Several people have sent me links this week to birth photos entered in National Geographic’s 2011 Photo Contest (examples below).
Here’s the thing about this. I think childbirth, and the body, are pretty awesome and fascinating, and I wish we had more images in our collective consciousness that portrayed both as strong, vital, cool, etc. (instead of dire, freaky, pathological, unreliable, something out of the E.R.)
And yet, I pause, sometimes, at the “beautiful” childbirth shots.
Yes, there’s a lot of power and awesomeness here, but honestly my first thoughts are, “how does her hair look like that?!”
I like to think I was pretty much a rock star during labor (not because of how the births went, just because I did it, and I encourage all of you to think of yourselves the same way, regardless of how it went, as long as you had a baby that day) but I didn’t look like a rock star. Or a model. Or like anything I’d want photos of posted anywhere. And my babies didn’t look like angelic cherubs at first, either. Here is my daughter, moments after being born:
It’s not the shot I chose for the birth announcements.
In fact, I can remember seeing my husband holding a camera during one of my kid’s births and totally freaking out at that poor man. (“I was just moving it! Not taking pictures!” he exclaimed) I wasn’t upset because there was something wrong with what I was doing, or anything shameful about it. But — because I’m a pretty vain person, I knew I couldn’t fully concentrate on what I needed to do if I was trying, also, to be camera-ready.
In fact, it felt kind of liberating to be able to do childbirth without having to be watched and recorded and documented. I can bring home the bacon. I can fry it up in a pan. I can gestate and bear two children. And I can pull off a variety of looks. But for f*ck’s, sake. I didn’t want to have to do it in labor. Some people have effortless beauty that looks a lot like Magazine Beauty. But most of the labors I’ve been at, my own included, the mom was stunning, awesome and effortlessly beautiful and deeply lovable, but not in the classic mainstream female beauty way you see in mags.
Even if we put looks aside, there’s something about being photographed for posterity that changes how you act, how you feel, how you behave. When you’re aware of a camera and an audience, doesn’t it affect everything?
And why is it that the “triumphant” photos are always at the moment of birth, not the many dull, awful moments, hours earlier, where mom felt like giving up at hour 20 and managed, through her tears, to find a way to carry on? It starts to feel like the emergence of the baby is the Money Shot, the moment besides which nothing matters, and, especially when the laboring mom looks waxed and skinny, the whole thing starts to feel a little porny to me.
And so I’m not sure how to react to the National Geographic photos. OT1H, I love the idea of watching birth — what could possibly normalize childbirth as much as seeing it? And thinking of it as normal totally helps you do it. And I love seeing how many many different ways there are to be.
But OTOH, when I see the glamour shots, I worry, a little. Are they like the impossible standards of magazine beauty we all lament? Are we setting the audience up, a little, suggesting that it’s obligatory to look, or be, or feel a certain way, or at least to try?
Or are we giving them powerful images to counterbalance the medicalized hospital images with women on their backs, pushing uphill like Sisyphus, strangled up in monitors and IV lines?
What do you think?