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Reinscribing a New Normal: Pregnancy, Disability, and Health 2.0 in the Online Natural Birthing Community, Birth Without Fear

Introduction

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 ‘I learnt two lessons while in labour with my son, to STICK UP FOR YOURSELF and THAT I KNOW MY BABY & BODY BEST’ (Mamabearbri).

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 ‘It was amazing to learn to trust my body, and watch and feel it doing everything as it should. I am NOT broken! I am strong, and it was the first time I could honestly say I am proud of my body’ (Mamabearbri).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 ‘I learned how to put my fear aside and have the birth nature intended’ (Laura M).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 ‘Through this birth, I have be [sic] re-born as a more whole version of myself. I trust my body. I trust my partner. I trust myself. I am happy’ (Boyda-Vikander).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 In her book, What a Girl Wants? Fantasizing the Reclamation of Self in Postfeminism, Diane Negra argues that the pregnant body has been ‘re-classified’ as ‘natural, normal, and healthy’ to the extent that it has become an object of exhibitionism and even ‘fetishization and eroticization’ (63). But as the above quotations posted by women to the online birthing community Birth Without Fear reveal, there remains a cultural assumption that pregnancy and childbirth arenot ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ processes. These individuals’ voices instead stress that society perceives pregnant bodies as disabled and therefore as disempowered.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 Online birthing communities like Birth Without Fear seek to rewrite rhetorics of disempowerment and disability regarding pregnancy and in so doing, operate as cyberfeminist spaces. This process plays out in complex ways as it involves intersections between pregnancy, disability, and women’s health. The purpose of this article is to unpack these intersections by examining how the Birth Without Fear (BWF) community plays a positive role in shaping conversations regarding disability and pregnancy as well as ways these efforts negatively reinscribe a ‘new normal’ regarding disability and childbirth. To explore these issues, I draw on concepts and terminologies from cyberfeminism and feminist disability studies. In using these methodologies, I bring attention to ways pregnant bodies continue to be considered disabled as well as highlight how BWF plays a role in both positively and negatively shaping rhetorics of pregnancy on the web. Understanding this process is important as it brings critical attention to how feminism evolves in digital spaces, knowledge that can benefit individuals working in feminist studies, medical professions, classrooms, and communities within cyberspace and beyond.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I begin my analysis by introducing the Birth Without Fear community and demonstrating how it functions as a Health 2.0 and cyberfeminist space. Next, I discuss connections between the Health 2.0 movement and the self-help industry, paying special attention to ways women have influenced self-help culture. I then move on to analyze how pregnant bodies have been discursively constructed as disabled and ways the BWF community strives to rewrite, for better or worse, such rhetorics. I conclude by arguing that the analysis I present here can help feminist scholars advocate in both academic and non-academic spheres for a revised understanding of pregnancy, disability, and obstetrical practices.

About Birth Without Fear & Methodology

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Birth Without Fear is a multi-faceted, online blogging community devoted to exploring diverse birthing options. The community’s founder, January Harshe, explains that it began “as a simple passion to let women know they have choices in childbirth. It then evolved to become an inspiration and support to women and their families through their trying to conceive, pregnancy, birth and post partum journeys” (“About BWF”).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In addition to the blog, BWF consists of an affiliated Facebook site, Twitter feed, Pinterest board, and Instagram page. These Web 2.0 spaces make up what I call the ‘BWF community.’ In each of these spaces, content is largely user-generated, although initial posts and status updates on the BWF Facebook page are created by January and her support staff.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 For the purposes of this article, I focus on content from the BWF blog and Facebook page. This is largely because these are the facets of the community I am most actively engaged in and because they offer rich sites for analysis. In collecting and analyzing data, I used participate-observer research methods and rhetorical analysis. Because all content from the BWF community discussed in this article is available publicly on the web, I did not change avatar or screen names.

