When you’re pregnant, your body is in one very literal sense no longer completely your own. But in another, more uncomfortable sense, it’s become a public entity—because complete strangers think it’s absolutely fine to comment on what you’re eating, how you’re exercising (or not, in my case), even how you’re walking. We’ve compiled some of the best worst pregnancy advice through the ages. Please don't tell any pregnant women they shouldn't look at monkeys.
1. Wear a Corset!
Women in the Victorian era were big corset-wearers. And despite explicit medical advice not to and concern that tight lacing could harm the developing fetus, not to mention all those soft lady organs in there, they often wore corsets into their pregnancies. Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Britain’s Historic Royal Palaces, in her book If Walls Could Talk, noted that, “It was hard to persuade women to take off their stays, even under the most extreme conditions.”
Manufacturers even marketed “maternity corsets,” a bit like the maternity girdles of today (Spanx even makes one). However, according to the University of Virginia’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library page on body modification, maternal corsets were not designed to support the growing bump: “Instead, the corsets were designed to mask, even minimize, the size of the pregnant body.”
Take this with a bit of a grain of salt: Many people were born during the Victorian era (too many, if you ask Malthus), and certainly not all of them were ill-shapen monsters because their mothers wore corsets. Moreover, women who could went into “confinement” sometimes many weeks before the birth, shutting themselves away from the public eye; they probably didn’t wear corsets in those last months.
Though widespread corset use died out by the end of the Edwardian era, some women were fans of the corset in pregnancy even on into the 20th century, as the self-published manifesto of one Pat Carter, writing in the 1950s, attests. Carter, who lived in Titusville, Florida, had made something of a sensation of herself when she delivered her seventh child all by herself, aided only by a few whiskey highballs. In her manifesto on homebirthing, Come Gently, Sweet Lucinda, she recommended women wear boned corsets during pregnancy. “BONED, B-O-N-E-D,” she stressed. “This will really stop the little rascal.” From doing what, other than growing, is unclear. (Thanks to Randi Hutter Epstein, whose fabulous book, Get Me Out, is a treasure trove of birthing knowledge, for introducing me to Mrs. Carter. Other gems from Mrs. Carter include minimizing your calcium intake to soften your growing baby’s bones, making sliding out of the birth canal easier.)
2. Don't Eat!
Mrs. Carter was also a proponent of the starvation diet during pregnancy as a way to “prevent the pooch,” by which we assumed she means the growing fetus. She wasn’t alone, however, in recommending that pregnant women eat even less than they did when they were not pregnant: Randi Hutter Epstein found an article from the March 1956 McCall’s magazine advocating a strict diet for expecting mothers—to keep them thin. Of course, the 1950s weren’t exactly a time of sensible maternal advice; after all, some women were prescribed thalidomide for morning sickness, with disastrous results for the infant.
3. If You Do Eat, Avoid Hares' Heads!
According to medieval lore, what the expecting mother ate would influence her child’s appearance. So, according to The Distaff Gospels of the 15th century, eating hares’ heads would result in a child with a split or harelip. Eating fish heads would produce a child with a trout pout, or a mouth “more turned up and pointed than normal.” And eating soft cheese would make your unborn boy’s penis small. Notably, eating soft and unpasteurized cheese is actually on the naughty list according to modern doctors, but less because of the penis-cheese link and more because of the listeria-cheese link.
The link between maternal consumption and infant characteristics persisted well into the 19th and 20th centuries; for example, women in around 1900 were told to avoid salty or sour foods, like pickles, to keep their baby from developing a “sour disposition.”
4. Avoid Cherries! (At Least When They're Thrown At You)
Don’t throw cherries at a pregnant woman. Another one from The Distaff Gospels, this claimed that “cherries, strawberries or red wine” thrown in the face of a pregnant woman would cause marks on the baby’s body. So don’t do it.
5. Don’t Attend Sporting Events!
Watching sports might be too exciting for a pregnant woman, according to a pregnancy advice manual from the 1940s.
6. Don't Read!
Sporting events weren’t the only exciting things to be avoided: Advice unearthed by Tommy’s Campaign, a UK charity that supports research on pregnancy, miscarriage and stillbirth, shows that women were told to avoid “exciting books, breathtaking pictures or family quarrels.”
