There is nothing quite as magnetic as a pregnant belly. People are just drawn to it. We can’t keep our hands off our own bellies while we’re pregnant, and as almost every mother out there can attest, neither can anyone else.
We have all had the experience of a family member, co-worker or random dude on the subway placing their hand on our bellies like it’s nothing. Like it is the most normal thing in the world for a total stranger to see you and think, “Wow, she has a really large uterus. I’m going to touch it.”
And it’s weird every time.
Women have varying degrees of responses to it, of course. Some women are okay with family members and partners doing it but not co-workers or strangers, while some flat-out don’t want to be touched and have an almost visceral physical reaction to it.
It goes without saying that wherever you are on that spectrum is completely fine. There is nothing wrong with having strong feelings about people touching your body, obviously.
But why is this such a universal phenomenon?
Why people want to touch your belly
There are a few time-honored, research-based, evolutionary truths: Humans are social creatures, and a species’ primary evolutionary goal is to continue said species. Pregnant women are the essence of these truths, combined.
Being social has been key to survival since the dawn of time. Before the advent of grocery stores and Amazon.com, if you didn’t have a community to help you get food, find and build shelter, and fight off danger, you likely were not going to make it. (PS—research has found that that’s why we crave other people’s approval so strongly. If the village didn’t like you, you were out, which likely didn’t bode well for you. This could explain why we check back to see how many people “liked” our most recent Instagram post so much. We need to be liked.)
People have a deeply seeded need for community—and who better to commune with than the women who are continuing the species? We feel this protective, nurturing sense of connection with women we have never met because somewhere in our brains we know it is better for all of us if she and her child do well.
But why the rubbing?
We do not know when language first began, though experts estimate that it was perhaps 100,000 years ago . But we lived in social groups way before then—and had to communicate somehow. Enter the importance of touch.
Psychologist Matthew Hertenstein conducted a study in 2009 in which he asked participants to communicate an emotion just using touch—they would touch a stranger’s arm, and the stranger had to ascertain which emotion they were trying to convey. Hertenstein estimated that the correct guesses would be low because we live in a society where touching others is frowned upon. Instead, he found that 78% of people were able to accurately determine “anger, fear, disgust, love, gratitude, sympathy, happiness, and sadness.”
Touch is the core of communication. We are hardwired to touch. It’s why, when a friend is upset, you instinctively reach out and touch her shoulder. It’s why we kiss our partners, and it’s definitely (one of the many, many reasons) why we kiss our babies. Touch communicates in a way that language can’t.
So the lady at Target who just starts touching your belly almost can’t help it. I certainly have caught myself reaching out for a belly without even thinking about it. It’s our human way of communicating all of the emotions that come up when we see a pregnant woman—excitement, hope, happiness and the urge to protect.
But, that doesn’t mean it’s okay.
Why it bothers you so much
Your body, your body, your body. That doesn’t stop being a thing when you are pregnant, even if you are growing a new member of the village.
No one should ever dare to touch your body without your permission when you’re not pregnant—nothing changes when you are.
Your instincts are also kicking into high gear. You haven’t met your baby yet, but you are already a mama bear whose innate impulse is to protect your cub. So when someone comes toward that cub, even the sweet lady at Target, your body goes into fight or flight. Our social learning over time usually prevents us from acting aggressively toward them, but you can’t change how it makes you feel.
If you don’t want someone to touch your body, they shouldn’t touch your body. End of discussion.
And remember, the law is on your side. Bridgette Dunlap wrote that “It is...illegal to touch a person without consent in every state, pregnant or not. That this isn’t common knowledge is a big problem with far-reaching implications for women.”
So know that, chances are, people reach out for a belly-rub from a place of genuine concern and compassion, but your acceptance or rejection of that rub is completely valid, and needs to be respected.
Diana is Motherly’s Digital Education Editor. She is a midwife, pediatric nurse and founder of Gathered Birth. She loves all things birth, and is passionate about empowering women to trust themselves and embrace their inner rockstar. Diana lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and 3 amazing, goofy kids.