Pregnancy apps and gender stereotypes

Pregnant women and those experiencing the early years of motherhood have used online forums for many years to share experiences and seek information. Now there are hundreds of apps that have been designed for similar purposes. As part of an integrated research program looking at apps and other digital media for pregnancy and parenting, I have been researching these apps using several approaches. In a survey of 410 Australian women who were pregnant or who had given birth in the past three years, I found that almost three-quarters had used at least one pregnancy app, while half of the women who already had children reported using a parenting app (see here for an open access report on this survey and here for a journal article about it).

With Gareth Thomas from Cardiff University, I have also conducted a critical analysis of the content of pregnancy apps themselves. This involved analysing all pregnancy-related apps offered in the two major app stores, the Apple App Store and Google Play. We examined the app descriptions, looking for how the developers marketed their apps and what they offered. See here and here for articles that have been published from this analysis.

This study found that the apps designed for pregnant women represent pregnancy as a state in which women must maintain a high degree of vigilance over their own bodies and that of their foetuses. Many apps promoted this level of self-monitoring, often seeking to render the practices aesthetically-pleasing by using beautiful images of foetuses or allowing women to take ‘belfies’ (belly selfies) and share these on social media.

Among the most surprising of our findings were the large numbers of pregnancy-related games designed for entertainment. These include pregnancy pranks such as fake foetal ultrasounds to fool people into thinking someone is pregnant. We also found many games for little girls that are on the market. The encourage girls to give pregnant women ‘make-overs’ so that they will ‘feel more confident’ and look beautiful, ready for the birth. Some even let players perform a caesarean section on the characters, who remain glamorous and serene even on the operating table. The types of messages about pregnancy and childbirth that are promoted to their young female users are troubling.

Other apps are directed at men who are becoming fathers, although there were far fewer of these apps compared with those for pregnant women. We noticed from our analysis of these apps that even though quite a few of them are marketed as being written ‘by men, for men’, they typically portray the father as a bumbling fool, who requires simplistic or jokey information to keep him interested in the impending birth of his child. Men are advised not to stare at attractive women and to constantly reassure their partners that they find them attractive. Foetuses are compared to beer bottles so that men can learn about foetal development in supposedly unthreatening ways.

Our overall finding, therefore, is the highly stereotypical gendered representations of pregnant women and expectant fathers in these apps. Women are encouraged to use apps to achieve the ideal of the self-monitoring ‘good mother’, closely tracking their bodies because they have their foetus’s best interests at heart in every action they take. They are expected to celebrate their pregnancy and changing bodies – there is little room for ambivalence. Their male partners, on the other hand, are assumed to be uninterested and to require nudging to act in a supportive role to their partners.  And little girls are encouraged to accept and perpetuate the ‘yummy mummy’ stereotype in playing the pregnancy games that are marketed to them, and to view caesarean sections as a quick and easy way to give birth.

Digitising female fertility and reproduction

Over the past few months, I have been working on writing about the findings of several research projects addressing the topic of digital technologies directed at female fertility and reproduction. These projects involve:

1) a critical content analysis of fertility and reproduction-related software and devices (especially apps);

2) an online survey of 410 Australian women’s use of pregnancy and parenting apps; and

3) focus groups and interviews with Australian and British women about their use of these technologies (these are still in progress).

Several outcomes have now been published drawing on these findings. They include a report (with Sarah Pedersen from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen) outlining the findings of the online survey (this can be accessed here), an article on the gamification and ludification of pregnancy in apps (with Gareth Thomas from Cardiff University, available here) and a book chapter on the concept of the reproductive citizen and the range of digital technologies that are directed at helping women to monitor and regulate their fertility and reproduction (available here). Edit: two other articles have now been published: one based on the survey findings (here), and another on the pregnancy app study (here).