Health 2.0 Meets the Birthing Blog

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Before moving into a discussion of how the Birth Without Fear community plays a role in reinscribing a ‘new normal’ for childbirth, I want to first look at the community’s relationship to the Health 2.0 movement and self-help industry. Examining this relationship is essential as it provides context for understanding the technological, historical, and socio-economic conditions the community operates within.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 One of the first things many of us do when we experience an illness or unknown physical condition is ‘Google’ it. Not surprisingly, we increasingly see the web as a resource that can provide answers to our health questions. In response to this growing trend, organizations such as the Mayo Clinic have introduced online community health initiatives intended to connect ‘people who have been through the Mayo Clinic experience with others’ and to provide ‘a place for community members to share information, support and understanding’ (n.p.). Organizations like the Mayo Clinic highlight the Internet’s role as a popular source for what has been coined Health 2.0, a movement that seeks to “marry Web 2.0 technology, participatory discourse, and network subjectivity to health care management” (Levina 14).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 One of the most important features of Health 2.0 is its mission to create a discourse of self-empowerment through virtual connectivity. The website WedMD, for example, promises users on its “Living Healthy” page that individuals can ‘[d]iscover new ways to live an inspiring life through natural beauty, nutrition and diet, an active lifestyle, and better relationships’ (n.p.). Visitors to the site are introduced to what other users are ‘clicking on’ as well as to the ‘editor’s picks’ on health and nutrition articles (n.p). These features and services help users feel empowered by the information they find on the site and by their connections to other users. Society’s movement toward a supplemental healthcare model that uses the affordances of Web 2.0 technologies isn’t limited to organizations like the Mayo Clinic or WedMD, however.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Another—and, I contend, more dynamic—brand of Health 2.0 has emerged in the form of the birthing blog. [1] In general, birthing blogs are devoted to informing women about the diverse birthing options available and to raising awareness about alternative birthing practices. Many birthing blogs have emerged as a response to a growing trend in which women insist that the modern medical establishment accept natural, non-medicated, and midwife-assisted birthing practices as legitimate. Moreover, these blogs promote the idea that women’s pregnancies and birthing stories are important experiences that should be shared in an effort to empower women. Although there are numerous birthing blogs in existence, Birth Without Fear is an example of a dynamic blogging community that strives to support women in their birthing choices and to create an online space where women can celebrate birth and motherhood.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Like Health 2.0 communities such as the Mayo Clinic or WebMD, the primary goal of BWF is to provide a supportive environment for women to access medical information, ask questions, and share stories. Many women visiting the site seek medical advice about when and how to give birth, the types of birthing options available, and advice on breastfeeding. On the BWF Facebook site, for example, one mom recently inquires: ‘If you are nursing when your new baby is born, do your breasts still produce Colostrum for the newborn?’ (Jackson). Another woman responds: ‘The answer is yes, your body will still produce colostrum for your newborn child’ (Garza-Medina). Although informal exchanges like this do not constitute (nor are they intended to replace) formal medical advice, they reveal that participants see BWF as a space where health-related issues can be dialogically addressed. The community therefore operates as a Health 2.0 environment where participants can informally communicate about birth-related issues and questions.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 3 The Health 2.0 features of the BWF community as well as its efforts to empower women make it a vibrant cyberfeminist space. The term ‘cyberfeminism’ is multivocal, but according to Rebecca Richards “[c]yberfeminisms are political, aesthetic, and cultural movements that rely on playful ambiguities, contradictions, and technological interventions to subvert gendered hierarchies and sexist oppression” (n.p.). In the introduction to the book Cyberfeminism 2.0, editors Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh define cyberfeminism as that which ‘necessitates an awareness of how power plays not only in different locations online but also in institutions that shape the layout and experience of cyberspace’ (1). I add to these definitions by emphasizing that cyberfeminism also represents women’s efforts to empower themselves as digital citizens and to discursively construct their bodies in digital spaces. In examining the BWF community, we see tenets of each of these definitions at work as the community strives to support women and mothers across the web.

