Intervention: Women’s Bodies as Cultural Construct   4 comments

The notion of the female body as a “border case,” “at once defined as part of a natural order and as an intensely fascinating and yet threatening object of cultural control,” highlights the political nature of women’s bodies, inscribed and even overridden by cultural constructs that radically affect our own relationships with our bodies and even the most “natural” biological experiences, such as childbirth.

The Business of Being Born, a documentary about the medicalization of childbirth and the ghettoization of midwifery, challenges Western/medicalized notions about childbirth and has no doubt shaped the way some women approach the process (my best friend included, who had a 58-hour home birth just a couple months ago). I had always thought “Epidural!” until I saw the film and started critically thinking about how patriarchal the birth process becomes in a hospital setting, how much the woman is removed from her body figuratively and literally, the fact that she is laying down rather than wandering, squatting, and doing whatever her body tells her to do, the way the baby is taken from her at birth…it’s all very interventionist and male-dominated, as Lay demonstrates. The United States has a (rough, since numbers vary according to source) Caesarian rate of approximately 32% or one in every three women (Childbirth Connection).

One would think a healthy woman in a developed nation with vast resources could have a baby without such extreme interventions; however, a culture that pathologizes pregnancy and associates pain with fear leads to a cycle of medication and time constraints which often result in unnecessary C-sections. We are convinced that such intervention is necessary, comforted by proximity to medicine “if something were to happen,” averse to the pain of birth, locked in our “quick fix” mentality. As Lay writes, “[women] have no direct, innocent, or unconstructed knowledge of our bodies” (23). We construct ourselves as we are being constructed. Midwifery brings women back to “before that” through the experience of self-empowered childbirth, reconnecting and engaging a woman with the process rather than splintering her from it.

As Lay points out, women—especially pregnant women—might ”perceive [their] body as fragmented—as a womb, a breast, a limb, monitored by a machine—instead of integrated as a whole” (24). This also reminded me of my homebirth friend who called me upset after her ultrasound because the screen was turned away from her and she was the last one in the room to know she was carrying a boy.  Imagine that…everyone looking inside your body except you. The fragmentation of women’s bodies is certainly not reserved for the obstetrician’s office. We are “tits” and “ass” in much popular culture (excuse the terminology but the connotations are relevant) and scrutinize ourselves as parts—too-big thighs, too-short legs, frizzy hair, wrinkles—all which require a regimen, a purchase, fixing. From a cultural perspective, women are not permitted to be whole beings. Huge industries (diet, cosmetic, elective surgery) rely on women’s low self-esteem and fragmentation of their bodies.

This leads me to Segal’s discussion of “aesthetic hypochondria: the nagging feeling that one doesn’t look as well—or as good—as one should or might” (87). When reading about the “health nut” in Segal, I thought about my own issues regarding aging and skin care and how that type of consumption relates to the health nut. This type of hypochondriac is the ultimate consumer, one consumed with making the healthy/attractive/normal even better. The issue becomes “what is good enough?.” Aesthetic hypochondria goes beyond the usual insecurities as a full-blown preoccupation, “ a sense of a dis-ease of the surface—which includes both the pathology currently known as ‘body dysmorphic disorder’ and a more pervasive skin-deep version of the sense that things are not right” (87). I connected this passage to Segal’s discussion about advertisements for medicine. As we see more skin care products, more options, more older women look young “naturally,” and more intervention, including digital interventions like Photoshop, the more we are convinced that something is wrong with us—that having wrinkles in our thirties, out forties, our fifites is an aberration. Of course this is nonsense but my skincare line at home says otherwise. My question is: with women’s bodies being so tied up in cultural constructs, how can we resist? Midwifery seems like a good start, but how do we negotiate cultural constructs that contradict our “natural bodies,” especially where appearance is concerned?

Excellent texts—I initially printed the chapters from Lay but after reading, purchased a Kindle version as I will undoubtedly use this text for my own work relating to women’s bodies and technology


Posted September 14, 2010 by Lela in Uncategorized

4 responses to “Intervention: Women’s Bodies as Cultural Construct

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  1. I probably should have assigned chapter two in Lay instead of chapter three, but Jen and John will fill us in.

    I’m still waiting on a T&T student to write a dissertation on plastic surgery.

    • I thought you did assign chapter three. My tentative dissertation plan will integrate the topic of plastic surgery. I would like to talk to you about my ideas, actually. Balsamo inspired me last semester.

  2. : I find your final question a significant one: “with women’s bodies being so tied up in cultural constructs, how can we resist?” Certainly women resisted in the 1960s with the natural birth movement in California. Certainly women resist on an individual level today when they elect home birth and seek out a direct-entry midwife even in states where such care is illegal and underground. And, resistance does pay off: the Minnesota midwives eventually were allowed to apply for licenses (if they wished—it is voluntary). But it took a friendly state senator and representative to propose the bill (both of whom had experienced home birth in their families). At this point, the midwives were exhausted in their efforts and so the community of home birth parents had to take over the battle. I tell the story of this final chapter in the fight in “Minnesota Direct Entry Midwives: Focusing on Families.” In Mainstreaming Midwives: The Politics of Professionalism. Ed. Robbie Davis-Floyd and Christine Johnson. Written with Kerry Dixon (Twin Cities Direct-Entry Midwife). New York: Routledge Press, 2006. 261-88. It’s interesting that personal experience and knowledge motivate people to resist—abstract principles and freedoms do not tend to attract. A great many women who elect home birth do so with the second birth, after a poor hospital experience with the first birth.
    Mary Schuster

  3. Natural child birth is absolutely an act of resistance in a patriarchal medical context. The natural child birth movement is still essential because the norm in western culture is not natural childbirth. The idea is met with scorn even within my own personal contexts, which I like to think are fairly “progressive.” It’s not that natural childbirth is looked down upon as much as it is marginalized as something crazy or radical. I look forward to reading the chapter you reference, as I am personally interested in this issue. I’m going to post a link to the home birth I reference in my discussion/response. It features the actual arrival of the baby (not the graphic part but the emotional, human part), which speaks volumes about home birth, technology, and the convergence of both. It’s intense and beautiful. Thanks for the reply.

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