The Fem Spot

Is motherhood under attack?

Posted in Feminist Theory, News, Personal Essays by femspotter on June 9, 2010

June 9, 2010

The countdown ’til baby for me is just under eight weeks. This time in my life has been a precious experience. There are days when I feel like the most beautiful and powerful woman in the world, and days when I want my body back so I can do all of the things I used to: drink alcohol in moderation, swim a mile with the crawl stroke, have comfortable sex with my husband rather than “Tetris sex,” or even just walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded. And there are days when I look around the world – my locale, the newspapers, the blogosphere, etc. – and I realize that this exciting time isn’t universal even though it should be. Pregnancy and its resulting motherhood in its best form should be a choice lauded by others, for all women who want it. It isn’t.

Here are just a few of the pregnancy and motherhood related issues at large in the world today:

  • Maternal mortality is on the rise. According to the Los Angeles Times and others, the maternal mortality rate in the United States has doubled in the past 10 years putting this country’s death rate higher than 40 other industrialized nations. Two women die from pregnancy-related complications every day in the U.S. And while that may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 11,000 or so babies that are born here each day, it’s still a scary number when you picture the faces of moms-to-be whom you know. “For each death, experts estimate, there are about 50 instances of complications related to pregnancy or childbirth that are life-threatening or cause permanent damage.” What are the causes of these complications and deaths, a third of which experts say are preventable? Obesity, increases in age of expectant mothers, increased implementation of cesarean sections, increased elective induction of labor by medicines, and over-reliance on electronic monitoring devices are being blamed as the main culprits of maternal death.
  • Is it okay to fat shame a mom-to-be? The New York Times reports that growing obesity among pregnant women is linked to higher risks of birth defects, cesareans (risky for moms) and even death for newborns. While this rise in obesity has been met publicly with disdain from the healthcare industry and subsequently a rebuttal argument of obesity support from those under attack – accounting for everything from the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup, trans fat and other additives found in inexpensive foods to even the perils of dieting and being too thin, etc. – in the case of pregnancy, obesity may have more to do with a failure on the part of the mother, putting her unborn child at risk due to her obesity, than her right to maintain her own body the way she wants to or is even able. It must be tricky for doctors to address this issue with their patients because conventional wisdom suggests that moms-to-be shouldn’t try to lose weight during pregnancy. (I had to drop out of Weight Watchers when I conceived because the program no longer offers a pregnancy plan.) But a doctor can’t tell an overweight woman not to have a baby, can (s)he? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to the pro-life argument: you can’t do with your body what you will because of the rights of your unborn child?
  • Abortion might mean eugenics for some. According to Womanist Musings, “(a)n anti-abortion group in Atlanta is targeting Black women by putting up billboards stating that Black children are an endangered species.” The New York Times also reports that some activists consider Planned Parenthood to be a racist organization that promotes elevated abortion rates among black women, with blacks accounting for 13 percent of the U.S. population yet 40 percent of its abortions. While Womanist Musings writer Renee upholds the validity of this fear while negating its foundations in a provable truth, she – as a womanist – asks for white pro-abortion activists to get involved in standing up for the rights black women share to elect abortion procedures. It makes me very sad indeed to think of a racist telling a happy expectant mother that she should abort under the guise that she’s better off without her baby, when really they mean that we’re better off. But I am sickened by the idea that some activists are telling women that they should keep their unwanted pregnancies because it’s their duty to their race.
  • Men think pregnancy is ALL ABOUT THEM! According to CNN, dads-to-be run the risk of postpartum depression too. Okay, I’ll buy that. But they don’t run the risk of maternal mortality, fistulas, varicose veins, back spasms, incessant heartburn and much, much more due to pregnancy. So sack up, dads! Now, it is true that the males of many species can act as incubators for embryos during the early months of fetal development. But only seahorse males have the unique privilege of being “pregnant dads-to-be” simply because of their inherent anatomy. While transsexual human males have given birth successfully, their pregnancies are due to inherent female anatomy (though, by choice, these men are known as “males”). Why would a cis male want to serve as a fetus incubator? Is it that he just can’t stand that females have one power that he doesn’t? Why does science need to find out if this unnatural occurrence is possible when there are so many other challenges it could be conquering: Alzheimer’s, autism, maternal mortality, etc.? By the way, guys, early scientists believed that women were “just incubators” and, until a couple of hundred years ago, didn’t believe female anatomy played any special role in conception and delivery of newborn babies. We know better today. I happen to believe that our reproductive anatomy may be the one cis privilege women have over men. So back the fuck off! And just because your wife has given birth, doesn’t mean you have the right to tell me how to run my pregnancy “the right way.”
