Flipping through my Facebook newsfeed one night I stumble across a good friend who always has interesting posts, real gems amongst the usual Internet drool. This time she's posted a poignant photo of a mother just moments after giving birth -- I love this.
The photo is a little dark, the colours muted from no flash being used. There's a blurry dog in the corner and the mom and new babe sit on a cozy looking bed. The woman's head is turned sideways, dark hair blocking her face, but her slightly deflated bare belly is clear and one nipple can be seen peeking out from behind her baby. She looks strong and alert. The gorgeous baby girl is big, pink, and has a full head of slimy hair, evidence of her recent arrival.
Looking more closely I can see that the baby's umbilical cord and placenta are still attached, lying in a bowl next to her -- a practice that allows the baby to reestablish optimal blood volume after squeezing through the birth canal. These are details one might not notice right away, but I'm a doula, and they stood out to me.
After taking in the undisturbed beauty of the photo I notice the caption attached to it, which goes something like, "This photo was reported as 'inappropriate' and the mother's account banned for 24 hours after posting it to Facebook. Share it with as many people as you can to promote images of natural birth!" Shocked, I think, "THIS photo was flagged 'inappropriate'?!", so I hit 'share' enthusiastically. This is just one more example of images of strong women, real childbirth, and love-based sexuality being shamed and censored, and I'm sick of it!
As a birth-worker I support women of all backgrounds, women with wide-ranging support systems, births varying from, "get me the epidural now!" to orgasmic home delivery. I support whatever decision a woman makes, as long as she is educated on her options, I'll back her up.
After four years of attending both hospital and home births, I've consciously chosen to distance myself from the institution. I've seen women given false information by nurses, treated with disdain by doctors, left alone in fear, harassed for not consenting to induction, and shamed for making their own decisions outside of the standard protocols.
Don't get me wrong, I believe that medical professionals choose obstetrics because they love babies and women and want to help them. There are fabulous nurses out there and skilled surgeons who can save lives in the (actually rare) cases when they are truly needed, but the system that they work in is broken. And the broken system of delivering babies in hospitals is the same patriarchal system that has undermined women for centuries.
There's no beating around the bush, we live in a patriarchal society. Men (and mostly white men) hold more wealth, political influence, govern more corporations, edit more media outlets, and hold more power than women. The advertising industry is no different, male-dominated for a long time.
Living in this culture we are regularly inundated with images of women used to sell products, and since the dawn of modern marketing these images have been manipulated to promote specific agendas. The agenda evolved, the notion that "sex sells" grew, and, following suit, the images of women became more sexual in nature and representations of beauty more standardized.
Enter 2014 where raunchy sexualized portrayals of women are used to sell items as mundane as online domain names (yes, that one's for you, Go Daddy), and even 5'11, 110 lbs. models are having their images photo-shopped to make their breasts rounder, their necks longer, their pouts pout-ier, and their skin darker (unless you have dark skin, in which case photo shop will make it lighter).
These images, engineered in a patriarchal system, are portraying an artificially narrow representation of female sexuality. The system is selling us the idea that we need weight-loss drugs, sweat-shop-produced clothing, toxic makeup, and even plastic surgery to be considered beautiful and worthy. Unabashedly, these images are being directly marketed to younger and younger girls, ingraining in them at ever earlier ages the idea that they will be judged on their outward appearances, that they are not beautiful enough, and that the way to make it in the world is to exploit their sexuality in a way that appeals to the patriarch himself. The pervasiveness of the system has duped many women into believing that we can fight it from within, but I say this only further subjects us to conforming to its warped values and experiencing the subsequent effects on our psyches.
The consequences of sexual objectification include girls and women experiencing depression, body shame, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and decreased sexual pleasure. Distorted female bodies have become marketing tools selling disillusion and disappointment. This irks me to the core, but it especially irks me when I see honest expressions of womanhood, female sexuality, strength and beauty being undermined and censored in mass media: an act that perpetuates the myth that the marketed images are real in any way.
The objectification and control of images of women in the media draws a direct parallel to the systematic institutionalization and medicalization of childbirth. For one, tits are on billboards everywhere, yet women are told not to breastfeed in public spaces. By regulating where and with whom women are "allowed" to give birth, the experience of childbirth has been controlled, and a patriarchal medical institution is doing the controlling.
Images of birth are rarely seen in our culture and when portrayed in movies or on TV it's a scary event: doctors are rushing around and crazed women are screaming death threats at their husbands. Just as real female forms have been hidden behind photo-shopped images, birth has been removed from the everyday, locked up behind hospital curtains and pain-killing narcotics.
This is not childbirth, as I know it. I know that delivering a baby has the power to be an incredibly transformative event in a woman's life. I know that women, allowed to make their own decisions based on information and intuition, allowed to birth with dignity in a place they have chosen, with a loving and supportive team of their choosing, come out of the experience empowered, changed forever.
Women have always delivered babies. Our bodies are very capable of withstanding the incredible effort of bringing life into the world, and we deserve great respect and appreciation for this sacred effort. There is a crisis of doubt and fear surrounding women's bodies though: they aren't thin enough, curvy enough, smooth enough, or strong enough to endure childbirth.
Convincing women that they need to buy products and procedures to become sexy is tantamount to convincing them that they need a team of "experts", an IV, and synthetic hormones to deliver their babies. The experts in charge don't tell us that there is an inherent strength that emerges when a woman delivers her baby without intervention, that she comes out feeling like there is nothing in this world that she can't do, like she is the Madonna herself, a goddess on a high! There is no more honest expression of beauty, strength, love, and female sexuality than during childbirth -- it's the epitome of all those things, but it doesn't look much like what Tampax and Maybelline are selling us. Don't be fooled into thinking that women aren't missing out on anything by surrendering our birth experiences to hospital protocol or giving into the pressures of society to look and act a certain way.
It's high time that the misleading nature in which women are being portrayed by the media is stopped. The stakes are too high; we are risking the health and well-being of the next generation of mothers by not putting an end to this misrepresentation. We must take it back by sharing real, unadulterated images of women: strong, beautiful, intelligent, and intuitive. We can reclaim it by sharing stories exemplifying the power within women, by owning our birth experiences and sharing those stories, by passing down truth and wisdom to our daughters.
We can take it back by representing all sides of female sexuality: femininity, playfulness, and incredible strength. I saw all of this in that photo on Facebook, and I shared it for my trust in childbirth, but I also shared it for my love of women in all their true strength and femininity. I shared that photo in defiance of censorship of love-based sexuality. I shared that photo because the world needs as many images of truly empowered women as it can get right now, and because I reject changing the system from within it.
Stop believing the ads that attempt to cut you down so their products can spread the illusion of lifting you up. Stop believing that you are not worthy because of your physical body. Stop expressing sexuality only in the packaged way it is marketed to you. Stop blindly surrendering control to representatives of a patriarchal system.
Defend real women by disengaging from the patriarchal system that undermines them! There is no more empowered woman in the world than a woman who has just delivered her own baby, in her own way, supported and loved. Defend real women by defending real birth, your mother would be proud and your daughters will thank you.