The ‘baby bump’ as public property

What is it about a pregnant woman’s belly that inspires strangers to stare at it, touch it (sometimes without asking permission), and comment upon it? On Slate today, Jessica Grose is creeped out by our obsession with celebrity pregnancies, pointing to a recent New York Times article about pregnant celebrity fashion entitled Pregnancy Takes a Turn on the Red Carpet. Her views are doubtlessly shaped by her own experience:

People I passed on the street wouldn’t meet my eye, they’d stare right at my stomach. Once, a man leered at me, which felt much more invasive than cat calls did before I was with child. I suppose it’s because I had no control over the way my body looked, and I felt much more vulnerable than usual because I had a helpless baby I was supposed to be protecting.

Grose finds the flaunting of bellies — or at least the media’s treatment of it — to be extremely objectifying.  The NYT article relates the history of celebrity demi-moorepregnancies, mentioning Demi Moore’s famous Vanity Fair cover from 1991 as a turning point that brought bellies into the open. It talks about a “revolution” that empowered celebrity women to appear at award shows when they were visibly pregnant and seems to take the position that this is universally liberating, especially now that there are more fashionable options. Grose points out that an essay by Renee Ann Cramer cited in the article draws a very different conclusion. In that essay, “The Baby Bump is the New Birkin“, Cramer writes:

Tabloids and glossy magazines watch and judge these pregnant bodies. Given that celebrities provide models of fashion that everyday women try to emulate, the sexy new baby bump establishes standards of pregnant and post-baby female beauty that are unattainable — perhaps even undesirable — to most. What’s more, press coverage of celebrity moms predictably replicates tired tropes and existing power gaps in class, race, and gender.

Looking at a media culture that reeks of TMI and TMZ, I’m inclined to say, “Who cares?”, but the answer seems to be “almost everybody but me”. Baby bump speculation sells magazines and raises hit counts, encouraging us to evaluate the celeb as a mother-to-be, not as woman, a person, or on the basis of whatever qualities brought her to the public eye. Let me throw in a plug for a professor at my alma mater, Erin Meyers of Oakland University, whose recent book Dishing Dirt in the Digital Age: Celebrity Gossip Blogs and Participatory Media Culture analyzes the digital obsession with celebrity gossip and who has looked at the “bump watch” in particular.

Celebrities aside, some of the comments on Grose’s article suggest this is part of an oversharing trend that extends to posting photos of urine-sensitive pregnancy tests with positive results on one’s Facebook page. Think of Janelle Taylor’s The Public Life of the Fetal Sonogram: Technology, Consumption, and the Politics of Reproduction. It’s not uncommon to get a first glimpse of a friend or relative’s child long before birth as a shared sonogram image. When I researched the social construction of pregnancy in the virtual world Second Life, among the phenomena I considered were products that give the fetus a more active role. These include transparent belly or uterus add-ons that show the growing baby (giving the pregnancy a whole new level of visibility) and some known as “tummy talkers” that simulate monologues by the fetus reminding the mother to eat properly and rest, expressing love, or warning others nearby to be careful not to push into Mommy. Though these are not universally used, they’re common enough that dozens of brands exist.

Celebrities set trends but they also follow them; if they reveal their pregnancies in ways that ordinary women might, the scrutiny and judgment they receive is magnified. Grose felt that she garnered unwanted attention when she was visibly expecting. I can’t guess whether she shares that feeling with the majority of today’s American  mothers, though signs point to women inviting others to bear witness to their pregnancies earlier and earlier in their progression. The female body remains a battleground for agency, no matter how famous one happens to be.

Is egg freezing feminist?

Janelle Taylor just posted the following two links to H-MEDANTHRO last week; the first is an editorial piece by Marcia Inhorn on CNN’s website exhorting women in their 30s to freeze their eggs (although with some reservations about the ways this technology might be used); the second is a response by Taylor and Lynn Morgan questioning whether that’s actually good advice: as they argue, freezing your eggs “represents an individualized, private, expensive, high-tech medical solution to what is fundamentally a collective, social problem”.  See also some of the comments on the CNN site (there are some thoughtful ones within the usual CNN comment drivel).

I wish we had a response from Inhorn to defend herself, as this feels a little unfair, but I wonder where you all fall on this debate.  This is a tricky question: should women embrace this technology as empowering them to balance both career and family, or will the net effect of egg freezing actually be to reinforce patriarchy?

Haiti, Fukushima, Chernobyl: What do we learn from disasters?

It is now two years since the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent triple meltdown at the nuclear plant in Fukushima.  Sarah Phillips, an anthropologist who has spent most of her professional life studying Chernobyl and the Ukraine, has a very thoughtful piece on how similar the two nuclear disasters turn out to be.  It’s a long article, so here’s the tl;dr:

Pripyat

“Fukushima is Chernobyl. Independent of the system (Japanese, Soviet), nuclear technology requires disregard for the public, misleading statements, and obfuscation in multiple domains (medicine, science and technology, governance). As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson notes, “The disaster at Fukushima has generated cracks in what we might call the ‘social containment vessels’ around nuclear energy—the heavily scientized discourses and assumptions that assure us nuclear reactors are safe neighbors.” Comparing the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima shows that “peaceful” nuclear technology is anything but.”

Fukushima

This week, in Maternowska’s Reproducing Inequities, we have also been reading about Haiti and the spectacular failures of development organizations to effect significant or lasting change for poor Haitian women.  It has now been more than three years since Haiti’s massive 2010 earthquake, and life for many Haitians is not better.  The cholera epidemic that began in the country in October 2010 continues to claim Haitian lives.  The same patterns Maternowska identifies for Haiti’s reproductive health and family planning policy have played out in the wake of Haiti’s natural and unnatural disasters: a lot of money spent very unwisely, and then a discourse that blames Haitians and “culture” for the lack of results.  We are left with the sense that Haiti, like other regions of extreme poverty, is hopelessly undevelopable, and so funding is limited to basic humanitarian interventions addressing immediate needs, rather than addressing the underlying structural factors that relegate Haiti to perpetual vulnerability to the next disaster.

haiti_011113_rebuild_dg_06_14744017

Paul Farmer and Catherine Maternowska both identify this sense of hopelessness for what it is: a disavowal, a racist cop-out, and a justification for continuing the same development strategies that fail to address the actual long-term needs of poor people, despite overwhelming evidence of their inadequacy.  The real tragedy that emerges from reading Maternowska, or following Farmer’s tremendous success in the country with his clinic and with Partners in Health, is the recognition that developing Haiti and alleviating poverty is not actually that difficult.

Prague is very nice in May…

…and this conference looks pretty interesting, too- although “probing” might not be the best word choice:

Call for Presentations: 1st Global Conference–Probing the Boundaries
of Reproduction

Origins, Bodies, Transitions, Futures

Sunday 12th May – Tuesday 14th May 2013 Prague, Czech Republic

This conference seeks to explore the boundaries of reproduction, not
merely as physical birth but more broadly as an agent of change, of
bodily, sexual, cultural (and even viral) transitions.