I did a bad, bad thing the other day: Visibly pregnant, I went to a beauty salon and had my hair dyed. That may not seem like a big deal to those unfamiliar with American pregnancy culture, but to see the faces of the other women in the salon you would have thought I had walked in the door with a joint and a half-empty handle of vodka.
I considered explaining to them that I had researched the topic thoroughly and found that modern hair dye chemicals likely pose little risk to a fetus in the third trimester. I considered mentioning that, just to be extra cautious, I was getting a semi-permanent color to limit my exposure to ammonia fumes. Instead, I buried myself in a copy of Us Weekly and tried to ignore the whispers of the other patrons.
I never thought I would be the type of person who would risk public scorn to get her roots touched up. I’ve grown increasingly granola-y over the past few years, and my forays into investigative journalism have made me wary of certain chemicals in cosmetics and other personal care products. These days, I consider myself dressed up if I leave the house wearing deodorant, let alone mascara. But that was before I was initiated into the world of upper-middle-class American pregnancy with all its hysteria and paranoia, and began feeling the urge to rebel.
This is a world where having a baby can feel less like participating in an ancient biological process and more like taking on a high-stakes independent research project. The goal of said project? To produce the most intelligent, healthy and successful offspring possible, preferably one who will attend an Ivy League school. The women in this circle — highly ambitious and well-educated themselves — consume massive amounts of pregnancy and parenting literature long before they conceive, paying particular attention to creating the ideal womb environment for their future prodigies.
It’s a club whose membership comes with an ever-growing list of things to avoid for fear of harming the developing fetus. In addition to the usual suspects — alcohol, caffeine and soft cheeses, to name a few — there are nail salons, antiperspirants and all but the most natural (and expensive) makeup. And, of course, hair dye. The complete list would likely be several hundred items long.
Some of these recommendations are based on sound scientific evidence, and some are not. That doesn’t necessarily mean the assumptions behind them are incorrect; researching the link between a particular substance and its effect on a fetus is a tricky business. There are strict ethical guidelines surrounding the use of pregnant women as study subjects, and animal experiments don’t always translate to humans. Long-term data on the effects of low-dose exposure to a substance over time is expensive to gather and difficult to analyze. Wary of lawsuits, the pregnancy press and medical professionals alike shy away from espousing the safety of products and behaviors that are even remotely controversial.
Unwilling to accept this vagueness when it comes to their pregnancy, many women take a “better safe than sorry” approach and avoid certain things altogether. And why not? Unless the mother is avoiding some nutrient essential for proper fetal development, the worst-case scenario is inconvenience. Besides, when it comes to things like hair dye and makeup, isn’t there a feminist in all of us who cheers at the thought of escaping the death grip of the beauty industry, if only for a few months?
But there’s something else going on here, too, and it ain’t pretty. More and more, when I see my peers wearing their sacrifices on their organic cotton sleeves and foundation-free faces, I see how pregnancy can mark the beginning of an identity loss that is never fully recovered. For me, and I suspect many other women as well, the pressure to strip a personal routine down to its barest incarnation seems to come with a parallel pressure to strip one’s concept of self to only one’s role as an expectant mother.
The thing is, I’m not just an expectant mother. I’m a journalist who doesn’t want to worry about sweat stains around my armpits when I’m interviewing a source. I’m a wife who likes to feel feminine when I go out to dinner with my husband, and sometimes that means wearing makeup — not the natural kind. When I grab a cup of chai with my non-pregnant girlfriends, I want to be able to focus on the conversation and not the fact that my grays make me look about a decade older than they are. These roles and the others that comprise my identity are not dependent on the beauty products I use, but they are supported by them.
I realize that I will not be able to fully comprehend how all-consuming motherhood can be until I give birth to my own child later this spring. But I hope that even in my most absorbed moments, I will be able to hold onto the conviction that while being a mother may be my most important role at the time, it is not my only role, and that is OK. And I take comfort in the fact that when I finally meet my son face-to-face, he will be greeted by a mother with lovely, shiny chestnut hair.