By Amanda Richards
Danielle Brooks never saw herself getting pregnant. In her mind, pregnancy was something reserved for other people, those far stronger than herself.
“I’d never really thought about what it would be like,” the Orange is the New Black star says. “I never thought about what pregnant people go through — how they feel in their new bodies, or what they’re experiencing month-to-month. Even with my mother and grandmother, I just saw them as having done something really strong, something I didn’t think I was capable of doing.”
Of course, the lives we envision for ourselves rarely match up with the lives we end up creating. Brooks is due in early November, and thrilled about it. She has a totally new perspective on pregnancy, her body, and what she’s physically and mentally capable of. The experience has opened her eyes to how the world interfaces with pregnant women. Often, she says, pregnancy feels like an exhausting paradox of being both totally invisible, and the center of attention.
“The hardest part so far was my first trimester, she says. “And that’s because of morning sickness. You’re overly tired, your body’s going through so many changes. But because it’s not a visible thing, no one cares. People don’t think to... not cater to you, necessarily, but even check in. But when you get bigger and people can see the transformation of your body, that middle stage of pregnancy, it gets weird. Especially with clothes. It’s like you want people to notice that you’re pregnant and they don’t. Or maybe they do, but you go through this weird phase, because your body is changing and yet you don’t know if people can tell. You become so hyper-aware of what you’re wearing, and how people are looking at you.”
Brooks says that the clothing aspect of maternity has been a huge pain point — and it’s part of the reason she decided to work with Universal Standard for Fit Liberty MOM. Piggybacking off of the original Fit Liberty campaign, Brooks selected a special offering of styles from the US collection that women can wear before, during, and after pregnancy, and exchange for free when their size fluctuates. She says that finding clothing options during pregnancy is a lot more difficult than simply visiting the maternity section.
“I’m a size 14/16, but I’ve gained over 50 pounds,” Brooks says. “So now I’m like an 18, but pregnant I feel more comfortable in a 20. You think you can just size up, but it’s really not that easy. Everything sizes up. The arms size up. The measurement of the ankle sizes up. Or the neck line sizes up — if you don’t get it right, you just end up looking frumpy. It’s been challenging to find fun pieces. And I don’t feel like walking in a store either. I don’t feel like trying on a rack full of clothes. That’s how this collaboration happened. I posted something about struggling to find clothes, and I just sat down with Alex (Waldman) for lunch to catch up, and she heard me.”
In addition to collaborating with the brand, Brooks has found other creative and professional ventures to focus on through her pregnancy. She’s hosting a new Netflix Family docu-series called A Little Bit Pregnant. The series follows her pregnancy journey, and gives Brooks a platform to ask the kinds of difficult questions that many women have during pregnancy, but are afraid to ask. She says one of the most important parts of the series is the focus on the alarming racial differences in maternal mortality. In May 2019, the New York Times reported that African-American, Native American, and Alaska Native women die of pregnancy-related causes at a rate approximately three times higher than those of white women. Maternal health among black women, specifically, is already a hot button issue in the 2020 election — Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have both pointed out racial discrepancies in maternal health care and outcomes. For Brooks, taking a deeper look into this issue was alarming, but something that absolutely needed to be highlighted.
“We’ve even seen these kinds of issues come up with celebrities, people with access,” Brooks explained. “Even Serena Williams had complications [in her pregnancy]. I talked to OB-GYNs and doulas about the issue for my Netflix series. It’s so important to not be afraid to ask questions that you might not know the answer to.”
Brooks says she’s encountered discrimination and poor treatment during her doctor’s appointments as well.
“I have a wonderful doctor that’s going to deliver my baby, and the nurse I usually work with has been A+,” she says. “But at one point, I got a new nurse — her attitude towards me was so negative. It was to the point that I didn’t even want to ask about the shot I was supposed to get. I was so uncomfortable, I wanted to leave. Sometimes I wonder if that comes into play. Women feel like they don’t want to overstep, or ask too many questions, or feel ignorant. Whatever it is, it means you ultimately don’t get a voice to advocate for yourself.”
In addition tackling more complex issues, A Little Bit Pregnant has its lighter moments — but even those made her think. The first episode of the series highlights her baby shower. Off-screen, Brooks says that some of the gifts received at her shower forced to her to unpack the kinds of messages being sold to pregnant women, even when they don’t realize it.
“When my baby shower came, I got a few body butters and belly oils,” Brooks explains. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is so nice. I can rub this on, and it’s going to help cover my stretch marks. But then I was like, the only reason I’m rubbing this stuff on my stretch marks is because the world tells me I’m not supposed to have them. But I earned these. Why can’t I embrace my body for what it is now, and later?”
Whether it’s new stretch marks or a new dress size, Brooks has no problem confronting the fact that her body is changing. For her, though, there’s no such thing as a pre- or post-pregnancy body. In her mind, it’s all just part of the journey of being a woman, a mom, and a human being.
“I have less than five weeks to go now,” she says. “But this won’t be over. After I give birth, I’m going to have a new body — again. I’m going to have to adjust to the new body. Ten years from now, it’s going to be another new body. That’s why I try not to put so much pressure on myself to what the world shoves down my throat and tells me I’m supposed to look like. In reality, you define what beauty is, at all times. You define your strength and your power.”