  • Feminist mothers are under fire. I recently read more stay-at-home mom hatred on a radical feminist blog. One writer posted something about moms being too preoccupied with baby stuff “to do the reading.” What the fuck does that mean?! Do women who go off to careers or jobs every morning outside the home have more time during the day to read than moms providing in-home childcare? Do childcare workers also fail “to do the reading” too? Is it the baby stuff or the mom stuff that cuts into women’s “intellectual development?” (Apparently, I’m standing on the precipice of ignorance because of the major time-suck my child – wanted as she is – will be for me!) Intellectual development like exercise is something we make time for. And there are many fine activists who are also mothers. Crystal Lee Sutton (the real “Norma Rae”) died in 2009. She had three children and worked as a union organizer in North Carolina during the 1970’s, that lazy bitch!
    Furthermore, an overview of Elisabeth Badinter’s new book “Conflict: The Woman and the Mother” (Badinter is of course the heir apparent of Simone de Beauvoir because she’s, ya know, French) reports that Badinter “blames feminists for inventing the idea of women as victims, putting men on trial and making maternity itself a political act.” (And she’s a feminist because…?) Badinter also thinks that women are being socially pressured into unsafe situations: “The ‘green’ mother, she says, is pushed to give birth at home, to refuse an epidural as the reflection of ‘a degenerated industrial civilization’ that would deprive her of ‘an irreplaceable experience,’ to breast-feed for both ethological and environmental reasons (plastic baby bottles) and to use washable rather than disposable diapers – in other words, to discard the inventions ‘that have liberated women.’ Which of any of those green alternatives is unsafe? Home births are controversial in the U.S. but not necessarily less safe than hospital births. As I mentioned earlier, doctors are considering what caused the rise in maternal mortality here. Funny they aren’t looking into washable diapers, right?!
  • Pregnancy choices are dwindling. What I mean is this: women may not feel empowered to give birth the way they want to. And really, shouldn’t we be calling the shots? Isn’t how you give birth just as important as why and if you give birth at all? The choice to deliver naturally is in the same league as the choice of whether or not to deliver at all. Now, if your birth plan calls for an elected cesarean, a premature induction of labor, a preemptive episiotomy and the biggest, badass epidural you can find, go for it! Enjoy your “twilight sleep.” (That’s an Edith Wharton reference not a condemnation.) But if you’re like me and you want to have a natural birth unless there occurs a medical emergency, you should have that right too and not feel pressured by your obstetrician to lie flat on your back and throw your feet up in the stirrups like a cowgirl. You should be allowed to stand or squat or roll on your side or face the mattress on all fours…whatever works for your body and your baby. And you should be allowed to choose your place of birth: hospital, birthing center or home. Medical organizations in the U.S. oppose home births claiming they’re risky for moms and babies alike – but we must be skeptical about this stance since healthcare in the U.S. is centered on a capitalist, for-profit model. It is currently legal to hire a midwife and conduct a home birth in 37 states, though no state prosecutes mothers for electing to give birth at home. In Britain, Canada and Australia, to name a few, midwifery and home births are much more prevalent than in the United States. (Incidentally, it is very difficult to find reputable statistics about the (un)safety of home births. Please feel free to chime in if you have any.)

When I found out I was pregnant, I excitedly booked an appointment with my OBGYN and skipped merrily into her office where I was greeted by one automaton nurse after another shoving paperwork I didn’t understand into my face. The two big questions: do I want to elect a cesarean section and do I want to bank my baby’s cord blood? I hadn’t give either any thought. I mean, I’d assumed I would give birth vaginally because that is, after all, how birth happens. What they were telling me, in essence, was that I could elect to forgo all of the hassle of nature’s greatest surprise and declare upfront that I wanted to deliver my baby “painlessly” and according to schedule so that I didn’t miss a day of work beyond my planned maternity leave. And as to the cord blood, they were telling me that the hospital where “we like to deliver” only works with one private bank. For weeks, my husband and I tried to find a public bank we could give Ellie’s umbilical cord blood to for the good of the many and the integrity of our checking account. No public banks in our area are currently accepting blood. I have been guilt-tripped by the established medical machine into feeling like a lousy mother because I am throwing my daughter’s cord blood away.