Self-Help Culture

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 Although the Health 2.0 movement seems like a new trend in our modern, technologically-driven society, it derives from the self-help industry which has flourished in the U.S. for centuries. According to Wendy Simmonds, the self-help industry was a distinctly American phenomenon which grew out of seventeenth-century ‘[p]uritan notions about self-improvement, Christian goodness, and otherworldly rewards’ (4). Since that time, the self-help industry has continued to grow in the United States and the annual sales of self-improvement books, magazines, and guides are in the billions of dollars. According to a Forbes magazine article on the self-help industry, in 2008 Americans spent eleven billion ‘on self-improvement books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs’ (n.p.). This is a staggering number, especially considering that 2008 marked the height of the U.S. recession. [2]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 While contemporary self-help materials are authored by both men and women, early self-help guides—even ones which focused on ‘women’s issues’ like midwifery—were largely authored by men, most of whom were in medical professions. In 1811, however, a modest volume of medical advice dedicated to the care of young children entitled The Maternal Physician: A Treatise on the Nurture and Management of Infants, from the Birth until Two Years Old was released by New York publisher Issac Riley (Brown 88). According to Kathleen Brown, The Maternal Physician appears to have been the first book of medical advice penned by an American woman who inconspicuously identified herself on the title page as ‘“an American matron”’ (88). This book, among others, set in motion a cultural movement where women, who were traditionally barred from public discourses in medical professions, began shaping conversations and practices concerning women’s health.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Due in part to the success of early texts like The Maternal Physician, women today have access to female-authored and women-centered self-help resources and materials. Among the best known of these is Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS). Sometimes called the bible of women’s health, it ‘promotes accurate, evidence-based information on girls’ and women’s reproductive health and sexuality, and addresses the social, economic and political conditions that affect health care access and quality of care’ (n.p.). Despite its humble beginnings as a manual on women’s health that sold for just seventy-five cents in the early 1970s (Davis 1), later versions of the book became a remarkable international success:

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Since the first commercial edition was published in 1973, OBOS has sold over four million copies and gone through six major updates. The latest edition appeared in 2005. It occupied the New York Times best seller list for several years, was voted the best young adult book of 1976 by the American Library Association, and has received worldwide critical acclaim for its candid and accessible approach to women’s health. (Davis 2)

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 Both the historic and modern success of female-authored health guides like OBOS point to two important ways women have and continue to influence self-help culture and the Health 2.0 movement. For one, women now enjoy a position in which they have the authority to speak about their health, bodies, and life experiences, access that allows women to rewrite rhetorics of ability/disability, an idea I discuss more in-depth in the next section. Secondly, women’s entry into the self-help industry puts them in a position to influence women’s ways of knowing. These achievements are significant as they allow women to shape social perceptions of women’s bodies as well as public policy and medical practices.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 It is essential to note, however, that while women have gained the ability to speak about their bodies and health, such access comes at a price. Entry into the self-help industry also means entry into capitalistic economic systems which disproportionality oppress and exploit women, as illustrated by Maria Shriver’s 2014 report entitled “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.” Moreover, while self-help industry resources like Our Bodies, Ourselves or online birthing communities such as Birth Without Fear seek to empower women, they inadvertently play into capitalistic ideologies which maintain that it is the responsibility of the individual—not the state—to ensure access to medical care. This myopic focus on an individual woman’s ability to make choices for herself and her family through access to self-help culture and Health 2.0 technologies serves to divert attention from the highly exploitative nature of capitalistic economies. Many women across the U.S., for instance, continue to have limited or no access to high-quality pre-natal and post-partum care or to basic reproductive medicines like birth control. This is especially true for working class women, immigrants, and women of color.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 2 While a comprehensive discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this essay, the point I want to make is that women’s relationship to the self-help industry and Health 2.0 movement is complex and does not always result in empowering outcomes for women. Although this issue has recently come under scrutiny by feminist scholars working in political economy, race, media, and transnational studies, additional analysis is needed. [3] In the next section, I take on two aspects of this complex problem—pregnancy and disability in the context of women’s health—by examining how the reinscription of a new normal for childbirth empowers some women at the expense of others.

Rewriting Dis/ability: Pregnancy & Connectivity

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0        ‘[D]isability studies seeks to deconstruct and transform oppressive ideological and professional practices experienced by disabled people’ (Meekosha 69).

