Two women continue to pursue their sport throughout pregnancy, despite judgement from others
By: Marin Scotten
Rachel Barrett is inspired by women in Nova Scotia who have surfed while pregnant. Barrett was surfing just a month before she gave birth to her daughter Lola. Photo by Jill Huett.
Rachel Barrett sits on her surfboard in the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean, trying to hold her own amongst a crowd of experienced surfers. She is still a beginner, and it seems as if everyone else in the water knows what they were doing. As she watches other surfers catch wave after wave, there is one woman in particular who stood out to Barrett. She soon realizes that the woman is pregnant.
“She was charging into waves. She was surfing so well, so gracefully and really just owning it,” Barrett says.
Barrett always loved the ocean and surfing became a way to connect with the water. When she first learned to surf, Barrett lived in New Brunswick, but she made regular trips to Nova Scotia for better waves. Of all her memories, learning to surf on the East Coast is one of her most memorable.
She wasn’t considering getting pregnant at the time, but Barrett still felt inspired by the woman surfing so powerfully despite her pregnancy. Learning of other women in the community who surfed while pregnant, she realized she wouldn’t have to give up surfing—a sport she loved so deeply—in order to have a baby.
Two years later, Barrett paddled out on her surfboard, eight months pregnant.
Though Barrett is extremely grateful for her ability to surf and stay active throughout her pregnancy, she’d often receive unsolicited advice from people both in person and on social media. People would tell her it was unsafe for her baby to be surfing, implying that she didn’t know what’s best for herself and her daughter.
Pregnant women are often on the receiving end of unsolicited advice. Whether it be about what they should eat and not eat, how much they should weigh, how to take care of themselves or how much they should be exercising. When a woman is pregnant, many people seem to believe that her body is open for comment, as if growing a baby means it is somehow okay for strangers to tell a woman how to take care of herself. In an article published in The Conversation, Jennie Bristow and Ellie Lee state that the message given to pregnant women in today’s society is that their needs and desires no longer count, all that matters is how their actions and behaviours will have on their baby. This causes pregnant women to fear being seen as autonomous individuals.
“It’s like as soon as the world knows you’re pregnant, people feel like they can lay down their opinion on your body,” Barrett says.
According to Elizabeth Kenworthy Teather, author of Embodied Geographies, Spaces, Bodies and Rights of Passage, a common piece of advice given to pregnant women is to “take it easy”— essentially meaning to rest as much as possible, not to lift anything heavy and not partake in any sports involving rigorous movement. The idea that women should refrain from challenging physical activity during pregnancy remains widespread.
Growing up, Barrett was very active and remembers most of her childhood being spent outside. She played rugby and football throughout her teenage years and always loved cycling and hiking. Into her adulthood, Barrett got into running, powerlifting and she also became a yoga instructor. In 2014, she took her first surfing lesson with her partner, Sean, in St. Maarten.
“I fell in love with the health benefits of [surfing], like there was nothing else in our lives at that time that would keep us outside and happy and engaged and present for as long as surfing could,” Barrett says.
Staying active became such an important part of Barrett’s life, both physically and mentally. When she thought of getting pregnant, she feared she wouldn’t be able to do the activities that helped her balance her mental health. When she got pregnant, Barrett had to cut down on her training, but when she did decide to go out surfing, she found herself receiving comments about her pregnancy and health from both men and women.
Lovon Green, a CrossFit athlete and personal trainer, had a similar experience. Before she got pregnant with her first daughter, Madelyn, in 2017, Green was training to qualify for the CrossFit Games—an annual athletic competition where only the best CrossFit athletes in the world partake.
Green’s training schedule consisted of being in the gym for around two and a half hours, six days a week. CrossFit combines weight lifting, conditioning and gymnastics. The training is rigorous, especially at the highest level. When Green got pregnant with Madelyn, she had to change up her training, but she still tried to maintain her strength and fitness so she could return to the sport postpartum.
Like Barrett, when Green got pregnant she said she’d receive unsolicited advice from people about what kind of physical activity she “should” be doing. Green says most of the comments she received came from other mothers who were skeptical of her ability to lift weights throughout pregnancy.
She adds that their advice was based on their own abilities and experiences. “But not taking into consideration my history, not taking into consideration my abilities before being pregnant, of what I was actually capable of doing,” she says. And though she tried to ignore these comments as best as she could, Green found herself sensitive to people’s words—especially towards the beginning of her pregnancy.
Barrett mimics her sentiment. “In the beginning...I was so sensitive emotionally,” she says, adding that at some point she hardened to people’s advice and expectations of how she should be living.
According to an article written by Jane Bainbridge in the British Journal of Midwifery, she states that when a woman is pregnant, it proves to be everyone’s business.
“It's as if a pregnant belly acts as some kind of homing device to every busybody in a five-mile vicinity and with each inch added to the waistband the signal gets stronger,” she says in the article.
Despite the criticism Barrett faced, her doctor reassured her that her pregnancy was progressing well and that surfing was completely safe for the baby—as long as she listened to her body. She always knew when a wave was too big or when the conditions were too dangerous to paddle out, but that came from her own judgement, not anybody else’s.
Green, who is now four months pregnant with her second baby, also found that listening to her body rather than listening to other people has increased the quality of her training this time around. She is able to push herself harder, but her body always tells her when it's time to stop.
A year and a half after Green gave birth to her daughter, Madelyn, she qualified for the 2020 CrossFit Games—a goal she has had for many years now. This gave her the confidence she needed to understand that it’s possible to come back from a pregnancy even stronger than before.
“It will be the same after this child as well,” Green says.
With almost 7,000 followers on Instagram, Barrett now uses her platform as a tool to inspire other women. She encourages them to stay active and connect to nature, regardless of their race, body size, age or economic background. She says representation can be so powerful for young women—to show them that the dreams and passion they have can become a reality, no matter which path they choose in life. As a woman of colour in a predominantly white community, she says she tries to use social media as a space to be authentically herself.
“A lot of the surf community, there’s a lot of women now, but it’s still definitely dominated by white men. But that doesn't mean I don’t belong here,” Barrett says.
She continues to use her platform to talk about the strength of women during pregnancy and to challenge the notion that women have to give up their passions in order to have a baby.
When it comes to being pregnant in today’s day and age, Barrett says nobody should be commenting on the way a woman’s body looks, or how she is taking care of herself. Pregnancy is demanding, emotional, painful, joyous and miraculous all at the same time. The fact remains- nobody knows a woman’s body better than she knows her own.
“You’re going through all these changes in your body, you already have all of these thoughts, you’re nervous, you’re excited, you’re trying your best to get through one day at a time, you’re feeling sick all the time, “ Barrett says. “And then, add onto that everybody’s ideas about what your body’s supposed to look like while going through this crazy life-changing process. I think society needs to soften around pregnancy and we kind of need to just leave mothers alone.”