I hired a doula. She’s going to help my husband and I experience this birth as a rite of passage instead of an emergency pathology if possible. When I talked to my OB about working with a doula, she asked rather abruptly, “She’s not going to tell me how to do my job is she?” I muttered “no” under my breath, lamenting that this doctor couldn’t look me in the eye, remember my name or think about my birthing experience beyond her role to play in it. Under the advice of the doula, I asked what position the doctor was comfortable delivering my baby in, and to my dismay, she told me that she’s only comfortable “the normal way” with me on my back and my feet up in stirrups. I was heartbroken and didn’t want to tell the doula that my voyage of discovery was going to end “normal(ly.)” How I wish medicine could be there for our risks and emergencies and leave us alone to find our inner peace. I should have made better choices or stood up for my wishes or felt empowered to choose earlier in my pregnancy…but I just didn’t know any better until now.

So, as I mentioned earlier, there are some days when I feel like a goddess and other days when I feel like I’m doing just what every other mother-to-be does and I and my baby are nothing special. Western medicine has a plan for us. It, like other feminists, has rules and expectations. My pregnancy and motherhood are violating somebody’s idea of how they should be.

On those goddess days, I fight back assumptions and shaming. But today I feel defeated. It’s time to do yoga.

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My pretty girl

Posted in Personal Essays, Pop Culture by femspotter on May 1, 2010

May 1, 2010

With all of the well wishes and God’s blessings and good luck and wood knocks in the world, in about three months, I will give birth to a baby girl. And I’m not the least bit scared.

Okay, that second sentence isn’t really true. I’m not scared of delivery and all the pain it brings. I’m practicing yoga, eating well and working with an experienced doula. I only experienced an evanescent moment of terror when the nurse at the OB/GYN asked me during my last visit if I have a living will and then expressed shock when I told her that I did. (Women still do die in childbirth.) I’m not afraid to “be” a mother. I’ll make mistakes along the way, but I’ll also do a lot of things right. I anticipate being able to keep my writing job, which I love, and transition it to home as much as possible; so I don’t think I’ll lose myself or my mind to a sea of diapers and drool and doo doo, oh my! My husband and I are joining a wonderful church full of wonderful people who will love our Ellie (Bean). We have a wealth of friends and family who will love her too. And certainly there is no shortage of love to be found in our home, with two dogs and the world’s most affectionate kitty at play.

So everything is fine and I am not afraid of having this baby emerge and become a real, autonomous person. It’ll be great!

There’s just one thing: body image. As a woman who has always run toward heavy, one who was told at a very young age that I’m predisposed to obesity and would have to work harder than most to stay trim, one who found herself in Weight Watchers by the time she was 11 years old, and one who was teased by some really mean-spirited girls in elementary and middle school for my chubby physique; I have founded fears that Ellie too may have to wrestle with the question, “Is my body good enough?”

Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe

Kevin James

Kevin James

Were she a boy, it wouldn’t be the issue that it inevitably will be. (I’m trying to be realistic about this.) Boys and men have a much wider spectrum of socially acceptable appearance than do women. Think about the movie stars who have achieved a-list celebrity status: sure, there are your Brad Pitts and your George Clooneys out there, but you’ve also go a lot of famous male movie stars that don’t possess six-pack abs and GQ style. Funny man Kevin James headlines movies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop at well over 200 lbs., yet he doesn’t face nearly the scrutiny and ridicule of similarly obese female Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe (Precious).

I hate to single out either of these two people because I think they’re both lovable, but the fact of the matter is, Sidibe has been slammed from all angles about her weight. She’s gotten support from some who challenge the suggested norm of Hollywood actresses. Casting Director Rachel Tenner (not affiliated with Precious) told CNN, “Obviously, there aren’t a million parts made for her. Do I read 50 movies a year that are for her physicality? No. But, there are a lot of directors who appreciate the work that she did, and that may help her get considered for roles that are not written for her.”