Some of the key findings are:

  • The survey showed that pregnancy and parenting apps were very popular among the survey respondents – three-quarters of the respondents (who were either pregnant or who had a baby in the past three years at the time of the survey) said that they had used at least one pregnancy app, while almost half had used at least one parenting app.
  • Googling information about pregnancy is very common among pregnant women, for whom too much information about pregnancy appears never to be enough (this finding emerged in the focus groups). They tend to invest their trust in the first few search findings that come up on their search engine, reasoning that because this is evidence of popularity, then these websites must be credible.
  • Despite the popularity of pregnancy and parenting apps, few women are contemplating the validity of the information presented in them, or demonstrated concern about the data security and privacy of the personal information that the apps may collect (this was evident in both the survey and the focus groups).
  • This genre of software is intensifying an already fervid atmosphere of self-surveillance, attempts at management and control and self-responsibility in which female fertility and reproduction are experienced and performed.
  • Stereotypical concepts of idealised female fertile and pregnant bodies are reproduced in apps and other software. They use highly aestheticised images and the promise of rational calculation and monitoring to seek to contain and control women’s fertility and reproduction.
  • Women in their fertile years – and particularly those contemplating pregnancy or already pregnant – are part of a highly commodified demographic. The information that they generate from their online practices possess a new form of value, biovalue, as part of the bioeconomy of personal health and medical data.

The ‘royal foetus’ as fetish

First Ultrasound

First Ultrasound (Photo credit: amysinfo)

Within hours of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy being officially announced, references were being made on the internet to a new individual: the ‘royal foetus’. Several spoof Twitter accounts were set up on behalf of this personage, providing ‘live tweets from the royal womb’. Other tweeters commented that the royal foetus was already richer and in a greater position of power than they (see here for my Storify of initial reactions to Middleton’s pregnancy).

While this seems like harmless fun, underpinning these representations of the ‘royal foetus’ is an inexorable move in western cultures towards the infantilising of the unborn, positioning them as already babies well before birth. More so than at any other time in western cultural history, the unborn are considered separate from the maternal body, autonomous, possessing individuality, personality and full moral personhood from embryonic form onwards.

The emergence of the unborn into the public spotlight began with the beautiful images produced by photojournalist Lennart Nilsson (ironically mostly of dead embryonic and foetal specimens) from the 1950s onwards that showed unborn bodies floating serenely in space, seemingly untethered to the maternal body. It has intensified with the growing use of obstetric ultrasound since the late 1970s, a visualising technology that encourages pregnant women and their partners and family members to view the foetus as a little person in its own right, very much distinct from the body in which it is growing.

The image of the unborn has become a commodity. Since the development of 3/4D ultrasound marketed solely for ‘bonding’ purposes, potential parents are invited to begin their ‘baby albums’ with these ultrasounds, which are often widely shared with friends and family via social media platforms. Ultrasounds are now used in a range of goods, including advertisements, canvas art, scrapbooking materials, specialised photo frames, baby shower invitations, jewellery and maternity t-shirts (see here for my Pinterest collection ‘The Ultrasound as Cultural Artefact’).

The gradual disappearance of the maternal body as it gives way to the fetishising of the foetus has occurred at the same time as pregnant women are positioned as being ever more important to the health and optimal development of their unborn (Lupton, forthcoming). It seems that dominant representations of the pregnant body either erase it completely, as in the visual imagery of the autonomous foetus, or position it as engulfing and threatening to the unborn. Pregnant women must negotiate these two paradoxical portrayals. Kate Middleton will do so in the context in which hers will be the most public pregnancy in the world. She will be under intense scrutiny to provide the ‘royal foetus’ with a uterine environment worthy of its rank.

Reference

Lupton, D. (forthcoming) The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Houndmills: Palgrave.

The case of the pregnant CEO and the disappearing body

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer (Photo credit: ifindkarma)

When it was announced last month that Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, a Fortune 500 company, was six months’ pregnant at the time of her appointment, many commentators in online and traditional news media forums were approving. It was noted that Yahoo’s decision to appoint her was a sign that women had come a long way and were no longer as disadvantaged by their reproductive choices. When Mayer further announced that she would only be taking few weeks off on maternity leave following the birth of her baby son, and that she would work from home even during this brief period of leave, again the reaction of many commentators was positive. It was argued that a good example was being set and that women even at the very top of their professions could both reproduce and continue in their successful careers.

