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.

New book: Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body

Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body is unlike any other sociological text on health and medicine. It combines perspectives drawn from a wide variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, social history, cultural geography, and media and cultural studies. The book explores the ways in which medicine and health care are sociocultural constructions, ranging from popular media and elite cultural representations of illness to the power dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship.

The Third Edition has been updated to cover new areas of interest, including:

– studies of space and place in relation to the body

– actor-network theory as it is applied in research related to medicine

– The internet and social media and how they contribute to lay health knowledge and patient support

– complementary and alternative medicine

– obesity and fat politics.

Contextualising introductions and discussion points in every chapter makes Medicine as Culture, Third Edition a rigorous yet accessible text for students.

SAGE: Medicine as Culture: Illness, Disease and the Body: Third Edition: Deborah Lupton: 9781446208953.

Pro-ana websites: celebrating and promoting the anorexic body

The Waiting Room / Anorexia Tableau

The Waiting Room / Anorexia Tableau (Photo credit: Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library)

Several sociologists and anthropologists have started commenting on a particular worrying use of the internet – to celebrate and promote anorexia. Websites have appeared directed at people wanting to emulate the bodily practices and appearance of anorexics. They have been referred to as ‘pro-ana‘ (short for anorexic) websites. The term’ Ana’ is sometimes used in the websites as if were the name of a girl or woman, a friend perhaps of the individual who is seeking advice and help in her attempts to render herself thin and adopt ‘Ana’ as her supporter and mentor.

These websites, many of which have hundreds of followers, frequently include images of extremely thin women with conventionally beautiful faces, like models but even thinner. Some are celebrities at their very lowest body weights and looking particularly skeletal. These photos are captioned with approving comments, encouraging viewers to aspire to achieve such emaciation.

There are references on such sites to the ‘eating disorder community’ and the support that such sites offer their members. They are clearly directed at promoting the practices of anorexia nervosa and making members feel as if they are part of a broader community who share the same ideals of body wasting. The sites also refer to ‘thinspiration’, or inspiring others in the aim of ‘getting thin and staying thin’, as one pro-ana site put it. Varieties of diet pill, laxatives, diuretics and ways of stimulating metabolic rates are discussed, as are various workout and dietary regimes, fasting and purging methods and ways to ‘hide anorexia’.

According to one such website the pro-ana ‘creed’ includes such commandments as:  ‘If you aren’t thin you aren’t attractive’, ‘Being thin is more important than being healthy’ and ‘Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success’.

The latest issue of the journal Body & Society includes an examination of this phenomenon by Natalie Boero and CJ Pascoe.  As Boero and Pascoe note, such online communities provide a place for people engaging in stigmatised and proscribed body practices such as self-starvation and body wasting to come together and proclaim themselves as rebelling against mainstream negative concepts of anorexics. Participants in these sites position themselves as powerful and challenging of medical dogma, and as experts in the practices of anorexia.

Boero and Pasco focus in particular on the ways in which participants in these sites work to maintain an authentic community of people who are committed to the pro-ana lifestyle. They note that participants are wary of ‘wannarexics’, or people who are attracted to the ‘anorexic lifestyle’ or sense of community offered by these groups, but are viewed as not ‘authentically’ behaving as anorexics. Those who consider themselves ‘real’ pro-anas attempt to maintain group solidarity and keep out the wannarexics, often by being quite aggressive in their posts and positioning themselves as more knowledgeable about anorexia.

This is interesting research, showing how such communities operate to achieve distinctions between ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ participants. In the case of pro ana sites, given their focus on the body and its proportions, to prove their authenticity, participants are asked to post photos of their bodies, their body weight, body measurements and BMI (body mass index) and food reports of their daily diets. These indicators are used to assess whether they are ‘true’ pro anas.

However what is not discussed in the Boero and Pascoe article is the ways in which some of the most popular pro ana sites are clearly commercial in their orientation. They include advertisements for diet pills and Chinese medicine products aimed at losing weight or sell ‘thinspiration’ manuals with tips on wasting. Some people have obviously spotted a market among the followers of the ‘pro-ana’ philosophy. On their websites they position themselves as pro anas, but then attempt to sell their wares to people accessing their website. It is surely here that the authenticity of pro ana community members needs to be called into question.

Further reading

Natalie Boero and CJ Pascoe (2012) Pro-anorexia communities and online interaction: bringing the pro-ana body online. Body & Society, 18(2), 27–57.

Nick Fox, Katie Ward and Alan O’Rourke (2005) Pro-anorexia, weight-loss drugs and the internet: an ‘anti-recovery’ explanatory model of anorexia. Sociology of Health & Illness, 27(7), 944–71.

Megan Warin (2009) Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.