DARING WOMEN AND PREGNANT BELLIES

By Andrea Adair

The funkiest thing I have ever done didn't happen when I was a crazy teen or in my daring 20Üs. It happened, oddly enough, after I became a mom. I was pregnant with my third child, in my early 30s and decided to create a permanent reminder of my final pregnancy. I made a belly cast.

A pregnancy belly cast or a belly mask is a sculpted replica of a pregnant torso. I first saw one on display at a feminist bookstore. I was shocked at the actual size of a pregnant belly and in awe at the daring woman who allowed her form to be captured in that fashion. When I booked a birthing pool for my labor at a store called Birthwaves (in Markham Ontario), a cast was on display there too.

Penny Meslo, owner of Birthwaves, thinks belly casts are becoming popular in Canada because of the movement toward natural childbirth. Midwifery is now legal and accessible across the country and women, she says, are demanding that birth be treated as a natural event. Bellymasks are a way of marking that event. She has been selling do-it-yourself bellymask kits called "In Honour of Pregnant Women" since November 1997, importing them from Francine Krause, a woman in Northern California.

"I saw them and thought they were really cool. I was really impressed with how they look all dressed up," she said. "Birth art (what the casts are) helps women come to terms with their body for a healthy pregnancy and birth," she says. "It's both artistic and introspective and can enable a woman to come to terms with her pregnancy."

When she started Birthwaves, Meslo wanted other families to have a positive birth experience like she had.

"I wanted to bring in innovative, top quality products to enhance the birth experience. I want to help women feel sexy, beautiful, and empowered when they're pregnant. The belly mask is art, is spiritual, is therapeutic, and is a keepsake," she said.

The kit contains everything you need to make the mask: plaster strips, unpetroleum jelly, instructions and creative ideas to decorate the mask when it is finished. It takes about an hour to complete.

I wasn't sure if I was going to feel empowered but I knew I could be daring and decided to make a mask of my belly too. I opted not to buy the do it yourself kit and decided, after checking with my midwife about any cautions I should be aware of, to find the materials on my own instead. After a little hunting I found a product that was non-toxic and could be used for a face mask (I didn't want to explain it was for my belly. Most people I talked to thought I was weird anyway for wanting to do this, and these were friends! Who knew what a stranger would think?)

It was a roll of plaster cloth that only needed to be dipped in warm water and then put directly on the shape to be molded. I bought three rolls, hoped for the best and tried to set a belly-casting date with my spouse.

Meslo had described the process of making the cast as a romantic and intimate experience between a pregnant woman and her partner. Visions of candles, mood music, and loving caresses danced through my mind.

That all flew out the window as we came down to the wire to do the cast. It was week 38 and I desperately wanted a cast done before I went into labor (although I swore if it wasn't done by then we would do it even if we had to do it between contractions).
The day we chose to embark on the project I started to hound my partner, Mark, from the moment he opened his eyes for us to get started. I wasn't even going to shower (thereby destroying the intimacy) and the kids were around (forget the candles).

We spread a giant plastic drop cloth in the living room (so I could watch TV while the cast dried), I stripped down to my underwear and we began. I slathered olive oil across my belly and breasts while he cut the plaster cloths into strips the width of my belly. For anyone thinking of doing this, the olive oil acts as a barrier between your flesh and plaster preventing your skin absorbing anything and making it easier for the mask to be pulled off. You have to put A LOT of oil on your skin, all
over, to make sure nothing sticks.

You don't have to cast the full torso if you don't want to. You can just do as far as the top of your belly and forget the breasts if you like. But my breasts were larger with the third pregnancy than they had ever been. If we were going to do this, we definitely had to do the WHOLE thing.

As Mark wet the pieces and started to spread them across my belly, my anxiety about what we were doing grew. What if it didn't work? Or most importantly, what if I couldn't get the thing off when it was finished? (The cast is only of the front of your body so it can be removed fairly easy by gently tugging at the sides.) His confidence that it was O.K. and it was working and that we would rip it off if we needed to get it off me, helped me relax. I leaned back and started to enjoy the feeling of warm, wet cloth being spread across my belly.

Mark, an engineer, was intent on his task and wanted to ensure "the structural integrity of the sculpture" would remain intact, which meant I was to stop moving and stop laughing or the shape of the mask would be lost. Fortunately the babe moved a lot so that's who got the blame.

The relaxing part started to fade as my position got a little awkward, the cast started to dry, and I could feel the odd hair getting a gentle tug. As it hardened the mask got a little heavier and stirred the slightest feelings of claustrophobia. It wasn't heavy, but it doesn't take a great deal to make me panic.

"O.K., we're done. Get it off," I prodded.

"No," he kept saying. "It has to dry more. You don't want to do all this only to ruin it."

True, but I was starting to feel as if I would be stuck in the cast forever. Kind of like that stage of labor, transition, when you don't think you can do anymore and you want to stop.

"Oh get it off, get it off, get it off," I wailed.

He laughed. "Andrea, this is worse than labor."

Then we both started laughing, he through his frustration, me through my grimaces.

To speed up the drying he got the hair dryer. He was right. We couldn't pull the cast off until we knew the shape would hold. We figured we could reinforce pieces of it with remaining bits of cloth and perhaps brush plaster on the front of it later.

When he finally started to peel it off it felt like a giant bandage being slowly ripped off my body taking every tiny body hair with it. It was only about 15 minutes of moaning on my part to get the cast off (longer than it actually takes me to push my babies out in delivery) but oh, it felt like HOURS.

After showering and slathering my belly again, this time with moisturizing cream since there were a few red patches where I think some hair got pulled, I checked out our work. "It's huge," I said, knowing my belly was big with my baby but surprised to see a replica of it right in front of me.

It didn't take me long however, to look at my cast through the same eyes I had viewed the other ones. My big belly, flat belly button, and pregnant breasts all transformed for the sake of a new life, are now a permanent piece of art. As Meslo says, pregnant women are beautiful. Many people have told me that before, yet having a pregnant body for nine months, I hadn't felt it. That is, until I saw my belly mask. Amazing creatures indeed.



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