But outspoken radio personality Howard Stern – who claims to like Sidibe’s work in Precious – condemned the actress to a limited film career saying, “What movie could she play in? You feel bad because everyone pretends that she’s part of show business, and she’s never going to be in another movie.”

Further compounding the double standard facing Sidibe – and women in general, Columnist Jeffrey Wells emailed, “Gabby is a lovely person and a fine actress, but the hard fact is that she’s way, way too fat…I don’t want Gabby to not work, but the only roles she’ll have a shot at playing will be down-market moms and hard-luck girls working at Wal-Mart. No casting director would choose her to play anyone in the upscale executive world…because no one in the executive world looks like her.”

I don’t buy that “no one in the executive world” looks like Sidibe, or James for that matter, because obesity is a trend in the United States right now. I’ve worked with plenty of overweight executives throughout my career (granted, the higher-ups are usually male and white so you’re perhaps more likely to see James in a board room than Sidibe). Regarding the size of Sidibe, there seem to be three angles at work: 1. is she healthy, 2. is she representative to a portion of humanity, obese or otherwise, and 3. is she pretty?

Keira Knightly: too thin?

Too thin?

The road to the answer to the first question is full of pitfalls. Ask a hundred people and you’ll inevitably get a hundred answers about what constitutes healthy; and if you ask somebody with a disability, they’ll probably tell you you’re being ableist for using the word “healthy” to begin with. Some would argue that one’s healthy weight is completely unique to his or her build. Perhaps, Sidibe’s doctor would recommend a maximum weight of 150 lbs., but does that account for her bone density and any other special considerations such as thyroid or heart disease that might make it difficult for her to achieve such a goal? Some would say that being “too fat” is better than being “too skinny” in the long run because being overly thin can cause people to suffer anemia, broken bones or fatigue, etc. What do I think? I think the “perfect weight” for me is something my doctor agrees to: between 135 and 155 lbs. for my 5′ 5″, bone-dense frame. In other words, I think weight is personal. Would I love to weigh less than 135 lbs. and re-assume the size 2 clothes I wore in college when I ate about 500 calories per day and smoked like a chimney to stay lean? Sure! That’s what beauty is in our culture isn’t it: skinny and nothing else? But I love myself more than beauty these days so I’ll stick to “everything in moderation” and a size 8.

The answer to whether or not Sidibe is representative to a portion of the population and whether or not they and others can relate to her in movies and television is a resounding “yes.” There are plenty of overweight people in this world, enough to fill a couple of thousand theaters on opening weekend, just as they and others did for Precious (domestic box office gross: $47,566,524). Ultimately, it will probably be box office numbers and not weight analysis that keeps Sidibe in or out of roles.

Finally, the question of Sidibe’s level of pretty is perhaps entirely subjective. I remember having lunch with a friend who said that, while he admired her work in Precious, he was disgusted by her defenders who call her a pretty girl. “Because, let’s face it,” he said. “She’s not pretty.”

Hmmm. I actually think Sidibe is quite pretty. She has beautiful skin, hair and teeth. I was mesmerized by her in the movie because she was such a new thing to see on screen, like a Na’vi Avatar. Director Lee Daniels found Sidibe at an open casting call because she couldn’t be found affiliated with a casting agency: she isn’t the norm for Hollywood. But not normal doesn’t mean not pretty, does it? Is there an objective science to female beauty that can prove Sidibe is or isn’t pretty?

According to Discover magazine, and others, there is:

Marilyn Monroe

The mathematically perfect face?

(Los Angeles Plastic Surgeon Dr. Stephen Marquardt) collected photographs of faces the world deemed beautiful and began measuring their dimensions. Whereupon something peculiar and thrilling presented itself: the golden ratio. Beautiful people’s mouths were 1.618 times wider than their noses, it seemed, their noses 1.618 times wider than the tip of their noses. As his data set expanded, Marquardt found indeed that the perfect face was lousy with golden ratios. Even the triangle formed by the nose and the mouth was a perfect acute golden triangle…Marquardt contends that the golden ratio can be detected in the iris, the colored part of the eye. Take 10 golden triangles, arrange them with their sharp points touching, and you have a golden decagon, fitting perfectly within the iris of the eye, vertices neatly touching the rim.