The issue of the successful woman ‘having it all’  resurfaced for debate. Some commentators were concerned that Mayer’s decision to work through an extremely brief maternity leave would raise the expectations of employers in relation to their own female employees. Several ‘mummy bloggers’ pointed out that Mayer may not realise how having a baby may affect her priorities. Interestingly enough, little mention was made of the huge attention given only weeks before to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, in which she identified the difficulties she and others had experienced in juggling motherhood with an extremely high-profile and demanding job.

To make it clear, I do not doubt that Mayer will be able to perform at the level expected of her during her pregnancy and following the birth of her son. I agree that it is salutary that she was promoted to the top job by recruiters who knew of her pregnancy. I imagine that Mayer will not display the projectile vomiting and uncontrolled emotional volatility evidenced in the pregnant women in the recent film What to Expect When You’re Expecting, an exaggerated portrayal of pregnant embodiment played for laughs (see here for my previous post on this). What I do want to do in contributing to this debate is bring the body back in (rather more subtly than this film did) and suggest that these bodily experiences may make Mayer’s first year in the job more challenging than if she had not gone through them.

All the noises of approval emerging in the traditional and social media, and the comments of Mayer herself, failed to acknowledge that pregnancy, childbirth, the post-partum period and the care of infants are supremely embodied experiences. The classic Cartesian mind/body split is evidenced in these discussions, assuming that one’s disembodied mind or will can and should take precedence over and control one’s fleshly body.

On one level the acceptance that a pregnant woman soon to give birth will be able to manage a top-level job is a feminist dream. It counters the common ideas in circulation for centuries that women are inferior to men because they are less able to exert rational control over their bodies and are therefore less capable of jobs involving high-level cognitive functioning. Such assumptions position the pregnant, menstruating or menopausal woman in particular as emotionally volatile, a slave to her hormones.

On the other hand, however, the discourse celebrating Mayer’s choice to work through her brief maternity leave loses sight of the fleshly body altogether. This attempt to make the body disappear bears with it its own limitations. Even those women who experience few health problems and feel very well during pregnancy cannot avoid the sheer physical reality of moving through space with their expanding and much heavier bodies, as the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young (1990) has noted.

So too, childbirth, however it is experienced, demands much of women’s bodies, and it takes some time for women to recover in the postpartum period. This is especially the case if they have had the major abdominal surgery of caesarean section, extensive damage to the perineum or other physical trauma from a vaginal birth. Mayer will be dealing with these embodied experiences at the same time as she is learning to interact with and care for her new infant. Her baby son will himself be taking some time to adjust to life outside of the womb and making his own embodied needs powerfully apparent.

Although no doubt Mayer will have plenty of help from paid and unpaid carers, unless she employs a night-nanny or her partner rises to deal with bottle-feeds, nappy changes and infant soothing during the night, she will experience major sleep deprivation. Even if she does not breastfeed, she will have to deal with leakages and physical sensations as her breasts adjust to hormonal changes following the birth.

Mayer is in a rare top position as CEO of a major company. Yet this exalted position means that she, even more than other women, will be expected to conform to what philosopher Drew Leder (1990) has termed the ideal of the ‘absent body’: the body of which we and others are unaware because it is so fully under our rational control. The culture of the professional world in particular seeks to ignore the demands of the fleshly body. Cultural geographer Robyn Longhurst’s (2001) research with New Zealand and Scottish people in managerial work positions, both men and women, found that the interviewees strongly emphasised the importance of presenting a corporate body image at work. This involved being well-groomed, wearing a standard ‘corporate uniform’ of business suit and having a body that was physically fit and not overweight. Even cosmetic surgery is now becoming part of the techniques of the presentation of the professional self for some people in their quest to present the most perfect image possible.

All these practices of the self combined to present a corporate identity that was considered tightly controlled of its body boundaries, impervious to outside penetration and therefore powerful and rational. In such a context, the body, in effect disappears: its demands, its privations, its leakages, are all covered over in the interests of presenting a self that is rational, of the mind, competent and controlled. It is for this reason, as Longhurst (2001, 2005) points out, that women in such workplaces often find it difficult when they are pregnant and experiencing nausea, fatigue, the frequent need to urinate or crippling back-ache, all common bodily experiences in pregnancy, as they feel that they must not let their bodies betray them.

