Monday, January 14, 2008

Is idealizing birth different than idealizing weight

Many "natural" childbirth advocates who don't have the unmedicated vaginal delivery they planned mourn the loss. Is it appropriate for natural childbirth advocates to idealize unmedicated birth? Is it appropriate for them to sink into depression over a C-section? Or is idealizing a vaginal delivery like idealizing a specific weight or size, a cultural stereotype that we should question, not a universal standard.

The obsession of natural childbirth advocates over unmedicated vaginal birth is the equivalent to the American obsession over women's weight. Just like there are some women who think that an unmedicated vaginal delivery is an "achievement", there are other women who think that wearing a size 2 is an achievement. We live in a society that venerates women who wear a size 2, looks down on a woman who is a size 12, and despises and feels sorry for women who are a size 22.

Women who are a size 2 aren't inherently better or superior in any way to women who are not. While the individual woman may have bought into the cultural stereotype of what a woman "should" look like, and while she may diet obsessively to get there and stay that way, and while she may feel "empowered" and happy because she is a size 2, that does not mean the rest of us should agree with her. It also does not mean that the rest of us should aim to be a size 2, should feel empowered by being a size 2 or should sympathize with her over the disappointment of having to wear a size 4.

There are many, many women who are depressed about their weight. I would guess, in fact, that there are far more women depressed about their weight than their birth experience. That's not suprising, because the obsession with being thin reflects the values of the dominant culture, while obsession with unmedicated childbirth reflects the values of a small subculture.

What is the appropriate response to a woman who feels depressed about her weight? Is being depressed the appropriate response to being a size 4 or 6 or 8? If a woman sought psychotherapy for being a size 4 or 6 or 8, should the therapist counsel her that the disappointment of being size 6 instead of size 2 is a reasonable response, that her sense of self worth should be dependent on her weight and that the best thing to do would be to make determined efforts to become a size 2 in the future? Or might the therapist suggest instead exploring what being thin "means" to this woman? Might the therapist suggest questioning the cultural stereotype that thin=good woman? Might the therapist might suggest that the depression over being a size 4 or 6 or 8 is actually not about weight, but about feelings of low self esteem that effect the woman's entire life, but are currently expressed through disappointment about weight?

What is the difference between being depressed about not matching the cultural ideal of being a size 2 vs. not matching the subcultural ideal of having a unmedicated vaginal delivery? The woman who is depressed about being a size 4 has "chosen" to adopt the value of being thin every bit as much as the woman who has "chosen" to adopt the value of venerating unmedicated childbirth. It is based on what she has seen, what she has read, what she believes is important. Does that mean that she should "mourn" being a size 4? Does that mean that if we do not sympathize with her all too real feelings of self doubt or even self hatred that we are mean people who trivialize other people's feelings? Or does it mean that we are demonstrating an appropriate response and she is completely overreacting because of her own emotional issues that have more to do with feelings of self worth than with weight.

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