Supermodel Gisele Bundchen gave birth recently. Usually the gossip magazines will move from reporting the baby's name to detailing the mother's baby-weight shedding exercise and diet regime in the course of a week, but this time a pit-stop was made in the storyline for Gisele to announce that the birth had been painless.
'I wanted to be conscious and present for what was happening. I didn't want to be anesthetized,' she is quoted as saying, 'I wanted to feel.' She went on: 'The whole time, my head was so focused - every contraction, the baby is closer, the baby is closer - so, it wasn't like, 'Oh, what pain.' It was, 'With every contraction, he is getting closer to me.'
The implication of this statement as it was reported in the magazines seemed to be that Gisele's birth was painless because she is generally a superior woman. Superior, that is, as a direct result of her attractiveness. We are either supposed to be awed by her abilities, or angered by her condescension. We are supposed to think she is either lying to retain her sexy image, or because she wants to make us all feel even worse than her beauty already does. In the context of celebrity news, it is necessary for us to hate them, or hate ourselves.
The UK's Daily Mail newspaper predictably managed to make the story about how horrible women are to each other, how we are our own worst enemies and all that spin that helps them get away with being outrageously misogynistic day in day out. Women, according to The Daily Mail, are the worst women-haters. The fact that much of the bile comes from the paper's female journalists genuinely confuses a lot of people. It produces that Sarah Palin "dazzle" effect.
Journalist Liz Frazer claims that she was forced by the pressures of 'Sisterhood' and her female midwife to not use pain relief during labor. 'It took the kind words of a male doctor to say 'please have an epidural. It's not a sign of weakness and will help you, and your baby' to change my mind,' she states.
Frazer argues that 'competitive female culture' is to blame for the unobtainable, stressful 'criteria' of motherhood -that is ' to look great, dress in the latest fashions, earn a living, bake organic cupcakes, have a beautiful house and keep our man happy in bed.' Apparently women just love to persecute themselves, almost as much as they love to persecute each other. The Mail likes to take its philosophies from 1950s Freudian psychoanalysis - in a culture predicated on self-gratification, women must be masochistic. In a way, it's nice to know where we stand.
Women tend to be portrayed as victims of their reproductive abilities - either restricted by their bodies or subject to biology's will. We are not our bodies, we are separated up as self and body. An epidural is more than medication; it is an action, a behavior, that has become socially ingrained. As Emily Martin wrote in The Woman In The Body, the pushing of pain relief on women is an act of control by the male-dominated medical authorities over women's bodies. Birth is presented as something that happens to us, not something we ourselves actively do. And an epidural quite literally separates the woman's head from her body by numbing her from the neck down.
Women should have the choice and be free to choose pain relief when giving birth, but when medication becomes normalized the reality of that choice is eroded. In the midst of giving birth in a hospital bed it would seem unlikely women are given much opportunity to argue with their doctor, who's advice is likely couched in the persuasiveness of what he sees as 'best' for the baby.
Many women, including myself, know very little about what happens during the birth of a child. My last point of reference was a film I watched at 12 years-old which juxtaposed real life footage with cartoons. A journalist friend researching for an assignment was shocked at what she discovered she didn't know through just watching videos on You Tube. Videos, she noted, that were marked as 'adult content' and thus restricted. This lack of knowledge and open discussion keeps us mystified about birth, and only able to defer to the doctors. Possibly the only time many of us think about the subject is when we become pregnant, right when we get overwhelmed with well-meaning advice and when the focus is often on the child's needs and wants and not ours.
There has been speculation on the web that Gisele may have studied self-hypnosis prior to the birth, alongside other alternative therapies. The suspicion that often surrounds discussion of alternative medicine is complex, but an element of the skepticism seems to stem from the fact that it is a field dominated more so by women and bedded in women's history. The practices, particularly those regarding women's reproductive health, have cultural links back to a time when the work of female midwives was respected over that of male doctors. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses in For Her Own Good how female midwives' involvement in birth was discredited and sidelined to make way for the intervention of male-dominated medical authorities.
In Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History Of Women Healers Ehrenreich writes that homeopathy became popular under the Populist Health Movement of the 1830s and 40s and that this movement had strong ties to the emerging organized feminist movement. Pain during labor was explained by the Church in the middle ages as the punishment of women for Eve's sin. Women deserved to suffer and so when the women known as witches advised the use of ergot as a painkiller they were seen as preventing God's Will, and thus working for the Devil.
Over time as women healers were discredited, their knowledge was assimilated into mainstream medicine. Clearly, the progression of science is to be encouraged, but should not be the reserve of an elite and the knowledge retained or manipulated as a source of power.
Unfortunately, it takes more than reading some Barbara Ehrenreich to de-program your mind.
Alternatives in the realm of reproductive health are often presented as irresponsible or ignorant. Women who question authority are risking their child, or risking an unwanted pregnancy - both actions considered detrimental to society as a whole. We do not need to be anti-science, or anti-medicine to be interested in alternative therapies - medicine has a definite place when there's an illness or disease that requires treatment. The administering of medications to perfectly healthy women without good justification should be considered as a very different matter.
There was a time when all drugs were considered poisons to be taken with care. Now, I think, we can absorb the medical authorities desire for control and see medications as a way of controlling our own bodies - bodies we can find, and are encouraged to find, frightening.
If there's a way to give birth painlessly, or at least with less pain, I would like to learn about it, and not only from a supermodel quoted in a celebrity magazine.