In pointing out these issues, I want to avoid any suggestion that women are any more at the mercy of their bodies than are men and that they therefore cannot perform successfully in top-level jobs. John Coates (2012) showed in his recent book on male traders at the New York Stock Exchange that much of their behaviour is influenced by fluctuations in hormones such as testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol. This leads in some cases to excessive exuberance bordering on mania or conversely pessimism that can then affect their decision-making and have major repercussions for the economy. As Longhurst’s research showed, both men and women in the professional workplace are expected to conform to a certain body demeanour and presentation. Those individuals who are overweight, perspire heavily, have a drinking problem, have a disability or chronic illness, are emotionally volatile and so on are viewed as not conforming to the desired norm, regardless of their gender.

I certainly do not wish to support contentions that pregnant women and new mothers should withdraw from the public sphere, as was common in previous eras. But a continuing corporate culture in which the demands and needs of the living, fleshly body are ignored or discounted potentially disadvantages all workers

References

Coates, J. (2012) The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom or Bust. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Leder, D. (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Longhurst, R. (2001) Bodies: Exploring Fluid Boundaries. London: Routledge.

Longhurst, R. (2005) Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. London: Routledge.

Young, I.M. (1990) Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Risk, concepts of space and place and the Other

"Notice! Closed Circuit Television" ...

“Notice! Closed Circuit Television” Sign (Rockville, MD) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Fears about risk tend to be projected onto certain social groups: those that are defined as the dangerous ‘risky’ Other, requiring control and intervention. As Mary Douglas’ (1969) writings have shown, the Other — that which is conceptualized as radically different from Self — is the subject of anxiety and concern, particularly if it threatens to blur boundaries, to overtake the Self. These anxieties and fears tend to emerge from and cohere around the body, which itself is a highly potent symbolic object.

Knowledge and meaning, as cultural geographers emphasise, are inevitably spatially as well as socially, politically and historically situated. Spatial metaphors and binary oppositions are central to notions of Self and Other. When we refer to the boundaries of the body/society, to the distinction between inside and outside, to the marginalised or excluded, we are relying on spatial metaphors and binary oppositions. Notions of space themselves are cultural objects, constructed through social, political and historical processes. But the importance of space and place in relation to concepts of riskiness lies not simply in their value as metaphor, but in their materiality. The members of ‘risky’ marginalised groups are viewed by the dominant group as polluting public spaces, and they shrink from contact, physical or otherwise, with them. Strategies of exclusion directed at ‘risky’ individuals or subgroups are often explicitly concerned with maintaining bodies within certain geographical limits.

In western societies there are many strategies directed at policing public spaces and attempting to remove members of threatening marginalised groups from areas designated as appropriate only for the privileged. The figure of the criminal is frequently positioned as risky and requiring exclusion from others. As part of the strategy of dealing with the risk and uncertainty of crime, people develop a ‘mental map’ of places, defining some as likely to be ‘safe’ and others as ‘risky’. This ‘mental map’ does not simply rely on geographical aspects of a space or place, but also draws on ideas and assumptions about social relations and the kinds of people who inhabit or pass through these spaces and places at specific times of day and night. Fear of crime tends to be located within public rather than private space, as the criminal is considered to be an ‘unpredictable stranger’ rather than someone known to oneself, and thus as inhabiting public space rather than being encountered in one’s home (Lupton 1999).

Members of such social groups as young working-class men, the unemployed and injecting drug users are typically nominated as potential criminals because of their assumed simmering resentments against society and lack of capacity for self-control. Those spaces in which they move about — the inner city, the shopping mall, the housing estate — are considered ‘dangerous’ in terms of the risk of crime and therefore as requiring increased surveillance, police presence and caution on the part of those who transverse them.

