A few months ago, I had lunch in Shanghai with a very pregnant American friend preparing to give birth in China (and she has since had a baby girl). As I sat listening to her hilarious stories of body shaming—a regular occurrence at her doctor’s office—I realized that I could not recall ever seeing a pregnant Chinese woman walking around Shanghai (okay—not including directly in front of the women’s maternity hospital on Changle). Not ever. An early morning stroll through Shanghai typically involves navigating gazillions of children walking to school—but noticeably pregnant women walking about town? Nope. Despite long walks, through all the crowds and metro rides, it’s not an image I recall seeing with any frequency. In a city of 25 million—and in a country with a population of 1.4 billion—the absence of public pregnancy suddenly seemed very odd . . . like a dystopian video game glitch or Twilight Zone episode—children everywhere, but no pregnant women.
So, why would this be? First thing first: body shaming. There are tremendous taboos around weight gain for women in China. Witness the Chinese A4 waist challenge. . . uh, yeah. You’ll notice from the photo above that my friend, even pregnant, is extraordinarily petite. Yet she was constantly told she was huge (and that her baby was going to be huge, too) by the medical staff—I think we can safely assume that Western and Eastern standards for huge are . . . slightly different, but the emphasis on thinness for women in China can be extreme.
Second, cultural attitudes in China seem to define pregnancy as something akin to an illness—pregnant women should never overexert themselves, and this includes pretty much any physical activity, including walking around the city too often. Apparently, there’s no better excuse for Chinese women to spend 30 days in pajamas than giving birth. As in every culture, there are also some unique superstitions and odd rules for pregnant women, too. Broadly speaking, Chinese culture venerates pregnancy and family, and women take advantage of all the benefits they can when pregnant. Years of a one-child policy (now defunct) have turned pregnancy into a once-in-a-lifetime experience; it seems only natural that the condition should take on a reverential aura.
Whatever the reason, the absence of common-place public pregnancy has become simply another oddity of the Shanghai streets.