Reflective Research Journal – 3rd Year – Week Twenty Two

This one is late again! I have been finishing up and submitting my Dissertation research report. I also submitted a proposal for a talk at DJCAD’s IN-GEAR Conference to celebrate Woman’s History Month and was accepted. I talked on ‘Patriarchal Appropriation and Medicalisation of Childbirth in Contemporary Visual Art and Media Culture’, the subject I have been researching for my research report and also my studio practice. The Conference was on Teams last Wednesday and went very smoothly. There were about 14 speakers and more than 50 delegates at the live streamed event. It felt like a very good thing to be part of, there were lots of great talks and many interconnected threads. I felt I struggled with the questions at the end a little though, maybe partly because they were mostly comments rather than questions. In the heat of the moment it was hard to think straight and of course I thought of better responses later, I hope I wasn’t too inept sounding though! I won the feminist themed quiz at the end though, which was a nice unexpected bonus.

A new research forum has been set up for Intersectional Gender Equality in the Arts Research (IN-GEAR), and I am one of the founder members as a result of being part of the conference. You can hear my talk below.

Below is a copy of my official letter of achievement which confirms my participation in the conference and research forum.

Here is the transcript of my talk. 

To what extent do patriarchal attitudes to women’s power, their bodies and wellbeing, dominate the portrayal of health and childbirth in contemporary visual art and media culture.  

So conditioned are we to seeing woman’s bodies turned in to birthing machines; inconsequential vessels, sites of medical emergencies, we aren’t even aware of what we are seeing playing out. 

The rise of medical dominance and particularly the male appropriation, bullying, coercion, controlling, objectifying of pregnant and birthing women, obstetric violence and its continuing normalisation is a health and human rights crisis of pandemic proportions. 

Heather Cahill says, “The appropriation and medicalisation of pregnancy and childbirth by men are rooted in a patriarchal model that has been centuries in the making. A model that perceives women as essentially abnormal, as victims of their reproductive systems and hormones, it is also one that defines pregnancy as inherently pathological – a clinical crisis worthy of active intervention.”  

Alys Einion’s Critique of Representations of Birth, ‘Resistance and Submission’ analyses reality TV shows, like, ‘One Born Every Minute’ and draws disturbing comparisons between medicalised births and sexual violence.  

And a study carried out by the World Health Organisation in 2016 shockingly found that around 42% of woman worldwide said they experienced physical or verbal abuse or discrimination during childbirth in health centers, with some of the women being punched, slapped, shouted at, mocked, or forcibly held down”. And many did not give their consent for the episiotomies and caesareans they received. Women who were unmarried, young or uneducated faced the highest risk. 

Only with a massive effort of will and despite warnings, threats, condescension and invasive behavior from male doctors was I “allowed” to have home births for both my children in my early 20’s, despite being in prime health and well informed on the subject. That was 23 years ago, and things seem little better in the UK today. I have tackled this subject before in my studio practice and I am currently exploring the subject in combination with the human microbiome, which is shaped by the birthing process through puppet animation, installation, painting and video.  

I am now going to share some visceral facts from biologist and zoologist Alanna Collen’s book ‘10% Human’ which may cause disgust – Naturally vaginally birthed babies ideally get the right sort of friendly bacteria in their mouths and on their skin to set up their immunity for life and it’s no accident that labouring mothers tend to defecate and that babies heads normally come out first and pause facing the mum’s anus.  

The bacteria in the lactic acid produced in the vagina is designed perfectly to digest the first breast milk and combined with any faecal bacteria, colonises the baby’s gut, and scientists are now finding that this perfect cocktail is fundamental in disease resistance throughout the rest of our lives. Nature has the system perfectly worked out, an inoculation for life, but the abundance of common surgical and pharmaceutical interventions of birth can interfere with this and cause lifelong chronic and more serious health issues for both child and mother (Collen, 2015) including psychological trauma. C-sections for example, mean the baby misses out on these bacteria. 