7. Have A Smoke!
Doctors were aware of the ill effects maternal smoking had on the growing fetus from the 1920s; one early study noted that when the mother smoked, the fetal heartbeat rose precipitously, an effect they called “tobacco heart.” Later studies linked maternal smoking with low birth-weights, an increase in stillbirths and neonatal deaths. But the medical community tended to keep quiet about the links between adverse birth outcomes and smoking. In the 1940s and 1950s, tobacco companies ran ad campaigns where doctors endorsed their products. In fact, some advice implied that smoking was actually good for you and for the expecting mother because it was so relaxing. That’s why the indomitable Mrs. Carter recommends smoking.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that their findings on smoking and the impact on the fetus were made available to the wider public. And even then, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a nationwide campaign kicked off to get mothers to put out their cigarettes.
8. Don't Cut Your Hair!
There is a marvelous old superstition that persists to this day—ask any Russian baboushka or Southern grandma—that cutting your hair during pregnancy is a no-no. Exactly why isn’t entirely clear; some say that it’s because cutting your hair can make it drier or visiting the salon can harm your child somehow. Others, however, who are closer to the original purpose of the myth claim that you’re cutting your life-force. That’s right, Samson and Delilah style.
When women are pregnant, oftentimes their hair becomes shinier, grows faster, and is generally shampoo-commercial gorgeous (before it all falls out when the baby is about three to four months old). This is down to the hormones the pregnant body produces, which also slow your hair’s falling out; it also tallies with the notion that hair equals life force, so cutting it could harm the child. Obviously, there is no real link between the two, but it’s an old wives’ tale that’s really hung in there.
There is, however, one good non-medical reason not to cut your hair: Decisions made under the influence of pregnancy hormones may not be very good decisions. Vicki Iovine in The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy notes, “I know how simple and carefree a short, boyish bob cut can sound at about seven months, but pregnancy is not the time to try it out.”
9. Don't Have Sex With a Man With Stinky Feet!
This advice is probably a bit barn door and escaped horse, but medieval women believed that if the baby was conceived while the man had “dirty and smelly feet,” according to The Distaff Gospels, then the child would be born with some inherited stink. If it was a boy, then “unpleasant breath,” and if it was a girl, “a stinky rear end.” Also, the first child conceived by two virgins is “bound to be simple.” Sorry.
10. Don't Raise Your Arms Above Your Head!
Even now, some women are advised by their grandmothers and other well-meaning older folk not to raise their arms over their heads, especially in the later months of pregnancy, or risk getting the baby’s umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. This is absolutely untrue, but if it does get you out of having to do things like hang clothes on a line, then by all means.
11. Don't Look At Monkeys!
Or parrots! There was a pervasive belief from antiquity on that what a pregnant woman looked at would be somehow manifest in her child. In 1858, the Archduchess Sophia, mother-in-law to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wrote to her son the Emperor Franz Joseph to warn him about his pregnant wife’s love of animals: “I do not think Sisi ought to spend so much time with her parrots, for if a woman is always looking at animals, specially during the earlier months, the child may grow to resemble them.”
12. Use These Home Remedies to Avoid A Difficult Birth!
“Difficult” labor was often fatal labor well into the 19th and 20th centuries, and still is in some parts of the world. To help women along before the advent of the C-section, the epidural, and the Ventouse, or even forceps, chloroform, and doctors who washed their hands, midwives had a number of tricks. According to the Trotula, a manual of women’s health of the 11th century, a woman in a difficult or not-progressing labor should be given an herbal bath, her “sides, belly, hips, and vagina be anointed with oil of violets or rose oil,” and rubbed vigorously; she should be encouraged to sneeze, usually with the judicious application of pepper, or taken on a slow walk through the house (that one is actually helpful). If that didn’t help, then there was always the good old tying a snakeskin around your hips or eating some butter with special, baby-producing words carved into it. Obviously, medieval birthing was a horrible crapshoot.
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If you've given birth, what's the silliest advice you received? I've found people cannot resist telling cat-owning pregnant ladies that their feline companion is a toxoplasmosis-carrying assassin.