Love your body as it is; love your birth as it is


There are countless women who hate their bodies.

Why? Because those bodies don’t meet the contemporary culturally constructed ideal of female beauty.

Don’t believe that the “ideal” female body is culturally constructed? Consider the Venus figures, prehistoric carved art depicting women and goddess. As the Venus of Willendorf above demonstrates, for most of human history, the ideal female figure looked very different than today’s ideal. The prehistoric figurines have pendulous breasts, very wide hips and large bellies.

The contemporary ideal of female beauty is dramatically different: regular features, low BMI, large breasts, thin waist. This cultural construct is everywhere you look. It’s in movies and on TV, in fashion magazines, in advertisements of products of all kinds.

The message has been received loud and clear; there is a “right” way to look and a wrong way to look. Those who don’t meet the cultural construct should work assiduously, diet obsessively, submit themselves to plastic surgery, squeeze themselves into “shapewear” and otherwise torture their errant bodies into the desirable ideal. And those who can’t or don’t submit to the ideal should hate the way they look and they themselves for lack of willpower.

Childbirth is much the same.

The natural childbirth community has created and enforced an “ideal” birth that bears as much resemblance to childbirth in nature as Paris Hilton bears to the Venus of Willendorf.

The contemporary ideal of birth is an unmedicated vaginal delivery without interventions of any kind. Women don’t experience pain or have contractions; they have “waves” and “surges” instead. Women don’t scream, they “vocalize.” They don’t fear birth; fearing birth is now a sign of weakness and lack of ideological fervor. They don’t have complications; everything is a “variation of normal.” They don’t die and their babies don’t die unless they are “meant to die,” in which case embracing technology could not have saved them.

The message has been received loud and clear; there is a “right” way to give birth and a wrong way. Women should stoically bear excruciating pain or even pretend that the pain is orgasmic. They should risk their lives and their babies lives to meet the ideal. Those who can’t or won’t submit to the idea should hate the way they gave birth and hate themselves for lack of will power and ideological fervor. They should embarked upon another pregnancy in order to have a “healing” birth that they can brag about on blogs and message boards.

When it comes to body image, most of us now understand that the culturally constructed ideal is corrosive to women’s view of themselves. It leads to shame, anger and self-loathing. As the various prehistoric Venus figurines demonstrate, women are not meant to be thin, with large perky breasts, moderate sized hips and tiny waists. That ideal was imposed externally and serves to oppress women while simultaneously enriching the fashion, diet and plastic surgery industries, among others.

Hopefully, we encourage our daughters (and ourselves) to love our bodies regardless of whether or not they meet an externally imposed standard. We encourage or should be encouraging our daughters to subvert externally imposed standards by rejecting them. They, and we, should recognize that beauty comes in many different shapes and sizes.

I’d like to suggest an equally subversive response to the natural childbirth industry, an industry that promotes and profits from a culturally constructed “ideal” of childbirth. Those who respect science recognize that unmedicated vaginal birth is not better, safer, healthier, or superior in any way to birth with every intervention known to obstetrics. Those who understand history know that childbirth in nature was always feared, death was a constant accompaniment, the agony of childbirth was deplored and understood to be a divine punishment, not “good” pain.

When it comes to childbirth, the cultural constructed ideal of unmedicated vaginal birth is corrosive to women’s view of themselves. It leads to shame, anger and self-loathing. It only serves to oppress women while simultaneously enriching midwives, doulas, childbirth educators and purveyors of everything from Hypnobirthing tapes to plastic birthing pools.

We should be encouraging women to love their births regardless of whether or not they meet an externally imposed standard. We should encourage women to subvert that externally imposed standard by choosing pain relief if they have pain, technological interventions to predict complications, and Cesarean sections to rescue babies and mothers who might otherwise die. We should recognize that a beautiful birth comes in a million possible iterations, spanning births in which no interventions are needed to those which involve every bit of technology known to man.

The beauty of birth resides in the arrival of a new life and the inauguration of the extraordinarily powerful mother-infant bond, which may take weeks or months to develop, but lasts a lifetime. It has nothing to do with how the baby was born; it has nothing to do with unmedicated vaginal birth; it has nothing to do with meeting a birthing “ideal” so you can boast to friends and acquaintances that you “rocked” the birth, as if anyone could care less.

It’s time to reject both culturally imposed standards of beauty and culturally imposed standards of birth.

Say no to the natural childbirth industry that wants you to feel bad about epidurals, shamed by C-sections, to loathe yourself for not having the “ideal” birth, and to redouble your efforts to have a “healing” birth next time.

Be subversive: love your body as it is.

Be subversive: love your birth as it is.