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 ‘[B]irth stories are also important because they present the pregnant woman’s body as capable of bearing and birthing babies rather than as a malfunctioning machine that must be monitored and fixed with the application of medical technology’ (Seigel 149).

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 Traditionally, women’s bodies have been socially-constructed as disabled. Women attempting to enter the military, for example, have historically been denied due to the belief that they were unable to handle the hardships of war. For decades, women have been discouraged from entering professions like politics, science, and medicine, careers believed to be too intellectually challenging (and even too physically demanding in some instances) for women. This stigma of being less-abled stems from the perception that women are physically, mentally, and medically inferior to men, an attitude illustrated by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson who argues that ‘both women and the disabled have been imagined as medically abnormal—as the quintessential sick ones. Sickness is gendered feminine’ (520).

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 3 The notion that a woman’s body is inherently disabled is particularly visible when she is pregnant. One need only look at the modern obstetrical profession for evidence. Pregnant women are not uncommonly scheduled for Cesarean sections before it has been formally determined whether or not such a procedure is even necessary. Medical facilities are stocked with devices designed to either take over the delivery process or to compensate for physiological shortcomings. As demonstrated by Amy Koerber, even breastfeeding—a process which is far less complex or potentially life-threatening as childbirth—has been appropriated by the medical industry. Koerber argues that despite the medical industry’s outward rhetoric of encouraging women to breastfeed, that this is often ‘sabotaged’ by ‘mixed messages’ in which women are given supplements and bottled milk (88-91). While medical procedures like Cesarean sections or resources such as baby formula have and continue to serve the needs of women in positive ways, they also illustrate the social ideology that a pregnant woman’s body is, to some extent, unable to perform the work it was biologically designed to do. This stigma serves to reinforce the notion that pregnant bodies are also disabled bodies which, as Seigel points out, ‘must be monitored and fixed with the application of medical technology’ (149).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 2 The concept of disability is fluid, however, and while I use it here as a lens for analyzing how society perceives and discursively constructs pregnancy, I must pause to acknowledge that some individuals’ perceptions of and experiences with disability may differ dramatically from how I discuss it here. An individual living with a permanent disability might argue that a pregnant woman is only temporarily perceived as disabled and is therefore not truly disabled. It is also important to recognize that many disabled individuals experience social stigmas in ways that pregnant women do not. Moreover, as Susan Wendell reminds us ‘some people are perceived as disabled who do not experience themselves as disabled’ (108). While I find feminist disability theory useful for understanding how pregnant bodies are socially- and discursively-constructed, I am aware that there are other, and perhaps contradictory, applications for this theory.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The connection between pregnancy and feminist disability studies takes on a new dimension when considered in the context of participatory Health 2.0 technologies. Cyberspace is increasingly a venue for activists groups like Birth Without Fear to advocate for women’s health and the right to recognize pregnancy and birth as natural. In a recent story posted on the BWF blog, for example, one mother shares the story of a natural water birth, telling readers that ‘[i]t was amazing to learn to trust my body, and watch and feel it doing everything as it should. I am NOT broken! I am strong, and it was the first time I could honestly say I am proud of my body’ (Mamabearbri). In the comments section of her post, one reader responds ‘Thank you for reminding me to just have faith in my body and what it is made to do!’ (Mamabearbri). The narrator’s assertion that her body is ‘NOT broken’ and the commentator’s response that she will ‘have faith in my body and what it is made to do’ responds to a dominate discursive narrative which regards the pregnant body as disabled or ‘broken.’ By utilizing the affordances of the web, the BWF community rewrites this narrative and asserts that women’s bodies are strong and capable.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 One significant feature of the BWF blog and its affiliate social networking sites is that it creates moments like those cited above where women use technologies to form what Kristine Blair, Radhika Gajjala, and Christine Tulley call ‘kinship networks’ (3). These networks allow women to rewrite the narrative around women’s bodies and to redefine the concept of abled versus disabled. Just as importantly, they provide women with opportunities to share medical experiences and to connect with one another in a Health 2.0 environment. On the “I Am Strong” page of the BWF blog one woman shares her story about resisting medical intervention to have a natural birth. She proudly tells readers:

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 3 I am strong because I labored for 45 hours and pushed for 2.5 hours in the comfort of my own home with my husband and midwives, only to be transferred to the hospital because of a swollen cervix. I am strong because the doctors considered me a ‘trauma patient’ in need of a c-section, and I calmly declined asking for an epidural, some sleep, and time to push my little girl out naturally. I had to sign paperwork declining advice for a cesarean. (“I Am Strong {Adri}”)

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 1 This mother’s story is followed by a number of comments, one in which a reader exclaims: ‘Yes you are strong!! Good for you for standing your ground and doing what you knew was best for you and your baby! I am set for a home birth in two weeks and I will keep your story in mind and pull from your strength’ (Meghann). This exchange is just one example of the diverse ways women harness the affordances of the BWF Health 2.0 environment to form and maintain kinship networks, to share birthing and medical experiences, and to ‘pull’ from each other’s strengths.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 According to Helen Meekosha, social and connective technologies like those used by the BWF community play a central role in giving women who are perceived as disabled ‘a way of recognizing and sharing their common experience’ and in ‘playing a part in the building of supportive personal networks’ (70). Exchanges like the one described here illustrate community members’ desires to share their experiences as a way of sustaining personal networks. Moreover, narratives like these give members opportunities to voice their empowerment as women and mothers. The Health 2.0 movement and the participatory affordances of a virtual space like Birth Without Fear help make such moments of celebration and resistance possible.

Reinscribing a New Normal: Challenges & Consequences

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 The Birth Without Fear community is an empowering space for women, but it also reproduces a dis/ability binary, which in turn reinscribes a ‘new normal’ for childbirth. (I use the term dis/ability here to denote the dual nature of the ways in which the community simultaneously resists and reinscribes a disability/ability binary.) This occurs because the community’s idealization of natural birth can sometimes make women who are unable to have these types of births feel othered or differently-abled.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 1 The reinscription of a new normal can even lead to instances where some women express feelings of ineptitude, disablement, and regret over their inability to have natural births. In a moving story entitled “Grief And Guilt {The Birth Trauma Experience}” one woman describes her experience with ‘birth trauma,’ a form of post-traumatic stress disorder related to childbirth. In her story, she shares her grief over having a medically-mediated birth that for her did not embody what she envisioned to be ‘a beautiful and empowering birth experience’ (“Grief And Guilt”). In describing her experience, she uses words like ‘disappointment,’ ‘horrifying,’ ‘alone,’ and ‘heartbreaking’ (“Grief And Guilt”). Such words capture not only how deeply traumatizing this mother’s childbirth experience was, but also her notion that a ‘perfect’ birth is both desirable and possible.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 1 This mother’s story, like so many others, brings attention to how natural birthing communities play the dual roles of resisting rhetorics of disability, while simultaneously reinforcing and reinscribing them. The binary nature of this rhetoric becomes particularly complex when one considers how American culture perpetuates the idea of a ‘perfectionist motherhood’ in which women have perfect births and are always ‘perfect moms’ (Negra 54). Such impossibly high standards for birthing and motherhood leave many women feeling powerless and incompetent when their experiences do not meet these standards.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 One of the most influential factors which leads women to attempt to achieve the new normal reinscribed by communities like Birth Without Fear is Western society’s obsession with self-help. As I describe in the previous section on self-help culture, many women are enculturated to believe that they are solely responsible for their health and well-being. As a result, when a medical intervention becomes necessary, they sometimes internalize this experience as reflective of their own failures at childbirth. This bootstraps mentality—or the attitude that the individual, regardless of her circumstances, is responsible for her own successes or failures—leaves many women feeling as though they are personally responsible for falling short of the new normal reinscribed by natural birthing communities like BWF.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 1 The social and psychological power of the new normal for childbirth is so pervasive that the term ‘birth rape’ has begun circulating in some natural birthing communities. Generally speaking, birth rape refers to the unwanted and/or unexpected intervention of medical practitioners into the birthing process. Birth rape can be anything from a doctor forcing a C-section on a patient to a midwife performing an unsolicited membrane sweep. Many women who experience birth rape report feelings of invasion and helplessness, much as a victim of sexual abuse might feel. The new normal for natural birthing, however, has redefined the framework for what constitutes birth rape. Commonplace medical procedures (such as routine ultrasounds or cervical exams) are now considered intrusive by some natural birth advocates.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Women who experience birth rape often describe their experiences using language similar to how one might describe a physical or psychological disability. In a December 9, 2010 post to the Birth Without Fear blog compellingly titled “A License to Rape” community participants share their experiences with birth rape. One mother tells readers that:

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 1 I was left feeling as though there was something wrong with my body. I asked her [the doctor] what went wrong and her response was, “some women just don’t labor well and you needed help”. Obviously, I have learned my body works just fine, thank you, and I am now a childbirth educator and hope to change the birthing world! (Birth Without Fear)

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Like this mother, many women use words like ‘wrong,’ ‘unable,’ or ‘broken’ when describing birth rape. This terminology emphasizes that women who experience birth rape are often left with physical and emotional scars as well as with the belief that they are inadequate or disabled, a response which can be exacerbated by the sometimes idealized birthing standards promoted by natural birth communities.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 An important feature of a Health 2.0 environment like BWF is that the process of reinscribing a new normal occurs more rapidly than it would in a print-based environment. Community members can easily distribute content across multiple online platforms in a short period of time. They can also comment on, thereby reinforcing and reincribing, the dominate narratives of the community. To return to the above story regarding birth rape, this post (at present) has received 298 comments over a four-year period in which readers share their own experiences with and attitudes toward birth rape. Unlike a print-based environment where content and knowledge moves slowly by comparison, the affordances of real-time, participatory Health 2.0 spaces like Birth Without Fear create an environment where the reinscription of a new normal can occur rapidly.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Moreover, the rhetoric of dis/ability and the reinscription of a new normal are amplified by the participatory nature of online spaces like blogs and social media. While the collaborative nature of these spaces connects community members in positive ways, it can also enable hostile exchanges. On the “A License to Rape” blog post there are a number of comments in which women attack one another; in one comment, for example, a community participant tells another commenter that:

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 People like you are quick to rush in to invalidate another woman’s grief, pain, and injury by shushing her, telling her that her well being doesn’t matter as much because her healthy baby was surgically removed by “experts.” Do you even have kids of your own, or if you do, were they born in the “good ol days” of doctors who were always ready to slab em and grab em with stirrups, epi, forceps, and gas? Pull your head out, woman. (“A License to Rape”)

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 In instances like these, we see Blair, Gajjala, and Tulley’s notion of kinship networks disintegrate as the participatory nature of a Health 2.0 environment like BWF empowers some women at the expense of others. It is therefore critical that those of us who work with and participate in activist communities pay attention to the Janus-faced nature of Web 2.0 spaces as well as recognize that while these spaces are intended to celebrate and empower women, they do not always succeed.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Although online birthing communities like Birth Without Fear reinscribe a new normal that can negatively impact women, it is vital to note that they often do so unintentionally. On the BWF Facebook “About” page January stresses to readers that:

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Birth is not a competition. A Birth Without Fear is different for each mother. How one woman births doesn’t make her better than another. How one woman births doesn’t make her less than another. It is HER birth and hers alone. It’s not to be judged, ridiculed or mocked. It’s not to be compared to. Each woman’s birth belongs to her. Each woman’s story is valid. Each woman’s choice is to be respected. Everyone woman deserves support. Birth is sacred and leaves an imprint that settles deep within a woman’s soul and that is marvelous. (Harshe n.p.)

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 In this passage, January attempts to resolve the unintended (yet unavoidable) consequence of some women feeling as though their birth experiences do not live up to the community’s standards. By attempting to neutralize the binary of ability/disability, she fosters a spirit of support for all women, regardless of their childbirth experiences. In this way, January propagates cyberfeminist ideologies which emphasize support and female agency while stressing that each woman’s experience is valuable and unique. This supportive attitude is embraced by many members of the BWF community who often leave comments on both the blog and Facebook page which celebrate, rather than shame, women who have had birthing experiences which do not necessarily embody the new normal inscribed by the community.