Since the early 1990s surveillance technologies such as closed circuit television (CCTV) and biometric identity documents for use in traversing national borders have increasingly been deployed in the attempt to monitor and protect public spaces, particularly those deemed ‘risky spaces’ because of those individuals who move through them. Such technologies involve not only social monitoring but also social exclusion of individuals considered to be undesirable, posing a threat in some way. These people tend to belong to defined social groups: young people (particularly young men), homeless people, street traders and black men. In the wake of September 11, men of a Middle-Eastern appearance have also been singled out for special surveillance, particularly in airports and in border surveillance. It has been argued that such measures are a way of dealing with the fear, anxiety, panic and trauma that events such as September 11 and July 7 have incited. National border security controls are a means of providing a figurative as well as literal barrier between the threatening Others and Us at a time at which terrorist attacks have rent open notions of containment between inside and outside. These measures are never able to fully control the unexpected or guarantee improved security, but they function at an unconscious level to help reassert feelings of safety and security (Salter and Mutlu 2011).

Strategies of exclusion exerted on the part of the most powerful in a society in their attempts to avoid risk often serve to incite fear and anxiety in those they seek to exclude or intimidate. The bodies of white, heterosexual, bourgeois men tend to claim public space as a right, and frequently seek to dominate and exclude others through exerting an aggressive gaze or through violence. Other bodies must fight to establish their place in this space. Feminists have written about the ways in which women, as one of the Other categories of bodies within public spaces, are positioned as vulnerable to confrontation or attack and therefore tend to lack the self-possession of privileged men in the same space. Moving in public space, for women, is constantly problematic, making them feel uneasy or anxious, exposed to the gaze, evaluation and imminent threat of (masculine) others (Whitzman 2007).

Strategies of spatial exclusion, therefore, are typically employed by members of dominant social groups to exert control over marginalised groups for which they hold hostility, contempt or fear of contamination. Such groups may be constructed as posing a risk to the dominant group through behaviour that is deemed to be too ‘different’ or potentially polluting and therefore confronting. The spaces these groups occupy are commonly singled out as dangerous and contaminating to the dominant groups. Alternatively, marginalised groups may be constructed as being vulnerable and ‘at risk’ from the greater power of the dominant group. For marginalised groups, constructed by dominant groups as the Other, requiring regulation or exclusion or both, this domination of space leads in turn to feelings of enhanced fear and anxiety, of being ‘at risk’ of intimidation, violence or coercion.

This is an edited excerpt from the second revised edition of my book ‘Risk’ (Routledge, in press).

References

Douglas, M. (1969) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lupton, D. (1999) Dangerous places and the unpredictable stranger: constructions of fear of crime. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(1), 1–15.

Salter, M. and Mutlu, C. (2011) Psychoanalytic theory and border control. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(2), 179—95.

Whitzman, C. (2007) Stuck at the front door: gender, fear of crime and the challenge of creating safer space. Environment and Planning A, 39(11), 2715—32.

Pregnancy and loss of control

A recent review of the pregnancy film What to Expect When You’re Expecting observed that it conforms to the ‘frat house movie of the 1980s’ genre in its focus on unruly bodies and leaking body fluids such as vomit and urine (http://tinyurl.com/6wxpf8x ). This film joins a long line of cinematic representations of pregnant women as ruled by their hormones, emotionally volatile, permeable and altogether departing from the conventions of orderly embodiment. The pregnant woman who cries, loses her temper, eats strange things or eats excessively, balloons to huge proportions and experiences her waters breaking in public have all become stock-in-trade images of pregnancy in popular culture.

These depictions of pregnant women conforms to a general societal view that women in general, and pregnant women in particular, are emotionally and physically unstable. The film’s trailer features one of the pregnant women crying on a television show, saying ‘I have no control over my body or my emotions’, something that clearly distresses her. Control over one’s embodied self is a central dimension of contemporary western societies. The contained, tightly controlled body is privileged over what is viewed culturally as the unregulated, uncontained, excessive body. Pregnant women and women in childbirth are the archetypal uncontained bodies, leaking and permeable both literally and symbolically. Pregnancy is a highly culturally ambiguous state. The pregnant women is an anomaly because of the ways her body transgresses boundaries between self and other. She is, for a time, two bodies in one, a state experienced by no other human body.

