This weekend, Instagram and Facebook users dragged choreographer, professional dancer, and fitness model Joie Chavis for a video in which she got her dance on, with pregnant belly exposed.
Social media seems to make everyone a critic, and Chavis’ critics shamed her pregnant body and accused her of endangering her pregnancy. She “looks absolutely grotesque,” said one commenter on the video, while another remarked on her “beer belly.” Others predicted that her movements—for the #DoTheShiggy dance challenge and performed to Drake’s summer hit “In My Feelings”—could cause a miscarriage or even “shaken baby syndrome,” also known as abusive head trauma. Responses to the video, originally posted on Instagram, included: “She won’t think she’s so cute when she shakes that baby right out!” or “Let’s see who she loves when that umbilical cord is wrapped 4 or 5 [times] around that baby’s neck.”
As if Black people weren’t already overwhelmed by state violence and rampant racism, the plague of respectability politics is always here, willing and ready to police the Black experience and behavior. After Chavis graced us with her #BlackGirl Magic in this video, we must now add dancing while pregnant to the long list of things we cannot do while being Black and carefree.
But don’t get it twisted. Just because Chavis is dropping it in the video, she’s not hurting her pregnancy. She’s celebrating it and taking control of her image. That’s not negligence, but a revolutionary act of claiming her fitness, her body, and her pregnancy without fear.
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I wish I could say that I was surprised by the judgment. But I’m not. After all, the pregnant body being condemned is a Black body. Then, Chavis has a child with one rapper and, in some quarters, is disparaged as a gold digger who chases stars. And our society has rigid, racialized ideas about what pregnancy should look like.
Birth culture and the medical-industrial complex have promoted portrayals of pregnancy that predominately reflect experiences of white people. We constantly see a lack of Black and brown representation in images and information about pregnancy. And although pregnancy is natural, the Black pregnant body is framed as something unfamiliar, somehow abnormal, and subject to overanalysis and policing.
Historically, pregnancy was often treated as a condition that should be greeted with as little activity as possible. As pregnancy became more medicalized, pregnant people were urged to be confined to bed and avoid strenuous exercise. While there’s been a major shift in what and how much prenatal fitness is recommended—and we must acknowledge all pregnant people have different physical abilities and needs—the movement toward more exercise during pregnancy is complicated by race and notions of “appropriate” behavior.
As a doula, I’ve watched trends such as B!RTHF!T and prenatal yoga take hold. Both practices seem empowering—when the bodies on the yoga mats are white.
But replace that image with a Black body winding their hips and dropping it low in a dance studio, and the message is no longer empowering but dangerous and risky. Chavis slid into a pair of stilettos and twerked away the medicalized bias that views pregnant Black bodies as unorthodox. She reminded us how strong, resilient, and flexible pregnant bodies are.
Twerking has served as both a form of prenatal fitness and a comfort measure during childbirth in a number of settings. I’ve seen pregnant people slowly winding and shaking their hips in birth centers, labor and delivery units, and during home births as an effective comfort aid.
From my experience as a birth worker, I also understand another reason why Chavis’ video sparked an ocean of comment on social media. News of the maternal mortality crisis in Black communities is breeding caution and fear. After recent stories about Serena Williams’ near-death experience after childbirth, people of color are approaching pregnancy with far more caution than ever before. Black people particularly are setting more restrictions and boundaries for themselves lest they do something “wrong” and detrimental to a pregnancy.
Medical professionals have framed maternal mortality as a result of the pregnant person’s actions rather than taking ownership for the role that racism and medicine itself have played in pregnancy-related deaths. With this approach, it’s easy to shame and blame pregnant people for being “too active” in any form.
When ideas about appropriate pregnancy activity combine with representations of pregnancy as white, Black people are easy targets—even in our own communities. Joie Chavis is not the first Black woman criticized for not following the restrictions and expectations put on pregnant people. Cardi B was labeled a bad mother-to-be for her amazing Coachella performance earlier this year. She shared the festival spotlight with Beyoncé, who a year earlier did a full Grammy Awards performance while pregnant with twins and received nothing but remarkable feedback and praise.
Just two years ago, Ciara posted a video of her dancing through her home—jumping on furniture, executing all sorts of moves—while pregnant with her second child. Although their dance styles were very different, both Ciara and Joie Chavis are talented professional dancers, mothers, and respected figures in Black pop culture (not to mention that Chavis’ child’s alleged father, the hip-hop artist Future, fathered Ciara’s son).
You would think two women with so much in common would garner similar responses to their dancing-while-pregnant videos. But that wasn’t the case at all. Fans praised Ciara’s pregnancy and emphasized her recent marriage, rather than accusing her of neglect like they did Chavis.
Is it marriage, single motherhood, choice of partner, or reputation that makes the difference, even among Black women in the same industry? Apparently, all of them matter to what social media, medicine, feminism, and our broader culture define as a “respectable” pregnancy. And when women such as Joie Chavis dance while pregnant (and unmarried and parenting), haters unfairly embarrass and persecute them.
I celebrate pregnant people of color because these Black and brown bodies are not just carrying life, but also the everyday struggles and experiences that come with being people of color in this country. Joie Chavis and her baby bump dancing to Drake was the revolutionary act I didn’t know I needed, didn’t know that we needed—and a reminder that Black bodies can move in joy and beyond fear. Can we just let her live?