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.

***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.


  1. In my experience (I'm 68 years old) the protrayal of childbirth in movies and especially TV make it look like a much easier and shorter process than in reality. I've never seen an accurate representation of a 36-hour labor, for example.
    In any case, if I had it to do over -- I wouldn't.

  2. Anonymous4/23/2010

    Just throwing this out there to highlight that everyone's experience is different. My mother always thought the TV/movie portrayal of childbirth was obnoxious. She didn't think it was anywhere near as bad as all the screaming and moaning would indicate. I'm pretty certain though that my mother has a very high pain tolerance.

    I've never had a child and I will do everything in my power and then some to make sure that I never do. As a result, while I agree with you that the current framing of pregnancy and childbirth is problematic for the most part, I find "If we were to start portraying childbirth as something that women are inherently good at given the right kind of support" worrisome. I have had counselors pretty much throw this in my face as a reason I should have children. Essentially saying "You have no excuse not to have children. This is what women do and are good at/for. You should do it too irregardless of how you feel." It may be that I'm being hypersensitive...

    I don't really know Jillian Michaels. But I know that there are certain frustrated responses I fall back on, rightly or wrongly, when confronted by someone who won't let my childlessness go and "I don't want to destroy my body" is one of them.

    -VS (Sorry too lazy to make a profile)

  3. @VS: I agree that the pressure on able-bodied women to procreate in our culture is ridiculous, but I think Rachael's framing of this as one aspect of reproductive freedom counters that problem. True reproductive freedom inherently involves maximizing the control women have over their bodies, and so both embracing the choice to be childless and supporting women in childbirth are equally called for.

  4. diamondsforhorses4/23/2010

    But there's a pretty basic problem with just parroting these ideas, right?

  5. Anonymous4/23/2010

    @Riley: Yeah, I thought that I was perhaps being a might too sensitive. I got so wrapped up in the trees I missed the forest.

  6. Diamonds,

    For sure. I do think she should give it a little more thought, but at the end of the day she's no different than a lot of celebrity self-help gurus who just kind or mindlessly articulate our implicit shared beliefs.


    Yes, I think we should spend more time arguing for both reproductive freedom from and freedom to. 'Cause freedom without meaningful choices is um, not freedom.

  7. happyfeminist4/23/2010

    Yes, I think we should spend more time arguing for both reproductive freedom from and freedom to.

    This is a particularly good way to phrase it, I think.

  8. When I went through the whole pregnancy and childbirth thing, I was a new feminist, and there was a lot about the system that bugged me, but I couldnt put my finger on it. As usual, you've articulated it here perfectly. I want to print this on a bunch of index cards and distribute them to the world:

    "...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."

    Yes, yes, doubleyes!

  9. Lizzay4/23/2010

    Some of the comments on websites covering the Jillian Michals story are really depressing. It's surprising how many of them try to shame her for choosing not to have a child. It pretty clearly demonstrates the need for all kinds of reproductive freedom that's been mentioned in this thread.

  10. Anonymous4/23/2010

    Hi Rachel,

    I'm here via Shakesville. I'm a woman in my 20s. For a long time, I was absolutely terrified and horrified by the thought of childbirth. (Too much TV, perhaps? ;) ) I feared the "out of control" part of the process, and resolved never to have children. My turning point was reading Dooce's recent childbirth story. She was in control, and she was awesome. She showed me that childbirth could be a positive experience. I now think a small "maybe" to the idea of having children.

  11. Anonymous4/23/2010

    I really enjoyed 95% of this article, but I think that it's totally ok for Jillian Michals to not want a child for the reason she gives (and for whatever reason).
    Without implying that she's never been guilty of fat-shaming, I believe it's a completely valid personal reason to not give birth to a child, especially considering that Jillian's career is centered around the shape of her body and her degree of "fitness".

  12. Anonymous4/24/2010

    I'm torn by this, because while I absolutely agree with you, 100% about everything you say in this article, the part I find really problematic is that this woman, who I never heard of before people were upset she didn't want to reproduce, absolutely has a right to decide not to have children. And if she says she doesn't want to do it because she doesn't want to "spoil her body," then I'm thinking that even if you refuted this argument with an assortment of proof to the contrary, she will probably have another reason why she doesn't want to. I imagine that eventually it would come down to, she just doesn't want to. And that's fine, that's her choice.