Women often experience pregnancy as a time in which their bodies no longer seem to belong to them. Pregnant bodies are seen by others as no longer private: they become public bodies, viewed as public property. Other people constantly make observations about pregnant women’s size and monitor pregnant women for their behaviour to ensure that they follow what is deemed to be appropriate for their own health and that of their baby. Pregnant women also express concern that their bodies will let them down in public places by leaking inappropriate body fluids: vomit due to morning sickness, for example, or their ‘waters’ (amniotic fluids) breaking. They all too aware of the public censure and disgust which accompanies such loss of control. Many feel as if they should withdraw from public space because of self-consciousness about their bodies, physical discomfort, concerns about losing control over their bodies and the difficulty of conforming to expectations of how a ‘proper’ pregnant woman should comport herself (Longhurst, 2005).

The age of the first-time pregnant woman can make a difference to how she feels about her pregnant body. British research (Thompson et al., 2011) using interviews with women from a wide range of age groups found that for younger women (aged under 25) pregnancy was seen by many as part of their youthful capacities, the body as taken-for-granted youthful femininity, part of their physical capital. Their pregnant bodies may also have been viewed as a source of shame, however, something that others judged them about because they were pregnant so young. For women in the age group 25 to 35, the body and maternity was a more self-conscious project. They were often aware of their lessening capacity to become pregnant and of the need to juggle career imperatives with maternity, involving much forward planning. Older women (those aged over 35) still sometimes viewed their bodies anxiously as vulnerable, unruly and likely to let them down, particularly if they had previously experienced fertility problems or miscarriage.

Interestingly, at a time in which the pregnant body is viewed as deviating from the norm in its inability to contain and regulate itself, it is also portrayed in popular culture as valuable, precious and a state to be aspired to: the apotheosis of true womanhood. This is particularly the case for celebrities who are pregnant and for the models who feature on pregnancy magazines and websites, glowing with health and radiating ‘natural’ beauty. These pregnant women are positioned as ideal-type pregnant women, with nary a varicose vein, stretch-mark or morning-sickness vomit stain in sight. Such women seem to have contained their permeability, their tendency towards bodily uncontainment, through sheer will-power. They are particularly esteemed if they have managed to control excessive weight gain during their pregnancy, suggesting their ability to exert power over any pregnancy-related cravings or appetites (Gentile, 2011). Such pregnant women are viewed as especially virtuous because they have managed to tame their unruly bodies at a time when it is expected that the body is very much in control of the self.

References

Gentile, K. (2011) What about the baby? The new cult of domesticity and media images of pregnancy. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 12(1), 38–58.

Longhurst, R. (2005) Maternities: Gender, Bodies and Space. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group. Available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.

Thomson, R., Kehily, M.J., Hadfield, L. and Sharpe, S. (2011) Making Modern Mothers. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Edgework 2: going beyond the white, middle-class male perspective

In my previous post ‘Edgework: the fun of risk-taking’, I discussed the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking. Edgework research has predominantly focused on male risk-takers, the vast majority of whom are white and middle-class. These men are able to afford to engage in ‘adventure holidays’ or such ‘extreme sports’ as skydiving, BASE jumping or white-water kayaking. Other research suggests that such individuals engage in voluntary risk-taking for different reasons than do people who are less socially and economically privileged. Gender also influences why people take risks and how they feel about risk-taking.

In her study of young Scottish women imprisoned for engaging in violent behaviour and other criminal activities such as stealing and illicit drug use, Bachelor (2007) argues that these women were initially drawn to engage in this behaviour because of the shared adrenaline ‘rush’ or ‘buzz’ they felt, a desire to escape boredom and to feel as if they could foster friendships and belong to a group. Some of these young women displayed an attraction towards traditionally masculine behaviour such as violence and the feeling of power and toughness engaging in afforded them. However the women increasingly came to undertake such activities as a means of blocking out powerful emotions such as grief and rage caused by life experiences of abuse, family dysfunction and institutional care, or by eliciting more pleasurable emotions. They remarked that they often felt ‘emotionally numb’ and ‘detached’ and that risk-taking was a way of making them feel more alive.