Closing Thoughts

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 1 In this essay, I have argued that the Birth Without Fear community is an important space where the social movement toward participatory Heath 2.0 technologies and the push to validate women’s birthing experiences come together in both empowering and disempowering ways, a process which reinscribes a new normal regarding dis/ability and childbirth. While understanding how sites like BWF work to empower women is important, the work of feminist studies cannot stop here. Instead, we must use our theoretical knowledge to advocate in both academic and non-academic spaces for a revised understanding of women’s bodies, pregnancy, disability, and obstetrical practices. Doing so is essential not only for feminist studies, but also for individuals working in and affected by healthcare systems.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 1 One way we can begin this process is by participating in existing cyber-communities like Birth Without Fear or by creating our own advocacy groups which seek to support women’s health and reproductive rights. Cyberspace is an increasingly important venue for feminist social activism and now, more than ever, women need to play a role in what Donna Haraway calls “seizing the tools” that allow us to create and shape conversations about women on the web (175). This means bringing attention to pressing social issues as well as creating opportunities for women and young girls to develop digital literacies that allow them to navigate and create web technologies.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Classrooms are yet another space where conversations about dis/ability, health, and women’s rights can and should occur. As we bring these discussions into our classrooms, we reach out to students who will one day serve as health professionals, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and technologists. Preparing students to see how their work in these professions, among others, shapes social policy and attitudes toward women’s reproductive rights and experiences is essential.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Lastly, those of us invested in feminist studies must continue to develop theories and methodologies which draw attention to how the reinscription of normative expectations, particularly regarding women’s health and childbirth in purportedly liberatory spaces, can disenfranchise some individuals. As we are propelled ever deeper into a technologically-oriented world where bodies and machines merge, our understanding of these intersections becomes increasingly important.

Notes

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 [1] Due to the scope of this essay, I do not discuss blogs as a genre of feminist discursive activity. For information on connections between blogs, feminism, and motherhood, see Clancy Ratliff’s “Policing Miscarriage: Infertility Blogging, Rhetorical Enclaves, and the Case of House Bill 1677,” Susan Herring, Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah L. Wright’s work “Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs,” and Lori Kido Lopez’s “The Radical Act of ‘mommy blogging’: Redefining Motherhood Through the Blogosphere.”

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [2] For a more expansive history of American self-help industry and culture, see Micki McGee’s book Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [3] See Pamela Thoma’s book Asian American Women’s Popular Literature: Feminizing Genres and Neoliberal Belonging, Becky Thompson’s article, “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism,” Sara Ahmed’s work, “Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness,” Jessie Daniel’s article “BlogHer and Blogalicious: Gender, Race, and the Political Economy of Women’s Blogging Conferences,” and Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s piece, “Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.”

Works Cited

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 “A License to Rape.” Birth Without Fear. 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2014.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Blair, Kristine, Radhika Gajjala, and Christine Tulley, eds. Webbing Cyberfeminist Practice: Communities, Pedagogies, and Social Action. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton P, 2009. Print.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Boyda-Vikander, Svea. “Hospital Trauma and Healing at Home: A Story of Two Births (Part II).” Birth Without Fear. 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 Brown, Kathleen. “The Maternal Physician: Teaching American Mothers to Put the Baby in the Bathwater.” Right Living: An Anglo-American Tradition of Self-Help Medicine and Hygiene. Ed. Charles E. Rosenberg. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. 88-111. Print.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Davis, Kathy. The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 Gajjala, Radhika and Yeon Ju Oh, eds. Cyberfeminism 2.0. New York, NY: Peter LangPublishing, 2012. Print.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” Feminist Disability Studies 14.3 (2002): 1-32. Print.

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Version of Record: De Hertogh, Lori Beth, (2015). Reinscribing a New Normal: Pregnancy, Disability, and Health 2.0 in the Online Natural Birthing Community, Birth Without Fear. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.7. 10.7264/N3Z899PH

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