    So, while all of the points you make about it being the fear of the thing, more than the thing itself, that makes childbearing such an intimidating experience for many women, I think its important to not forget about the need to remember an individual's agency in the matter. In the end, I think this post did not even have to mentioned Jillian Michaels.

  13. Anonymous4/24/2010

    There's a cultural narrative that says the decision to not procreate is always selfish no matter what the reason(s). Women whose livelihoods depend on conforming to a narrow standard of beauty are damned if they do and damned if they don't reproduce.

    Pregnancy and childbirth (even the adoption industry) have been co-opted by patriarchy, capitalism, war and other industrial interests, but it's also true that the maternal mortality rate around the world is appalling, especially where medical and nutritional support are lacking. So there's that.

    The view of childbirth as being about prolonged physical agony, where women are expected to endure hours or days of excruciating pain with no relief if that's what nature dishes out, is just as troubling as the view that there's always a need for intervention. And contemporary Western medicine combines both -- the indifference to women in extreme pain and commandeering their very bodily processes. That's a dismal combo. Opting out of that is de-facto sane, in my opinion, for whatever reason(s).

    A general shout-out to all the great doulas out there who serve laboring women. Angels, all.

  14. Anonymous4/24/2010

    Here via Shakesville, with comments which may be perceived as odd. (Not Shakesville's fault.) While I think Ms. Michaels' objection--that she may ruin her body--is particularly silly (are we not deluged with magazine stories of celebrity women who have regained their "pre-baby" figures in lightning time), I also believe that every woman has a right to her opinion on the issue, no matter what it is. I'd also like to point out that she has said if she wants a kid, she'll adopt, which is going to be a good thing for a kid without a home, and there are a lot of those in the world.

    I never had children. My mother saw to that by brainwashing me with long lectures about the hellishness and ugliness, let alone the pain and terror, of carrying me to term. She started when I was a pre-teen, and didn't let up until I left home for college. Hitler could have learned from my mother when it came to brainwashing.

    However, when it comes to other people's choices and what I've seen on tv and movies--those things are obviously silly. Just compare them to the women we see on the street, the conversations we hear from co-workers, and the experiences of our friends. Women talk. We talk in the ladies' rooms, over lunch, while shopping, at dinner, at the movies. We talk about everything. Even the childless hear stories about other people's pregnancies, and if we pay attention, we learn that every pregnancy is different. The recovery from every pregnancy is different. Some of us go the drug route, some don't. Some bounce back, some don't. And the media DO keep us aware of the dangers, just as responsible ob/gyns keep us aware if we're hearing alarmist information or things that reasonable people should keep in mind.

    People who tell other people to have kids are idiots. It's the most personal decision a woman can make, and apart from her partner, she has to make it herself. It's her body and her life.

    But as for those who are considering the decision? We are inundated with the best, most up-to-date information women have ever had (I speak of women in the western world), and most of us are exposed to a number of different choices, so we aren't forced to go one way or another. Most of us don't HAVE to go natural (::shudder::); most of us are beginning to learn that too many C-sections are a bad idea (talk about something that should have been obvious). If we stop, and think, and proceed carefully, we have the most modern, independent experience women have ever had. All we have to do is think, and do so before we speak.

  15. tammypierce,

    I disagree that we're inundated with the best information that can be had. My first pregnancy was during grad school, so naturally my instinct was to get a lot of books and read everything I could find about pregnancy and childbirth. I was astounded by the misinformation that's a regular part of our cultural narrative about childbirth and pregnancy, and much of this came from the doctors and nurses themselves. I was not informed of the many risks involved with epidurals, and the fact that going the epidural-pitocin route pretty much always removes the mother's ability to move around and try different positions and have any physical control over the birth. I was also not informed that your chances of c-section double with the epidural-pitocin combo, and your chances of all the other interventions sharply increase as well. When I told a few close friends that I was having second thoughts about the epidural, they acted like I had lost my mind, and said things like "you know it's 100% safe, right?" And of course they would say that, because that's what you're told by your doctor. So I think there's a huge issue surrounding informed consent in this case. Mothers are usually not given the kinds of info and time to make decisions concerning childbirth that they would be required to have in almost any other medical situation. That's a major concern to me and I think it's a huge feminist issue that somehow the rules about informed consent don't apply in the area of reproductive health the way they do elsewhere. And I think it's another way our autonomy is torn from us during the process of childbirth, to use Rachel's phrasing.

