Brexit and the Maternal Body: Stretching the Skin Until It Breaks

By Rosalind Howell

Upon recently encountering a friend who was in her last few weeks of pregnancy, I found myself saying: “My goodness, surely you can’t get any bigger – you’ll burst!” As someone who considers herself pretty comfortable with pregnancy and birth, I was rather surprised and embarrassed by the strength of my (mostly unconscious) response to encountering her maternal body.

In the aftermath of the EU referendum vote, the metaphor of the body – the maternal body specifically – is a potent and fruitful symbol in helping make sense of the distress and chaos felt by many people. As Psychotherapist Jay Watts has pointed out, since Brexit some of our most deep-seated fantasies of the body have risen menacingly and overwhelmingly to the surface  (Guardian, 2016). The vote exposed divisions in the country that gaped open and leaked rivers of grief, anxiety, rage, and hatred out of the ruptured body of ‘civilised’ British society.

A nation state, as well as a body, contains within it a fantasy of an inside and an outside with a boundary to keep the two separate and distinct and within that idea is embedded a promise of safety and order. Brexit in part exposed some of our deepest fears of the outside getting in and the insides spilling out.

The skin is our primary body boundary – the part that borders with the not-us, and it has a permeability that is both concrete and symbolic. If a pregnant woman exposes her belly to the summer sunshine, some photons of light will make it through the layers of skin and tissue to the baby. If music is played near the mother’s pregnant stomach, some people believe it may positively affect the child’s development. Even the womb is not hermetically sealed. And in some cases – such as in ideas around child development – there is belief that the bodily border can filter successfully to assimilate what is good, nourishing and beneficial.

But the skin of the maternal body can be stretched to its limits during pregnancy and as my response to my friend revealed, threatens to break the contract to keep those insides away and out of sight. Psychoanalyst Esther Bick developed a concept called Second Skin: a very early response to feeling anxiety. She suggested that a pseudo -independent tightening of the musculature by the baby could be felt to psychically protect her or him from feelings of disintegration by holding together the parts that were not yet experienced as having cohesion (Bick, 1968). In some ways, a Brexit vote can be seen as the attempt by a culture, country or political system to create a second skin around its borders. That by simply holding on, holding in, holding up and holding down we can protect ourselves – not just from the other – but also from a fear (crystallised in the Breaking Point campaign poster) that we cannot hold our disparate parts together to form a cohesive whole. That we may literally and symbolically break apart. A most literal example of this was by Donald Trump whose response, exploiting this anxiety, was a type of concrete thinking that came up with the solution of a concrete wall built along the US border with Mexico.

The pregnant and lactating body threatens this fantasy of borders that hermetically seal most of all. According to psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, the maternal body terrifies us with its refusal to stay within its designated borders. During birth and lactation, blood, tissue, milk, even faeces spill, leak or are expelled with the force of the birthing. This breaking down of the borders of the body constitutes for Kristeva a breakdown between what is self and what is other and is experienced by us as a visceral and symbolic repulsion, or an abjection (Kristeva, 1984). Post-Brexit Britain has seen the thin social veneer cracking and the rage and hatred of racist attacks spilling out,  like a poison. Kristeva gives an example of the abject as our experience of the thin skin of warm milk that repulses, she says, precisely because its flimsiness threatens our confidence in our own skin’s ability to create a strong boundary between self and other. The abject refers to this place where the structures and laws that we feel keep us safe are disturbed to such an extent that we truly understand how fragile they are.

For Kristeva, these structures and laws which are defied by the maternal body are the building blocks of a patriarchal society, with its boundaries constructed and enforced by language, and definition. It is this. It is definitely not that. It is inside or outside, it cannot be both. The language of the Brexit campaign with its false promise of taking back control expressed a hopeless longing for an impermeable body, one that doesn’t bleed, ooze, sweat or leak, but as a result may also not be able to absorb, filter, sift, digest and discern. How we allow ourselves to ‘let in’ the consequences of the vote, both good and bad, and digest its ongoing impact on ourselves and others might also help us feel more safe, secure and nourished within our own borders.


Bick, Esther. The experience of the skin in early object-relations. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 49(2-3), 1968, 484-486.

Kristeva, Julia. (1984) The Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press

Watts, Jay. (2016). The E.U Referendum Has Caused A Mental Health Crisis.

Rosalind Howell is a Registered Dance Movement Psychotherapist and Writer. She has recently co-edited the inaugural issue of the Journal of Mother Studies.