For these young women, violent behaviour, self-harm and drug use were ways of feeling different, either by helping to avoid conscious thoughts which were distressing, evoking feelings of power and control when feeling helpless or venting feelings of anger and hurt by hurting others. These young women were not taking risks to escape the alienating world of work and to achieve a sense of authenticity and hyperreality, as do privileged white men. They were attempting to achieve a sense of control over a world in which they felt increasingly disempowered and looking for a way of feeling close to others (their peer-group) in a context in which their families had not provided intimacy and caring and a sense of belonging.

While men may experience feelings of exhilaration and omnipotence in their edgework experiences, this research showed that when reflecting on their behaviour young women were more likely to feel ambivalent about it. They viewed such risk-taking activities as irrational and expressed feelings of guilt and shame about the violent and criminal activities in which they engaged. They may have felt in control at the time of the behaviour, but when they looked back at what they had done viewed it as being ‘out-of-control’ and as ‘going too far’. In interpreting their behaviour in this way, the young women are drawing on discourses of normative femininity, which position such behaviours as abnormal and inappropriate for women.

As this research suggests, edgework has many different nuances. It is not simply about evoking and controlling intense emotion. It is not simply about engaging in risk-taking as part of legally sanctioned and expensive leisure pursuits. Edgework also incorporates criminal behaviour, perhaps one of the few avenues for members of the underclass to seek out risky pursuits. It may not represent an escape from the banality of the safety and routines of a privileged life, but may also be a way of escaping the misery of a life including experiences of abuse, poverty and family dysfunction.

Reference

Bachelor, S. (2007) ‘Getting mad wi’ it’: risk seeking by young women. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 205—28.

Edgework: taking risks for the fun of it

Español: persona que salto

Español: persona que salto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a very large literature on the sociology of risk-taking these days. Much of this writing focuses on risk as a negative concept, something dangerous or hazardous which must be avoided. One important aspect of risk-taking however, is the pleasures and emotional intensities some people may experience when voluntarily taking risks.

The work of Stephen Lyng using the concept of ‘edgework’ explores the reasons why people take risks as part of leisure activities. The concept of edgework incorporates the notion that voluntary risk-taking activities are about exploring the edges that exist along cultural boundaries. These boundaries may include those between sanity and insanity, consciousness and unconsciousness and life and death.

Edgework involves skilful practices combined with emotional intensity. But the emotional dimension of voluntary risk-taking is more complex than simply involving the desire to incite intense emotions. Emotions such as fear, excitement and anxiety are central to edgework, but so are their control. Mental toughness, the ability to master and control the fear that one is experiencing and keep calm so as to avoid physical harm or death, is an integral aspect of edgework. When risk-takers are able to exert mastery over emotions that are viewed as negative, they experience heightened feelings of control.

Smith (2005) gives the example of white-water kayaking, in which it is important to maintain control over fear so that the kayak will stay afloat and will be able navigate the hazards of the water it is traversing. Smith claims that it is the individual’s awareness of maintaining this control despite the almost overwhelming embodied sensations of fear and excitement, which produces the sense of elation that risk-takers seek.

Lyng and Matthews (2007) similarly note that what is deemed important for voluntary risk-takers is not to override fear but to acknowledge its presence and convert it into something that is sensually appealing. This involves an acceptance of fear combined with confidence that one can act skilfully to avoid accident or death. This combination of intense emotional arousal and focused attention leads to edgeworkers experience alterations in perception of time and space, feelings of hyerreality which leads to a sense of the experience as deeply authentic, as feeling truly alive. Edgeworkers commonly describe a sense of blurring of the boundaries between themselves and the technologies under their control (kayaks, climbing ropes, parachutes, racing cars, motor cycles and so on), so that they have a sense of ‘being one with their machines’.

Edgework can represent both a challenge to limits, everyday routines and social expectations, but paradoxically, may also be an expression of dominant institutional demands and imperatives. To be entrepreneurial in the business world, for example, people are expected to voluntarily take risks to increase productivity and profits. Thus there may be said to be a degree of synergy between the skills, competencies and symbolic resources engendered via participation in edgework practices and the demands of late modernity. Edgework is simultaneously part of efforts to transcend institutional imperatives in some contexts (dangerous leisure activities, for example) and in others a vital dimension of conforming to these imperatives. As Lyng (2005) notes, while these two sides of edgework may seem to be contradictory, they may also be viewed as complementary. The skills and expertise derived from leisure-based risk-taking practices may be employed to win success in the workplace.

