"A culture's maladies are apparent in the emotional causes it attributes to illness"Peggy Orenstein, a noted feminist author, has an interesting column in the Sunday New York Times about the causes of illness, entitled Stress Test. In it, she decries the contemporary impulse to attribute most illness to stress.
Admittedly, I’m a tad touchy about this. Eleven years (and, as of this writing, 6 months, 2 days, 19 hours and 30 minutes) ago I found out I had breast cancer. I later endured years of multiple miscarriages and failed infertility treatments before conceiving a child. So I’ve fielded my share of intimations that stress, or some other self-inflicted wrong thinking, could be the source of my troubles: I should relax, take a vacation, express my anger...She decries it because it places "the locus for illness in [women's] heads rather than in their bodies."
In part that’s because the causes of the ailments we’re prone to — reproductive cancers, arthritis, fibromyalgia — are often mysterious in origin. But it may also be an artifact of our rapid and successful social progress. We of the postfeminist generation grew up being told we could do anything, be anything, if we just put our minds to it. Yet, if we have the power to create our own fates, wouldn't the corollary be that we're also responsible for our own misfortunes? And, in a kind of double magical thinking, shouldn’t we be able to cure ourselves using the same indefatigable will?..This desire to blame women for their illnesses tells us more about our culture than it tells us about the causes of illness.
Susan Sontag noted that a culture's maladies are apparent in the emotional causes it attributes to illness. In the Victorian period, cancer was "caused" by excessive family obligations or hyper-emotionalism. In the 1970s it was "caused" by isolation and suppressed anger. So the assertion that stress underlies 99 percent of illness may indicate more about the healthy than the sick. Stress is our burden, our bogyman, and reducing it is the latest all-purpose talisman against adversity's randomness."Natural" childbirth advocates have their own all-purpose talisman against adversity's randomness. In their case, they ascribe everything that goes wrong in childbirth to "fear". Never mind that there have been a myriad of studies that show that fear has no impact on childbirth. Never mind that the purported mechanism by which fear supposedly affects labor contradicts what we know about stress hormones and labor. Fear supposedly "causes" childbirth complications (and childbirth pain), and "trusting birth" supposedly prevents them. Of course, fear does not nothing of the kind, but its invocation can tell us about the cultural subgroup of "natural" childbirth advocates.
First, it tells us that "natural" childbirth advocates are desperate to convince themselves that childbirth complications are not common and are not random. They are wrong on both counts. Second, it tells us that "natural" childbirth advocates are equally desperate to believe that they can prevent childbirth complications by thinking appropriate, "trusting" thoughts. Again, they are completely wrong. Third, they practice exactly the type of magical thinking that Orenstein describes: "[I]f we have the power to create our own fates, wouldn't the corollary be that we’re also responsible for our own misfortunes? And, in a kind of double magical thinking, shouldn't we be able to cure ourselves using the same indefatigable will?"
The idea that "fear" causes childbirth complications or childbirth pain tells us nothing about childbirth, since it is utterly untrue. It does, however, tell us about "natural" childbirth advocates. It tells us that they like to pretend that they can ward off bad things by simply thinking the right thoughts; it tells us that they like to pretend that bad things won't happen to them; and it tells us the invocation of "fear" as a cause of childbirth complications and childbirth pain is nothing more than a psychological defense mechanism that allows them to deny reality.