So, you see folks, you’re only as beautiful as your mouth to nose to eyes ratio.

That may be the way Pythagoras saw things and it may play a part in our subconscious urges to ogle and celebrate certain faces? The same thing goes for arm to hand to torso to leg to feet ratios and the “perfect body.” (I myself have a long torso and a short inseam, much to my dismay.) But I think that in America, our standard of beauty has to do with two things: economy and repetition. It’s more expensive and therefore elite to buy organic produce, diet aids, personal trainers and weight loss programs than it is to fill your kitchen cupboards with high fructose corn syrup-filled non-perishables and forget about the rest. And wouldn’t we all like to be members of the elite? Ergo, wouldn’t we rather buy fashion magazines with Keira Knightly on the cover than Gabby Sidibe, the former representing who we want to be and the latter perhaps who we are? And that brings me to repetition: we consume images of slender women on television, in movies and on the newsstand like we do peanuts at a baseball game – one sweaty fistful at a time in rapid succession. With so many images bombarding women with how we’re supposed to look – oh so many more than those that bombard men, it’s no wonder we’re weight-obsessed and full of self-loathing, regardless of our unique states of “health.” Why, just the other day, I was driving to work when I found myself stuck behind a New Jersey Transit bus wearing a vodka print ad with a bikini-clad female torso – just the torso, no face. Clearly this ad is aimed at heterosexual male consumers rather than my kind; I read it and did not think to myself, “Gee, I’ll get abs like those if I drink that brand of vodka.”

Georgi Print Ad

This ad was temporarily banned in New York City.

If I can’t escape the world of female body shaming even in the privacy of my own car with the windows rolled up and the Back Street Boys blaring on the radio just mildly drowning out my singing along – and I’m a confident 30 year-old mother-to-be, than what is in store for Ellie? However she comes out, she’ll be beautiful to her parents, even if others squeamishly nod at her in approval and then lament her less-than-attractive looks behind our backs. I thought I’d found a solution to this fear that I’ll raise a daughter who’ll hate her body when I came across an article in The New York Times Magazine on April 18, 2010: “The Fat Trap.” It asks the question: Can a mother simultaneously encourage her daughter to watch what she eats and to accept her body?

Oh joy! Somebody did all of the legwork for me! Well, not the case: this article provides no answers to this query except to say that conversations about food and fat and body image cannot be entirely avoided. What?! That’s all we well-intentioned mothers-of-daughters-to-be get for reading this essay! For shame!

But the truth of the matter is that there probably is no answer to this question – or rather the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no; not just because every mother-daughter relationship is unique, but because self-esteem is something that’s fluid: it comes and goes with the tide. I love my body until I read a report that Jennifer Aniston just lost 7 lbs. in 7 days…and then I feel guilty for that 2 oz. bag of trail mix I just scarfed. And if I tell Ellie she’s pretty, she will probably love her body until Suri Cruise turns out to be anorexic or has cosmetic surgery to fix her flaws, or a mean little girl on the playground makes fun of Ellie’s nose to mouth ratio (only she probably won’t be that scientific, read: nice, about it).

Turn to page 22 of that same magazine and you’ll find “The Anatomy of Desire,” which asks the question: What is a man’s ideal female form? A study of the blind tries to find out. What the fuck?! This is the “health” issue, right…not the drive women to anxiety, depression and eventual suicide issue? So now women not only have to worry about what seeing men think of our bodies, we have to worry about what blind men think too? That’s preposterous…yet it proves my point: women and our bodies are at war with the standards of beauty – many of them rooted is misogyny – that our society upholds to be perfection, and nothing less will do.

Okay, I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic in the future. I have years before I’ll have to worry about having the talk with Ellie about health and beauty. In the meantime, we’ll just refer to my Weight Watchers meeting as “the meeting” I attend with Aunt A** and Aunt N*****. And fruits and vegetables will be just as fun to eat as candy because they can come with a dollop of peanut butter on the side. And we’ll dance our afternoons away to groovy Sesame Street tunes on CD. And, unless the next Hannah Montana has an eating disorder, Ellie probably won’t notice the difference between her looks and Montana’s. And we’ll tell her every day how beautiful she is and how much we love her.

I’ll try to be brave.

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