References

Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework and the risk-taking experience. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 17—49.

Lyng, S. and Matthews, R. (2007) Risk, edgework, and masculinities. In Hannah-Moffat, K. and O’Malley, P. (eds), Gendered Risks. Milton Park: Routledge-Cavendish, pp. 75—98.

Smith, C. (2005) Financial edgework: trading in market currents. In Lyng, S. (ed), Edgework: The Sociology of Risk-Taking. New York: Routledge, pp. 187—200.

Attachment parenting or extreme parenting?

Last week I wrote a piece for ‘The Conversation’ discussion website (http://theconversation.edu.au) about the US edition of Time magazine, 21 May 2012, that featured a cover image of young, attractive woman breastfeeding her three-year-old son (http://theconversation.edu.au/time-2-extreme-parenting-time-magazine-style-7055). I looked at the various responses to this cover image on the internet. Many of these were from mothers themselves or from professional female commentators and bloggers.

What I found was interesting.  Some people were horrified at the idea that a boy who could be old enough to remember suckling from his mother’s breast will still be doing so. There were many claims that he would be humiliated when he grew older at being featured in such a controversial and public image. The notion that a child as old as three was still breastfeeding seemed abhorrent to some. Breastfeeding here becomes sexualised and bestowed with incestuous meanings, simply because the child is old enough ‘to remember’ gaining comfort and pleasure from his mother’s breast. The fact that his mother was slim, attractive, young, dressed in a hip manner in tight black jeans, and blonde, simply added to the sexualisation of the image.

Other commentators were relatively accepting of the breastfeeding, but took offence at the headline of the cover, which read ‘Are you Mom enough?’. These are fighting words, suggesting that women who do not engage in practices such as breastfeeding for years are not ‘good enough’ mothers. The words ‘Mom enough’ imply that there are gradations of ‘Momness’ (to use a rather clumsy neologism) and that ‘real Moms’ are those who engage in ‘extreme parenting’ . ‘Extreme parenting’ was a term also used on the front cover and in the detailed article published within about attachment parenting and one of its most prominent advocates, American paediatrician Dr Bill Sears.

In contrast to the deliberate provocation of the cover imagery and wording, I found the article quite well-balanced, looking at both the pros and cons of engaging in attachment parenting, which involves baby-wearing in slings and co-sleeping as well as extended breastfeeding and breastfeeding on demand. Sears argues that these practices, based on age-old customs still found in non-western societies, contribute to infants’ physical and psychological wellbeing. According to the article, more and more mothers are taking up his advice and engaging in attachment parenting practices.

Nonetheless, as case studies used in the article attest, attachment parenting (also ‘extreme parenting’ according to Time) can be extremely hard work for the mothers who adopt it. In fact, it clashes with the contemporary notion that both women and men are autonomous individuals, freely making choices about their lives and engaging actively in the workforce without constraint. Attachment parenting directly challenges these assumptions, because it counters the notion of the mother and the infant or child as autonomous subjects. Instead, it rests upon the assumption that the mother-child dyad is interembodied, that the boundaries between the two are blurred rather than distinct, and that the mother, instead of actively seeking to foster autonomy and independence in her child, will follow its cues and submit to its neediness for her bodily presence.

For people in contemporary western societies, these are highly challenging and confronting concepts. This perhaps explains the controversy over the cover image and the use of the term ‘extreme’ to describe attachment parenting.

For sociological studies on women’s experiences of attachment parenting, see the work of Charlotte Faircloth: http://kent.academia.edu/CharlotteFaircloth. For my own work on concepts of infants’ bodies, see Deborah Lupton (in press) ‘Infant embodiment and interembodiment: a review of sociocultural perspectives’, Childhood and Deborah Lupton (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group, available at http://hdl.handle.net/2123/8363.