This unnecessary medical interference correlates to the massive upsurge in fairly new chronic conditions, which Collen calls the 21st century diseases: including, obesity, autism, mental health problems, gut disorders, allergies, asthma, eczema, cancer and the host of autoimmune diseases, which are also linked to the increasing misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals. Antibiotics (which the WHO categorizes as one of the biggest threats to global health today) are routinely given following a C-section. 

Caesarean sections, Alanna Collen describes as “a crucial alternative to vaginal delivery in medically necessary circumstances” and though once used sparingly are now worryingly common, with around a third of babies being delivered by C-section worldwide. Collen believes that the very existence of this easily available alternative to natural birth disempowers women. It’s often presented as a safer option making women feel that pushing is too dangerous or difficult. But the figures show there are more risks associated with C-sections and the WHO recommend they should make up only 10- 15% of all births.  

The Birth Rites Collection at Kings College London curated by Helen Knowles, came into being because of the distinct lack of birth related art and is the only dedicated and substantial body of birth related work in the UK. Interesting to note, that even though this is a teaching college for Midwives, there has been some controversy surrounding the work, particularly a graphic but very positive photograph of an ecstatic looking woman birthing at home, some of the students asked for the work to be removed. It was described as inappropriate and offensive. 

The tour guide describing this to me, said that the people who had issues with the more positive birth images tended to be woman who had had traumatic birth experiences in hospital and since these women are now training to be midwives, so this cycle of trauma continues to be perpetuated. Much of the art in the collection portrays elements of trauma. 

The portrayal of childbirth in contemporary mainstream cinema and TV, from the 1980’s to the present is commonly depicted as comedy or medical emergency. They rarely show woman with any kind of body autonomy. The birthing women are predominantly shown as submissive and nonactive, rarely in control, most often on their backs on a hospital bed. 

The film Pieces of a Woman currently on Netflix, is one of the few films featuring a planned home birth but is definitely not the best portrayal of a positive natural birth story, because the baby dies, and the midwife is charged with criminal negligence (its loosely based on a true story). The labour and birth scene is one of the more active, empowered and realistic scenes I have seen, however it perpetuates the stereotype of the rebellious, selfish, deviant woman, in both the mother and midwife. Canadian midwife, Hana Lang says the filmmakers could have explored the same themes of autonomy, choice, forgiveness and guilt in a hospital setting where babies also die and making it a home birth was to probably make it more dramatic and talked about. 

She added; ‘We also have to remember that in medicine there was a very well thought out plan to eradicate midwives. This is a few decades ago. Part of that plan was to say that midwives were uneducated and to say that home birth was unsafe.’ Lang confirms that ‘research and evidence’ point to homebirth as ‘a safe and reasonable choice’. She says ‘what we know is that with a midwife, outcomes at home and the hospital are the same. People’s experience of home birth, generally are more positive than in the hospital.’   

I believe my research so far shows that patriarchal medical control over birth and belief in it have increased exponentially over the last century despite the fact that evidence points to better nutrition, housing and sanitation measures, having more effect on infant mortality rates than birth being relocated to hospitals. (Hart, 1985) Medical conditioning has done a good job in making us believe that childbirth is a medical condition and I believe that through our visual culture, we are continuing to sanction this violence against woman.   

Earlier in the week I had my last tutorial with Erica and after talking to her I decided to make a video of my installation with some of the other video work within it, showing how it could be installed in an ideal situation. Not sure exactly how yet, but I am taking little films of the process of making it all as I go along and lots of photos and I have started rearranging the structure also. There is now a painted cardboard bum above the big vulva screen with the paper, painted, rainbow poo coming out. It gives the impression of the start of a kind of totem pole of body parts. I took various photos of me standing with my head inside the vagina, from both sides, looking down and up, mouth open to catch the magic faecal bacteria! I might make a giant boob too, with rainbow wires/threads shooting out like a fountain, to complete the triumvirate of magic ingredients to seed the perfect microbiome. 

Continuing the loose watercolors.
Have also painted over these MDF shapes, which I started in first year, to use in the installation, but not sure if I like them as part of it.

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