  16. I'm in between a bunch of chaotic activities but just wanted to post a quick response to several of the comments about Jillian Michael's choice not to reproduce. I absolutely believe she should have the choice not to bear a child, and that she shouldn't have to defend that choice in any way at all. And I sort of think the pressure to defend her choice is intensified by our cultural narratives surrounding bi or lesbian women. But that's a whole other post.

    The title of this post was actually originally a reference to the clusterfuck of media coverage and comments and fucked up attitudes that have been revealed by her making this statement. But I also think it's telling how she phrased it. She said she didn't think she could handle "doing that to her body." As if childbirth is akin to cutting off your arm. And this cultural view is fucked, along with the fact that women have to explain their reproductive choices at all. But I guess I'm more than a little irritated that "reproductive choice" has sort of come to mean "access to abortion" and that's it. Abortion is without a doubt an immensely important issue. But so is the right to choose not to have kids at all, the right to choose how you will give birth without being bullied and portrayed as an imbalanced conspiracy theorist who's bent on harming your child, and the right to have access to medical sterilization without getting your husband's signature. And it just seems to me like these other issues fall by the wayside most of the time, and we allow a patriarchal medical establishment to dictate to us how it works. But of course, the most fundamental unit needed to build and maintain a patriarchy is docile bodies. So before I turn this comment into a caffeine-fueled, theory-heavy rant, I'm gonna call it good and head off to the next round of exhausting weekend activities. Have a great night everyone!

  17. Serendipity4/24/2010

    ditto to the doula comment up above! when you find yourself in the grip of the medical machinery its one of the times in your life when you need an advocate more than ever. also that's one of the best descriptive phrases ever coined and I plan to unashamedly steal it whenever I see fit.

  18. CharlieHorse4/24/2010

    This post kicks ass. That is all.

  19. Anonymous4/25/2010

    To the commenter upthread who mentioned the maternal morality rate in countries where medical care is lacking... in the US we have now surpassed some of those countries, and our maternal mortality rate continues to climb as our c-section rate climbs. There's a lot of denial about it and a "goshgollygee what's causing this to happen?" attitude within the medical community, but to everyone else who doesn't have a stake in increasing c-section rates, these are obviously linked.

  20. Anonymous4/25/2010

    It's almost unusual to find a woman in my part of western kentucky who had a baby any way other than c-section. And they often say "I had to have a c-section..." with such certainty. I also suspect that there is a link between the increase in maternal mortality and the prevalence of c-sections. Doctors make a lot more money, and are considerable less "inconvenienced" when the mother delivers via c-section instead of naturally.

  21. Shayla4/25/2010

    I though this was helpful, and points out some of the shortcomings of our medical system that you referred to:

  22. Anonymous4/26/2010


    "She said she didn't think she could handle "doing that to her body." As if childbirth is akin to cutting off your arm."

    Uh, that's your interpretation. To me it sounds much more ambigous, like she thinks that changes that pregnancy (not childbirth!) would bring to her body would be hardly positive. Which is rather unsurprising, i mean, what's exactly that positive about being pregnant, physically? Had i been a woman and actually wanted to raisse a kid, i'd never decide to get pregnant myself. What for?

  23. @ Tomek: I think you misunderstood the post. I didn't read this as claiming that pregnancy is a totally positive experience and everyone should do it. Did you read the last bit about reproductive freedom? This post was actually about the way pregnancy and childbirth are constructed in America, and making it about Jillian Michals is your own weird (mis)interpretation.

  24. Anonymous4/26/2010

    In a way you that's true, and in a way it isn't. That's because i wasn't commenting on the post itself, but Rachel's latest comment. I'd also like to point that this:

    "And this cultural view is fucked, along with the fact that women have to explain their reproductive choices at all."

