***Clarification: These are not my comments or my thoughts on Ms. Michael's choice, and they do not in any way reflect my attitude toward her decision and justification of it. These are either direct quotes or paraphrases of comments that were made concerning her choice on other websites. If you have a problem with any of these statements, please do not send me hatemail or leave perplexing comments here, since I am not interested in defending these statements that I never made and in fact think are hugely problematic. Thanks.
Friday, April 23, 2010
Clusterfuck of the Day
Now that I've typed in that title, I think I'll make this a regular feature. So much material, so little time...
It seems that Jillian Michaels' announcement that she won't ruin her body with a pregnancy is causing a mild uproar. "How dare she send such a negative message to women about pregnancy?" "Doesn't she know about the many, many women who have endured pregnancy and childbirth and are still smokin' hot?" "Doesn't she realize that there are some things that are more important than your appearance?" "Doesn't she realize we will all age and experience all sorts of changes to our bodies that will not after all reduce our value as human beings or signal the end of the world?" And on and on. ***
The thing is, I don't really think this is about Jillian Michaels. In this case (as in the instances of fat-shaming she engages in), I think she's just thoughtlessly parroting the ideas that we accept as a culture. And generally speaking, you can make good money and build a lucrative career off of this practice. It seems to be working for her, anyway. But the idea she was parroting merits a closer look.
In our culture, pregnancy and childbirth have successfully been constructed as a terribly dangerous, generally traumatic and damaging experience. When pregnancy and childbirth are portrayed in TV shows and movies everything is out of control. The mother is terrified and helpless and in intense pain. Medical professionals swoop in and rescue her and the baby from the dangerous unmanageable process of childbirth. The woman is rendered irrational by it all, and must be handled and controlled by the medical-industrial complex in order to protect her baby from her irrationality and basic physical incompetence. They deliver the baby while she lays passive in the grip of agony, or screams and curses at anyone who is nearby. Afterwards she becomes an unattractive, sexless creature whose only interest is cutting off her hair, gaining weight, wearing comfortable shoes, discussing different brands of diapers and slings and strollers and formula with other moms, and watching daytime TV ad nauseam. And this is just simply the way it is, we are taught to believe.
Given this cultural fact, why would Michaels, or any other woman, think she could "handle doing that to her body?" You'd have to reallyreallyreally want a baby to be willing to do that to yourself.
Of course, one result of this construction of pregnancy and childbirth is the massive profits to be made by the micromanagement of pregnancy and childbirth, with its plethora of unecessary interventions. There are hefty egos involved as well as the necessity of having passive, compliant bodies at your disposal when trying to manage institutional schedules and timeframes and processes. But I think the cultural mythology surrounding pregnancy in America has deeper roots than these capitalistic concerns.
The fact is, generally speaking, women's bodies are pretty well equipped to handle pregnancy and childbirth, and in the vast majority of cases, will do it just fine without complicated interventions and medical procedures. In fact, it's often these very medical interventions that cause "complications" in labor and childbirth that they must then be rescued from. What if we were to shift our understanding of pregnancy and childbirth to encompass these facts? It seems to me that in a patriarchal culture, it's hard for us to just accept the fact that there's something women naturally do really well that men can't do. We must either problematize it or fetishize it in order to make it mesh with our shared conceptual framework.
In the Victorian era, the "special abilities" of women were fetishized. Our reproductive capacities made us special and morally superior but also frail and unfit for the public arena and politics and those complex decision-making processes that would hurt our pretty little heads and could potentially damage our reproductive capabilities by diverting our energy away from our sensitive lady parts. So on the one hand you had this extreme reverence for childbearing (concurrent with the need for a high birth rate to feed the increasingly industrial economic machinery, of course) and nurturing and homemaking and the angel in the house. But on the other hand women's reproductive capabilities were thought to have a crippling effect on women which by necessity prevented them from being fully autonomous.
So either way the patriarchy wins, right? Either childbearing is like this superpower that women have which should be their main life work and prevents them from gaining any kind of social power or engaging in any fulfilling activities outside of the home, or it's the terrifying deficiency of the female body which endangers both mother and baby from which they must be rescued by the paternalistic machinery of the modern day western medical establishment. But what if we rejected both options? What if we looked at the reality of the situation and viewed childbirth as this thing that women do, and it can be quite painful, and it can be very empowering, and sometimes you need medical help, and you for sure need support that is mom-centered and focused on your particular needs, and you need accurate timely information and to be treated as if you were a rational, autonomous adult, but really, you can do it?
While I was pregnant I read all these studies of the subjective (self-reported) experience of pain in childbirth as well as studies which tried to capture objective measures of pain and compared them among women in different cultures. In cultural contexts where childbirth is less medicalized, and not thought of as a painful traumatic experience, both measures of pain experienced were significantly lower. In other words, if the mother dreaded childbirth and had been taught that it was a horrible experience, her pain was far, far worse. Even within the same culture, women who feel mistreated by their medical attendants experience much worse pain. Of course, this is because of the well-documented connection between the hormones our bodies make when we're fearful, anxious, or stressed out, and our experience of pain. If you've been taught your whole life to view something as a very painful experience, and to fear it, you'll experience much more pain. But if you've been taught to view it as a tough experience that requires a lot of strength but is nevertheless tolerable, you'll experience less pain and be more focused on the mechanics of the situation.
Of course, this doesn't mean we should downplay the pain women experience, or browbeat them about their choices, or exhort them to toughen up and get over it already. But it does mean that if women are mentally prepared and well-informed and well-supported, they're more likely to be capable of and willing to take on natural childbirth in a way that preserves and enhances their sense of physical and mental autonomy. Beyond that, it's physically good for both mother and baby, and exposes them to less risk, and makes the process of beginning breastfeeding easier, and leaves the mother with a very different sense of the experience of childbirth than those who are helplessly inserted into the medical machine and regurgitated later with a baby in hand and a long healing process ahead of them. And this is incredibly empowering, in my experience.
But there's nothing about our current cultural view of and approach to pregnancy and childbirth that would provide this mental preparation and balanced understanding of the process of childbirth, or make the kind of support mothers need readily available. And this means that for most women, their sense of bodily integrity and autonomy is ripped from them during childbirth. They are swept into the current of inevitability and made to feel that they are dealing with something that is above their paygrade, and which they would be foolish to try to manage or intervene in. The incompetence of anyone who is not highly trained when it comes to childbirth is widely accepted, so that exerting your will in any way, and actively delivering your baby (with or without the assistance of medical attendants) is seen as blatant disregard for the well-being of your child. And then the infamous "bad mother" card comes into play.
So this is how we perpetuate a profound daily harm to women. First of all, it's important to remember that the experience of childbirth varies from woman to woman even within a shared cultural framework. But beyond that, much of what determines our experience of it is based on our cultural mythology and the stance toward pregnancy and childbirth that this instills deep within our psychological makeup. If we were to start portraying childbirth as something that women are inherently good at given the right kind of support, and that is hard but doable and rewarding, women would have a drastically different experience of it. They would experience a sense of regained control over and connection to their bodies' capabilities. And this would be such a leap forward when it comes to reproductive freedom. Because remember, reproductive freedom isn't just about determining if and when you want to have a child - it's also about maintaining control over your body throughout the process of reproduction. And this is something that is too often neglected and underprioritized.