12 Terrible Pieces of Advice for Pregnant Women

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

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!

Wikimedia Commons

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!


Getty Images

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!

Getty Images

Watching sports might be too exciting for a pregnant woman, according to a pregnancy advice manual from the 1940s.

6. Don't Read!

Getty Images

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!


Getty Images

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!


Getty Images

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!


Getty Images

“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.
* * *
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.

13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

The 15 Best Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

A still from Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016)
A still from Ava DuVernay's 13th (2016)
Netflix

Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s frequently more entertaining. Thanks to the Netflix acquisition team, the streaming service offers hundreds of documentaries that chronicle everything from riveting tales of true crime to stories about bare-knuckle fighters and custody battles over amputated legs. To help you sort through their formidable selection, we’ve selected 15 films currently streaming that will either make your jaw drop, bring a tear to your eye, or both.

1. Finders Keepers (2015)

If an appendage is removed from your body, are you still its lawful owner? That’s the question posed by this irreverent investigation of Shannon Whisnant, a junk trader who successfully bids on a storage locker and discovers the mummified remains of a severed leg. The stump once belonged to John Wood, a man injured in a plane crash. When his leg was amputated as a result, he decided to keep it as a memento, storing it in a grill inside the locker. The argument over who has rightful possession of this fleshy trophy is at the center of the film, which sees the men try to resolve their differences in a variety of ways, including an appearance on Judge Mathis.

2. Long Shot (2017)

Juan Catalan is that most compelling of true crime clichés: an innocent man being railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit. With law enforcement dismissing his alibi, his lawyers make a last-ditch effort to prove that Catalan was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time of the assault. How they do that—and which famous comic actor plays a role—is best left to discover on your own.

3. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Anti-virus software tycoon John McAfee was one of the internet’s biggest success stories. Flush with money, power, and a desire to reinvent himself, McAfee relocated to Belize, where his story began to take on echoes of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. When all of McAfee’s whims are tended to by locals, questions over a neighbor’s murder take on sinister connotations. Michael Keaton is set to play McAfee in a feature film version.

4. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

The bonds of brotherhood are explored in this arresting feature about siblings Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman Ward, farmers in upstate New York who close ranks when police begin to suspect one of them murdered their other brother, William.

5. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)

When Jim Carrey stepped into the role of the late comedian Andy Kaufman for director Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon, he didn’t so much imitate Kaufman as become him. That process was documented in behind-the-scenes footage that was buried in studio vaults for years and revealed here for the first time. Executives feared people would consider Carrey—who alternately charms and antagonizes people on the set by never behaving as “Jim”—as being exceptionally difficult to work with. Perhaps, but Carrey’s modern-day reflections on inhabiting the eccentric Kaufman even when the film cameras weren’t rolling are a fascinating study of both the performer’s commitment and the nature of identity.

6. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox seized headlines in 2007 and beyond for being the prime suspect in the murder of fellow student and roommate Meredith Kercher while both were studying in Perugia, Italy. The competency and motives of Italian police are examined in this documentary, which features the first time Knox has spoken at length about her trials (yes, there was more than one) and struggles in a foreign justice system. Plenty of ink was spilled in the American media over her suspected guilt: Knox’s unflinching stare into the camera as she tells her side of the story will likely persuade you to think otherwise.

7. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)

Sun. Models. Booze. Would-be mogul Billy McFarland promised a lot and delivered little more than cold cheese sandwiches in his 2017 music festival debacle, which collected a small fortune in admission and ancillary profits and then wound up leaving hundreds of guests stranded on an island to fend for themselves. Pairing Netflix’s examination of the debacle and its fallout with Hulu’s Fyre Fraud makes for a fine double feature (even if you might be left with more questions than answers).

8. The Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2017)

Toy and nostalgia fans will get a kick out of this rewind to the early 1980s, when Mattel’s He-Man dominated retail stores and syndicated television. The feature examines the toy line’s origins—which involved dueling toy designers and a failed attempt to secure a Conan license—and its later incarnation as a low-budget 1987 movie. (Yes, Dolph Lundgren makes an appearance.)

9. 13th (2016)

Director Ava DuVernay delivers a powerful (and Oscar-nominated) indictment of the U.S. justice system and takes a closer look at how incarceration and sentencing feeds into widespread inequality. Peering through DuVernay’s lens, viewers may feel the scales of justice are tipped in favor of privatized and profiteering prisons.

10. Icarus (2017)

The cat-and-mouse game between drug testing agencies and cheating athletes is put under a microscope in director Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary, which uncovers the lengths competitors will go to in order to push past their physical limits. As Fogel digs deeper into the world of pro cycling and its high-ranking political influences, you may discover that drugs are so pervasive that athletes aren’t necessarily looking to cheat—they’re simply looking to even the playing field.

11. Senna (2010)

Sports documentaries don’t come much better than this portrait of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One racer who became a national hero for his obsessive commitment to being the best. That passion conflicts with the inherent danger of his sport, which undergoes a technological metamorphosis in the 1980s and 1990s that threatens the safety of drivers. Those risks are on display in the film’s kinetic, heart-in-throat race sequences.

12. The Seven Five (2014)

There are bad cops, there are dirty cops, and then there’s Mike Dowd, a Brooklyn officer who used his badge to siphon money from criminals and exploit the very community he was charged with protecting. Dowd’s downfall ushered in one of the biggest police corruption scandals of the 1990s. The film features Dowd’s unabashed account of his dirty deeds.

13. Voyeur (2017)

Acclaimed journalist Gay Talese stumbles upon what he thinks is the story of a lifetime: A Colorado motel owner named Gerald Foos who modified his guest rooms so he could spy on his occupants. Not all of Foos’s recollections of his voyeur’s playground hold up to scrutiny, and the film sometimes wonders who’s really in control of the narrative—the directors, Talese, or the enigmatic Foos.

14. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)

In the 1970s, Kurt Russell’s father, Bing Russell, started a rogue minor league baseball team, the Portland Mavericks. Playing without any Major League affiliation, the ragtag team barnstormed their way through several seasons, with an electric group of MLB castoffs making up the roster. It’s a fun look at a group that rivals the Bad News Bears in dropping the ball.

15. Dawg Fight (2015)

Florida native Dhafir “Dada5000” Harris tries to keep gangs and drugs from destroying his neighborhood by hosting a series of bare-knuckle fighting events in his mother’s backyard. The action is raw, but Harris’s intentions are pure. In orchestrating violence rather than letting it explode on the streets, Harris provides an outlet for young men to find some peace.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER