Potentially the most horrifying scene ever put to screen by acclaimed series Mad Men is the one in which Betty Draper delivers baby Gene. The overall mood of the third child’s arrival – the child unplanned and, to some degree, unwanted – is cold and antiseptic. But the child’s conception may have had no bearing on that. Such was the nature of even a welcome childbirth in mid-1960s America. The message communicated in the episode is that Betty Draper went into and came out of that delivery room alone. What transpired within, even she may not be sure of. A baby came out of it, and that’s all the viewers, her husband, and even Betty herself need to know. When I think of gynecological care of the 1960s, this episode sums it all up. Doctors who were put on a pedestal for being doctors, women who were encouraged to trust in their MD’s medical knowledge (aka ask no questions), and a clinical and somewhat frighteningly dispassionate view of the body and its many possibilities.
In contrast, when I had my annual exams at Indiana University’s Health Center in the mid-2000s, something that struck me immediately was that all the rooms in the women’s wing had posters on their ceilings. When women went in for whatever ailed them, as they lay back, they viewed pictures of fields of wildflowers or beaches at sunset. The atmosphere was warm, and the message communicated by those posters was that women shouldn’t be tense or nervous. They should focus on something beautiful and think about their visit in a positive way.
Something had shifted.
For a time, and not unrelated to my experiences at the Health Center, I considered that my next project would be about women’s health. In particular, I was (and still am) interested in the efforts of the Boston feminists who put together Our Bodies, Ourselves as a pamphlet in 1971 (originally published as Women and Their Bodies in 1970: http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/uploads/pdf/OBOS1970.pdf). Women wrote for women in a manner that was matter of fact and, for the time (for now?), radical in its assertion that women should take ownership over their bodies and their health. What’s great about the original document is that it not only encourages women’s agency but it dismantles widespread social prescriptions about birth control, sexuality, pregnancy, and childbirth. Challenging limited viewpoints that suggest all women are predestined to be mothers, or ascribes “true womanhood” only to those who’ve born and raised a child, the book embraces a variety of feminities, any of which are considered legitimate and proof-enough of “real” womanhood. As a whole, the book was non-judgmental and remarkably kind.
But it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that has had me thinking about these evolutionary views of women’s health (whereas I usually digress somewhere midway through these things, here I started with a digression. Sorry.). Rather, it was Gisele Bundchen’s recent Instagram of herself breast-feeding baby Vivian. If you’ve been living under a rock (aka haven’t seen it), use the power of the Google, choose the appropriate search terms, and it will come to you.
As I suppose GB intended, people responded to this image (All press is good press, yes?). There were those who eye-rolled, maybe more at Gisele’s caption (“What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking #gettingready”) than the image itself. There were those who cheered GB for “normalizing” nursing (I personally think those people are looking for the term “glamourizing” but whatever). Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams (of whom I’m a great fan) defended Gisele as a working mother, finding a balance, like so many other working mothers of the world.
It’s worth nothing that this wasn’t GB’s first jump into the nursing fire. She’d caught greater heat back in 2010 for a Harper’s Bazaar UK interview in which she stated, “Some people here (in the US) think they don’t have to breastfeed, and I think ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” In the ensuing backlash, she clarified her intentions, claiming that her comment had “nothing to do with the law.” Except, and maybe I’m being nitpicky here, she used the phrase “worldwide law.” Anyway. Her statement went on: “I understand that everyone has their own experience and opinions and I am not here to judge. I believe that bringing a life into this world is the single most important thing a person can undertake, and it can also be the most challenging.” Well, except that the original words were entirely judgmental. And Gisele added to that judgment by suggesting those who opt out of child bearing – or are unable to do so – are living lives of less importance than those who bear children. So…I guess you could say I have my doubts about this “apology.”
As I’ve thought about GB’s picture and her words over the last several weeks – both of which are part of an image she consciously crafts – I’ve come back time and again to the openness, acceptance, and lack of judgment communicated in the original Our Bodies, Ourselves and how those qualities seem so absent in GB’s words and actions. With her picture (and I keep thinking about its caption) and her words, she seems totally unaware of the insularity of her experience, and in many ways, fails to recognize the privileged position she occupies. She notes that every woman has her own experience, but the comment seems a throwaway, a bone tossed to people pissed that she’d overstepped. On the other hand, Our Bodies, Ourselves went out of its way to assure women that their many varied experiences were totally normal and totally valid. In this contemporary world of Mommy Wars – of which I’ve long read and am now quickly learning first-hand (and of which I’d count GB’s words) – a return to the OBO view of women’s life and health would be most welcome.
Which is to say: all of this has had me thinking historically (as the historian is wont to do), and on a variety of levels. Typically, when I’m writing, I like to sum up my thoughts with some larger conclusion about then, now, people, relationships, etc., etc., etc. It feels nice and tidy. But with this, I’m somewhat stymied. Do I think something has gone awry from the time of the budding optimism of the women’s movement, of which Our Bodies, Ourselves is a product? Yes, I think something has. Pretty clearly, and there’s been good discussion of this by contemporary feminists, one of the things that went awry was the movement away from “we” and the failure to really take institutions to task (the original OBO pamphlet calls for maternity and paternity leave – in 1970!!) and the movement toward an expectation that individuals put up or shut up. And Gisele pretty clearly puts up. From there, she can operate on a kind of “if I can do it, so can you” mindset. But I don’t think the problem is something about women in isolation. I keep thinking about the culture of celebrity that’s grown since the 1970s – and maybe more specifically the style of celebrity that’s really blossomed since the 1990s, where the lethal combination of reality TV, the internet, and social media has given celebrities the option of opining at will and to audiences of enormous size and scope. And with little thought to how their actions or views might be interpreted by others or what their actions or views actually communicate. There are things I’m still working through when I think of this. Among those things, however, of this I am certain: this “throwaway” world of popular culture is chock full of possibility for the observant and constantly reveals the evolution of our views on a host of issues.