Last week, novelist Benjamin Percy was interviewed on the TODAY show about his experience of being “man pregnant.” Percy wore a Japanese-engineered pregnancy suit for nine weeks in an effort to be a better father by gaining an understanding of what women go through when they’re pregnant. When I saw the story (and the smug interview), I was uneasy. Not only was the interview tediously unfunnny, Percy’s pregnancy suit struck me as a rude, half-baked attempt to figure out what the hell women have been complaining about since the beginning of time. But Percy’s story, originally written for GQ’s humor section, isn’t the first “dude tries to approximate pregnancy” experiment we’ve seen lately.
A few months ago, Dutch TV hosts Dennis Storm and Valerio Zeno made news when they hooked themselves up to electrodes in an effort to experience “the worst pain there is”: giving birth. Their two-hour simulation left them cursing, screaming, and saying it was “torture.”
I appreciate that these guys are aiming for empathy. Percy’s experiment and that of Dennis Storm and Valerio Zeno show that men are considerably more sensitive to women’s experiences than previous generations. That’s a good thing. I mean, can you imagine your grandfather willingly undergoing a birth simulation? I sure can’t. Still, I can’t shake off the clinging sense of resentment and weirdness I’m feeling about the experiments. The media stunts reinforce dual perceptions of pregnancy in our culture: as a horrible, painful biological process and as something special that must be protected and put on a pedestal.
Obviously, Percy’s experience with the pregnancy suit is only a small part of the actual condition of being pregnant. There’s a myriad of other physical symptoms he didn’t deal with, from nausea and sleeplessness to swelling, heartburn, and increased urination—to name just a few. Not to mention the mental and emotional impact of pregnancy, having to think doubly hard about everything you eat, drink or do. Oh, and the teeny tiny consideration of actually getting the baby out of your body. Let’s also not forget the fact that each woman’s body experiences being pregnant in different ways, and that a pregnancy changes your body over time: it’s not just one stagnant weight, one big unchanging belly.
Percy briefly touched on the infuriatingly-common policing of pregnant women’s bodies, writing of his memories of his wife’s actual pregnancy: “When you’re pregnant, you become public property.” But it’s important to keep in mind that the pregnancy suit he wore made him a topic of public interest because he looked strange, not because everyone and their mother think they have the right to touch and talk to a pregnant woman (“Wow, you’re so big you look like you’re having twins! “I hope you’re going to breastfeed.” “Let me tell you about my friend’s induction….”)
The pregnancy suit GQ article purports to come out of a desire to both become a better father and to beget an understanding of pregnancy. But he writes of how surprised he was at the negative reactions the suit garnered from women he encountered: He expected to get a “pat on the back” for his efforts. Call me crazy, but that expectation doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of any real desire to empathize. When he was interviewed on the Today show, the host seemed to have a better understanding as to why women took issue with the suit. Benjamin Percy’s humor fell flat when he told the leery-looking host he did it to “make up for my mouth-breathing, hairy-chested, caveman deficiencies.” Surprise, surprise—Percy has no future plans to spend any more time in the pregnancy suit.
Percy also told the show that wearing the pregnancy suit proved to him that he’s not “man enough to be a woman.” Yikes. Way to cancel out your apparently good intentions. Ultimately, gimmicky stunts like this one and the labor simulation by the Dutch TV show hosts only prove that simulation of pregnancy and birth experiences just serve to provide a man with a story to tell—a man’s story that doesn’t bring anyone, not even the men themselves, closer to empathy.