    Isn't really true. The people that decide they want adoption/don't want kids at all get all sorts of scrutiny for their motives, of which Jillian Michaels is prime example (that said, her remark about rescuing is indeed a bit troubling...), but when it comes to biokids? Don't think so. Reminds me of the comment i read recently that pointed it quite well:

    "Why don't we put the same pressure on women who choose to have children to explain their reasoning and then pick it apart? You want something that's a mix of you and your husband? You think your DNA is special and important enough to need to continue? You want something that will love you unconditionally? You want to undo damage done to you as a child? You want to meet the expectations of your family and peer group? See, none of those are particularly compelling to me, personally. But mothers don't have to constantly validate their choice. They can reproduce for any shitty reason at all and it's totally OK. It's only the childfree/childless/non-mothers that we put on the defensive."

    Note, that while i endorse actively analyzing oneself motives, i really don't appreciate finger-pointing, blaming and high-horsey scrutiny.

  25. I'm not sure I'm following this last comment exchange. Just to clarify (and I thought I was already pretty clear about this...) I am not advocating for anyone to have a kid if they don't want to. I'm not trying to convince anyone that pregnancy and childbirth are great experiences. I don't think anyone should have to explain their reproductive choices to anyone else. I think "reproductive freedom" should encompass all the choices a woman might make concerning her body. In fact, this blog post was not about Jillian Michaels, but rather about the underlying cultural attitudes toward pregnancy and childbirth that were reflected in her explanation of her choice. I think she should be able to make whatever choice she wants, without offering any explanation at all, but I think the one she did offer is particularly telling about how pregnancy and childbirth are constructed in our culture. And I do have an issue with the way our culture constructs these experiences, but I am not criticizing or scrutinizing or blaming or pointing fingers at Ms. Michaels at all. She may do whatever she sees fit with her own body.

    Does that help?

  26. Anonymous4/26/2010

    I don't know Tomek, I think the cultural view that enduring pregnancy and birth is like cutting off your arm is really fucked. Do you think this view is unproblematic? If so, why?

  27. This might just be a language issue. Tomek, that quote you refer to is not claiming that it's not true that women have to explain their reproductive choices, but that it is true, and this sucks. When women in America choose not to have kids, they experience a lot of social pressure and have to repeatedly justify their decision. This is what she was referring to, and she said it's "fucked," meaning that it shouldn't be that way.

  28. L'ingle4/26/2010

    What do you think about this trend where pregnant characters in TV shows have this phase where they're in denial about being in labor because they're afraid of childbirth? I think the most recent example is Pam from the Office. Do you think this is a sort of accurate reflection of a trend that comes out of our cultural fear of childbirth, or just another instance of look-at-the-irrational-prego-lady?

  29. Anonymous4/26/2010

    I realize I'm coming to this late, but I'm suprised that this is such a lightening-bolt issue. Everything you say in this post seems undeniably true to me, yet it generates so much discussion and disagreemnt. Hmm.


  30. Anonymous4/27/2010

    this all reaks of privelige. so you had a natural childbirth expeience? hooray for you. but please stop stepping on thos of us who couldnt

  31. Holy cow! How did you get that out of this post?!?

  32. Anonymous4/28/2010

    Hmm, come to think about it, my comments indeed are directed at, uh, nothing Rachel said. So, i am sorry if it came as some really weird straw man :)

    (don't think it was language, it happens all the time on the web, people misunderstanding each other, and i was writing right after i was reading about this case elsewhere, and was a bit angry about all the flak she caught for saying that, especially people thinking she said anything about ruining body, when it's probably some journalist invention, as usual trying to make reporting more controversial)

  33. this all reaks of privelige. so you had a natural childbirth expeience? hooray for you. but please stop stepping on thos of us who couldnt

    So...frankly I'm a little bit confused on how this comment is relevant to this post, but I'll respond to it tomorrow, when I will hopefully have more time.

  34. Anonymous4/30/2010

    Wow, a friend linked me to this post last week but I just now read it. There's a lot to process here, and I've just started chewing on it, but thanks for bringing these things up and making us all take a step back and rethink it.

  35. I'm in the camp that thinks you didn't even have to mention Jillian Michaels to make your point. I get that this is what made you start thinking along these lines, but I think there are lots of people out there who can't read past the whole Jillian Michaels thing, and it's a shame. Attention spans FTW!