Beyoncé is on a quest to change how the world sees pregnancy. Along the way, she’s nudging us to consider the biases pregnant black women face, and the startling gap between black and white women when it comes to maternal health.
On the first day of Black History Month, the performer revealed she was pregnant with twins — looking like a goddess against a backdrop of hearts and flowers in an Instagram photo that evoked Virgin Mary imagery.
Since then, she’s posted dozens of photos on social media and her website, looking lush and glam with her swelling belly. She even performed on the Grammys stage in a golden bikini and halo.
For these public appearances, Beyoncé has been winning plaudits from cultural commenters, who say she’s “normalizing the beauty of black motherhood,” as Kelly Glass wrote in a powerful essay for Romper.
She’s also countering centuries of bias against black women in a culture that associates black women with “primitivity or wild sexuality” and whiteness with purity, noted the University of Sheffield’s Katie Edwards.
This matters because the marginalization of black pregnancy in our culture has also translated to its marginalization in our health system, with life-or-death consequences for moms and babies.
Put simply, black mothers and their babies generally fare much more poorly than white women and their babies, in what’s been called a “national health crisis fueled by racism.”
Black mothers have long been more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications compared with white women.
Black women are also more likely than white women to deliver babies prematurely — with devastating consequences. Preterm delivery (at less than 37 weeks) is one of the key causes of infant death in the US, and black infants die at more than twice the rate of white infants. Among the infants who survive, early births can lead to a host of health complications, from vision and hearing impairment to cerebral palsy.
When it comes to nursing, black moms are typically less likely to breastfeed, which has been explained by everything from preference to a lack of access and education about health benefits to the lack of support for new moms. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also showed that hospitals in predominantly black neighborhoods also do less to promote breastfeeding than mostly white hospitals.
Of course Beyoncé won’t fix these longstanding health problems. But she’s helping to affirm that pregnancy is something to celebrate, and that maternal health is something to guard. And she deserves credit for doing that, one gorgeous portrait at a time.