects rather than self-determining individuals (ibid.). If mothers are to engage confidently in the bodily exchange that is breastfeeding, then surely this requires a process of empowerment. It is easy to problematize teenage mothers as reluctant breastfeeders, yet to allow the medical and social contradictions around breastfeeding to remain uncritiqued. On the one hand, expectant mothers are bombarded by the ← 67 | 68 → alignment of breastfeeding with good mothering, but on the other hand, post-natal narratives frequently depict unsupportive and disempowering hospital environments. The young mothers in Noble-Carr and Bell’s (2012) work described the invasive and unhelpful contributions they had received from hospital staff. One participant explained how ‘they were pushing and hurting my breasts and I was like “for the love of God, just stop!”’ (ibid. 35). Another explained how they were ‘pulling and tugging on me, trying to get the milk out, and I’m like “There is no milk. Just let me have a bottle”’ (ibid.). The teen mothers discussed how they just wanted the midwives to get their hand off their breasts. Most women would probably feel some level of discomfort with their breasts being handled and manipulated, but for teenagers, who are already acutely body conscious, this experience is all the more intrusive and disconcerting. In general, discomfort with breast exposure and associated embarrassment are critical factors in teen mothers’ feeding decisions (Stadtlander 2015; Ineichen, Pierce & Lawrenson 1997). Embarrassment is compounded in contexts such as Ireland where breastfeeding women are invisible, implying that exposing breasts is shameful, except for private sexual encounters. For Hickey-Moody, ‘the mouth-sucking-infant-nipple machine deterritorializes capitalist economies of the body in which the woman’s breast is a sexual commodity’ (2013: 279). Therefore, breastfeeding potentially symbolizes a conflictual assemblage of self for the teen mother where the corporeal generosity of giving physically to one’s baby is interrupted by corporeal consciousness that threatens to take socially from oneself.


Pregnancy as a transformative embodied event is undisputed. It transforms both the outer surface and inner materiality of the female body. Therefore the lack of empirical research on teenage girls’ lived experiences of the embodied transformations of pregnancy is quite puzzling. Teenage pregnancy symbolizes an unexpected collapse of the developmental categories ← 68 | 69 → of ‘girl’ and ‘woman’, and for some this sudden transformation from girl to woman is most problematic. However, Hickey-Moody’s (2013) analysis of the Deleuzian girl proposes that one does not make a defined transition from girl to woman, but zigzags backwards and forwards across time, forming experiential assemblages of ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. Through pregnancy, one does not leave girlhood to become a women because, for Deleuze, these are not distinct categories. Sax (2010) also suggests that an overemphasis on pregnancy as an age bound experience rather than a body bound experience has neglected detailed explorations of how all women be and become through pregnancy. Coleman (2008) uses the notion of ‘becoming’ as her point of departure for explaining how bodies come to be within particular circumstances. Coleman’s work is useful for helping us to understand how teenage mothers might come to experience the physical, cognitive and emotional demands of both pregnancy and adolescence. She draws on Deleuze to suggest that bodies are not bounded subjects that are separate from the circumstances they encounter. A body in this instance is a relational becoming. The relations between bodies and their situations and surroundings result in specific positive or negative effects and this can limit or enhance the becoming of bodies, but it does not stall it. For Coleman, ‘a body does not stop becoming because it is unhappy, depressed or angry’ (2008: 175). Therefore the pregnant body becomes through a process of engagement between the body and numerous other forces (Coffey 2013). Even if the teenage girl struggles with the demands of providing for her growing child and concerns over weight management, self-consciousness or pregnancy concealment, her body continues to become in the midst of these struggles. Here the pregnant teenage body is essentially an assemblage of contradictions and opportunities. ← 69 | 70 →


Research conducted by Professional Master of Education students Mikaela Mahon and Carly Tyrrell was referenced in this chapter. I would like to acknowledge their contribution.


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