Take back your glorious body
At Edun Towers March began – as it did for many mothers – with an excited countdown towards the return to school. March 8th made my children the social animals they should be again, and simultaneously gave me back some autonomy. Back at primary school, the focus was on Mother’s Day, which annually marries together both Hope and Gratitude, perhaps more this year than ever before. There followed a frankly horrendous week for women, poetically if dissonantly sandwiched between Mother’s Day and International Women’s Day.
That week started with the searing exposure of the vitriol women are exposed to online and in the press, and the vulnerability of maternal mental health. By mid-week the horror of the murder of Sarah Everard was unfolding, and with it a revelatory honesty about the parallel worlds men and women exist in. In our house this meant challenging conversations with a 10 year old on issues he's barely old enough to comprehend, an explanation to all three about the meaning of coercion, and parental conversations about our the future for our 5 year old, dual heritage daughter (is it possible, perhaps, that the wave of fury caused by Sarah Everard's murder was because she was white and middle class?).
Last week didn’t provide any respite. 8 Asian women were slaughtered in the US. Scotland treated us to a twist on the age-old story of a man with political power embroiled in accusations of sexual impropriety, as this time his behaviour results in a female politician’s career on the line. We all learnt that thanks to the collapsing rate of rape prosecutions, Victims Commissioner Dame Vera Baird considers the offence to have been effectively de-criminalised. End Violence Against Women were in the media presenting evidence that 59% of 13-21 year old girls have faced some form of sexual harassment at school in the last year 71% of 16-18 year old girls regularly hear the terms ‘slag’ or ‘slut’ at school (these aren’t all the appalling statistics relating to adolescent girls, but they’re all I can bear to cover in this blog).
And this week? Well. It’s Monday already and the 8am news on R4 made me belatedly aware of everyonesinvited.uk, a website which holds over 7,500 testimonies of people who have experience sexual harrassment, coercion, assault and rape. Come on March, you've only got 3 more days, what else have you got?
What has March 2021 taught us?
It’s clear that 'Women’s Bodies' still represent trouble. It’s not as if we didn’t already know this, but my goodness it’s been writ large this month. These events may seem tangential to my work as a doula and birth supporter, but they are not. The media-bullying of Meghan Markle, the murder of Sarah Everard, all those young girls lablled sluts and slags, harrassed and assaulted, these events didn’t come from nowhere. This is simply the last in a whole history in which women’s bodies have been conceived not as a human reality, but as canvasses on which to project envy, fear, horror and prejudice.
Women’s bodies have been pathologised through the arc of Western philosophy and history. From Aristotle (who described women as the ‘mutilated male’) past Descartes to Jean Paul Satre (who meditated on the ‘…obscenity of the female sex… everything which gapes open’) to today’s rape culture. Our cyclical, dynamic, capricious bodies have been seen as anomalous and contrary to the consistent, fixed and reliable masculine norm. As methodological scientific study grounded itself in the urge to control and resolve during the Enlightenment, women’s bodies were understood as un-controllable and vulgar. Women and our bodies have been conceptualised not in our own right, nor even as the binary opposite, but as a dysfunctional variant of the male, aberrant and failing. Our reproductive bodies, with the power to conceive and create new life, represented power to be controlled.
Serious falsehoods about women’s bodies are still commonly held. Think Nina Dølvik Brochmann and Ellen Støkken Dahl confronting the viginity myth in their Ted talk, or the prevailing acceptance that perineal tearing is an inherent outcome of birth (it isn’t. The perineum is perfectly capable of stretching to accommodate an infants head. Want proof? Perineal trauma rates vary hugely between care providers). We needn’t be so esoteric. Just a quick trip to your local supermarket will do. What are young girls to interpret about their developing bodies from scented panty-liners, if not that they are revolting and must be masked? The pressure to control, modify, improve women’s bodies is deeply a part of our culture.
Your body is marvellous
Let’s take stock. 84% of women have a baby by the time they’re 45, and 100% of us are born. Yet our maternity services remain unduly influenced by these anachronistic attitudes to women's bodies to such a degree that we still can’t have sensible conversations about how to provide consistently safe and compassionate care for women as they birth.
By the time most of us get to pregnancy we have internalised years and years of anxiety, doubt and fear about our own bodies. We are exposed to so much misinformation about women’s bodies and so many myths about how birth happens, it is near impossible for us to grasp what it is that might make birth both safe and positive for them. Entering into the institutions of birth, many women find it hard to take authentic ownership of our own bodies, to find the power and the glory in this most transformative of experiences. It's not just a case of where do you start to regain your rightful place in birth, but of knowing that it's even an option.
And so that is how I choose to use my experience & knowledge as a doula and a feminist. I want to help you lift the veil, to recognise the balance of truths about your body and your place in the maternity system. I want you to be able to define the different modalities of birth, and to balance them in the way which is most appropriate to you. I think it’s vital that you are able to make risk assessments informed by both medical and personal insight. I want you to know that you are not solely responsible for the path of your birth, and I want you to be able to identify the people who are, and what role that may and could play in improving your birth experience.
At the moment you birth your baby you are the pinnacle of evolution. You are the last link in a chain which stretches back hundreds of thousands of years. Uterus. Breasts. Hips. Perineum. Stretch marks. Our incredible adaptive, reactive, nurturing, strong, capable, connected, instinctive bodies are worthy of our respect. We are glorious. You have a right to feel pride, to feel powerful, to feel connected to your experience. Birth and motherhood need not be suffered and endured. It can be a process which augments you. And I'm here to encourage you in that.
Hypnobirthing classes with Charlie and Laura resume in April 2021. Book your place now by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.