How society tells women to be aspirational… just not in their birth choices

Posted by: on Jul 10, 2015 | No Comments

I’ve been thinking today about the mixed messages we receive about how and when we women are encouraged to be aspirational, and by contrast, when we’re told to stop whining and suck up our lot.

We are bombarded by aspirational messages every day in the form of advertising, where autonomy, breaking out of the box, being discerning and fearless are positively encouraged. We are almost being dared to push the very limits of what is possible, to not settle for anything less than our best. The Women’s Tennis Association tells us ‘Strong is beautiful’. EA games tell us to ‘challenge everything’. Adidas tell us ‘Impossible is nothing’. Nike tell us to ‘Just do it’. IMAX tells us to ‘Think Big’. Vodaphone say ‘Power to you’. L’oreal tells us we are ‘worth it’. Apple tells us to ‘Think Different’. Sky says ‘Believe in better’. Tag Heuer tells us ‘Success. It’s a mind game’. M&S says ‘The customer is always and completely right’. The Red Cross tell us ‘the biggest tragedy is indifference’. Porsche say ‘There’s no substitute. Ferarri tell us that ‘Only those who dare, truly win’. Audi say ‘Never follow’. We are even encouraged to have full soverienty over our  burger-choices, and told, proudly to ‘Have it your way’.

strong is beautiful

Choice seems to be the shiny, glittering prize of our consumerist age. Choice to have it on our own terms, choice to shop around, choice to assert our own personality and feelings. Choice, choice, choice, choice, choice. Choice is literally poured at our feet at every turn. And so long as we are CONSUMING, as long as we are buying into their version of freedom, of carefully branded (pseudo) empowerment, we are treated as captains of our own ship, we reign supreme. Price comparison sites are falling over themselves to help us, the discerning and intelligent public, to enable us to match up our exact requirements, with tickboxes and forms to ensure we are filtering things correctly and end up with exactly what we asked for.

If we travel to a hotel for a couple of nights, a relatively inconsequential event perhaps in contrast to many other life events, we can go and look on a website like trip advisor and get the lowdown on what the place is really like by reading hundreds of reviews and look at photos of the rooms from different angles, then fish around for the best deal we can possibly get before we go.

You might think that in this age when we are encouraged to be so go-getting, to be discerning, to strive for the best, to aim high and take no nonsense from anyone along the way, that women have never had it so good.

But when it comes to REAL choices, are women ‘worth it’ as L’oreal tell us? Or are we only worth trivial choices? Does our autonomy and thinking power only stretch to choosing what car to buy, what lipstick to wear and which brand of clothes wash really does get whites whiter than white?

When it comes to the really big stuff, to life and death, it’s amazing how our choices suddenly shrink. And when no-one stands to make a buck out of us, we are no longer savvy, cool and intelligent women who know their own minds, who are encouraged to ‘Never follow’ or ‘Think different’ or that success is a ‘mind game’.  Strong is no longer beautiful, but instead, if we assert ourselves on those issues that matter, those details  in our lives which really mean something, we are treated like a royal pain in the arse. This is where it all starts to break apart and we see a very different attitude to women… and this attitude is most prevalent when we speaks out about our birth choices. Suddenly, we are now seen in a different light – wanting things our way is a problem.

We might have been a tiger in the gym, or the boardroom, but when it comes to asserting our fundamentally personal birth choices we can suddenly face resistance in different guises:  gentle discouragement, being laughed at, told not to be unrealistic or unreasonable, selfish, or even reckless. It is a rare thing for a woman to state all her birth wishes and for every person along her journey to say – ok, let’s make this happen! It’s even sadder when female staff undermine the woman’s sovereignty and, perhaps worn down by working in an anti-feminist, patriarchal culture, can actually take the mockery of women to a new level – reinforcing a disempowering model.

And of course, those female staff are under enormous pressures and strains to pressure women to conform, comply, fit in with the hospital’s way of doing things so they don’t get into any trouble, and partly perhaps also because of their own trauma and not wanting women to suffer something they believe must be an inevitable consequence of a woman’s ‘unwise’ choice.

This has never been more true than when a woman chooses to give birth in her own home. You might be able to have your sodding burger any way you like it, but having birth your way? Do you know how hard that can be to achieve? The fight so many women have, the obstacles they need to jump through, the ignorance, the comments, the judgement, the warnings, the finger wagging and tutting. And even, outright lies.

If you are in any doubt about this, all I can say is that these are the exact reactions so many women are telling me in real life, and reporting in homebirth discussion forums, where others pipe up with ‘me too’s’. I have heard of midwives say ‘we’ll see about that’ or obstetricians tear up women’s birth plans in their face and laugh. This is how little autonomy women really have, in the so called civilised, developed world, of the free and the upwardly mobile.

I wonder if men gave birth whether there would be such a hoo-ha about their choices? Or would they be having Burger King style births, where every request was respected and met with a “Yes sir, no problem!”

The Red Cross is right, the greatest tragedy IS indifference. This is why it’s up to every woman to stand up for her rights, stand up for her choices and as Nike say, Just do it. Strong truly IS beautiful. On our terms. We really ARE worth it. But we don’t need some advertising brands to sell us that strength or that beauty, or that freedom. It is ours to hold onto and fight for.

We don’t have to tolerate the intolerable. Being pregnant does not invalidate our right to say ‘This is what feels right for me and my baby now can you please respect that and stop bullying me!’

If you want to refuse a certain procedure, like vaginal examinations or induction, you have every right. Find that midwife or doula or advocacy group to give you the courage to stand up for what is really important to you, those who will be your ally. But remember, ultimately it’s YOUR voice that matters most in the birthroom.