Updated: Sep 16, 2021
Birth stories. I’ve heard mothers and grandmothers tell tales. I’ve listened to my father’s bubble-wrapped memories of the delivery room. I’ve encountered recitals and recounts, but I’ve also read. Every birth book has them reassuringly pasted under appropriate subsections, and blogs are dedicated to those who go in search of birth narratives. Birth, beyond medical textbooks, exists in spoken and written word. But most women have no idea what birth looks like. Historically women did, but I didn’t. My head was filled with violent images of fruit being torn apart until my eyes blinked real birth into my bank of experience.
Seeing is believing is often the phrase that we need for reassurance. It's a common notion that suggests authenticated knowledge is based on visual evidence. And yet the (re)introduction of visible birth did little to empower women and females. What was once a community lesson in humanity became a pop culture drama. Patriarchal portrayals of birth became a televised norm due to overarching inequality in representation and production. Hysteria, chaos and violent women became the image of birth. Popular culture glamorised and medicalised birth practices and relegated others to the realm of irresponsible motherhood - until the world of Instagram, the elevation of the personal narrative and an empowered birth project.
The @empoweredbirthproject, an Instagram account by Katie Vigos, challenged this. As a doula, Vigos’ Instagram aimed to simply demystify birth, remind birthing people of their power and heal families through storytelling. Vigos, along with the rest of the birth activism community, was determined to show others what birth looked like - the realistic and relatable material of birth. And her account did just that. The feed is abundant with illustrations, pictures, quotes and stories - soft but fiery to touch. However, amongst the beauty curated were covered nipples, sensitive content markers, missing posts and genital emoji plasters. Covered and shamed the @empoweredbirthproject fell into a cycle of social media censorship whereby a consensually shared image of birth was posted, adored by followers and then routinely removed. According to Instagram's community guidelines, vaginal birth images were considered too graphic and thus infringed on its policies against nudity. By this logic, because genitals are involved in the moment of birth, it too must be sexualised into a category of pornography. This failure to contextualise is harmful to the way females grow and decide to use their bodies. Relegating birth to the dark side of the internet shrouds it in fear and disgust. It suggests as Vigos states, “ [the] power to give birth is offensive and obscene, and should be hidden”. Thus, essential birthing images disappeared as did their instructive, empowering and reassuring value. By censoring images of empowered birth, Instagram silenced feminine power and blindfolded reproductive rights.
Thus, at the end of 2017 Vigos, launched a petition to uncensor photography of childbirth on Instagram (and therefore its parent company Facebook). The appeal suggested that that birth imagery should be reclassified as educational material (like other medical accounts) rather than a variant of “pornography, graphic violence, profanity, and other subject matter too offensive for the public eye”. The petition with 23 000 signatures has since changed Instagram’s policies. However, the initial reluctance to change speaks to a broader social issue - a culture unwilling to see its childbirth. It speaks to the hyper-sexualisation of women as well and as the policing of bodies at large - nipples, menstruation and breastfeeding. It speaks to symbolic violence and the need for empowerment, bodily autonomy and equality within a so-called liberal platform of self-expression.
In an age of social media, self-representation and data consumption like no other, we are only beginning to look past televised hysteria to what birth really looks like. I think this is particularly true of urban, western, females where birth is privatised beyond the family, pop culture infringes, narcissism reigns and expensive healthcare is normalised. That's not to say that all females within this strata experience this. I note that privilege and culture surround birth and thus the distancing from it. But, what becomes apparent is the movement of birth from the public realm to the private. From the feminine to the masculine. The further urban we wade, birth becomes more stigmatised, individualised and pathologised. Seeing and attending birth has become so outside the western mindset that distrust in the female body festers with every other social insecurity that has become her.
However, within rural landscapes, traditional forms of trust and support endure. Traditional midwives taught by generations past take on the normal process of birth. I once heard an elderly woman speak of her grandmother who was the village midwife. She spoke of her role as an assistant and with hindsight the work of the community in securing black lives. Girls watched as females gave birth and grandmothers did the work of midwives. This cycle beyond facilitating life and comfort also provided valuable knowledge to young girls watching. Seeing a baby emerge from a vagina - knowing that it's possible, knowing one’s options, how to breathe, how to labour - removes fear and allows all females to be empowered in that chosen experience one day. Midwives from every community stand as the link between tradition and contemporary human rights especially within the decolonised birth rhetoric.
This movement to normalise childbirth and educate a population beyond TV portrayal is vital. In a socially mediated world were children learn through a google search it is important to share real images so that we can understand what happens to our bodies. Routine education is failing youngsters, and social media can act as a counter whereby varied perspectives and culturally relevant practices are shared. It's about having the knowledge and seeing. It's about having counter-narratives. It's about making informed decisions and trusting one's body. It's about seeing what's possible and thus minimising fear and anxiety. It's about removing the shame that censorship implies.
There are varying genders and identities that will birth. It's not about women or vaginas, but it's about education and socially deconstructing the way we understand birth. It's about having the knowledge and the stories that make us more human. It's one thing experiencing birth but another to witness and when the two work in symbiosis something beautifully feminist is born.
I for one began my doula work in the words, stories and limited images of the internet. But in seeing birth firsthand, I have fallen in love with the feminine, their emotions, their babies and their partners. Every walk of life has arrived and morphed spirituality into reality for humankind. And while I won't pretend that labour and obstetric violence isn’t an unfair burden carried by females and that watching pain shakes a feminine core, seeing mothers engage and fall in love with creation is overwhelming. For me, feminism is about equality but also acts of transformation, radical compassion, knowledge production and storytelling. It's about having the access and the platform to share the reality of experience and where desired - one's pain. I see the uncensoring of birth as a feminist act of storytelling that has a restorative power for those who chose to share their experiences. But more than that, it educates, emboldens relativity and allows us to show compassion towards one another.
Images are often attributed with having power. And while I’ve often mused this notion, I do think there is some power in seeing the raw strength and power of the feminine body. It's empowering. It removes the socially instilled fear and pathology placed on birthing women. It dismantles gendered notions of the feminine as women unapologetically embody strength, assertiveness and confidence. Uncensored photos of birth demystify the act and delegitimise gendered norms. It normalises a natural process and all its untidy accessories. In watching birth, with consent, we witness the creativity and a feminist joy. We find mutual support and learn that the secret of our culture is not that birth is painful but rather that women are powerful.
- NPV 2018
Illustration: Gabriella Boyd, Birthyard, 2015.