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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The In or Out Chronicles--Stigma and Celebrity

Knocked-up movie stars love showing off their burgeoning bellies on the red carpet. Demi Moore began the trend of posing naked while pregnant. People followed Angelina Jolie's pregnancy as carefully as they followed the crisis in the Middle East. So where are the infertility stories?

There is Courtney Cox, who has been open about her numerous pregnancy losses and IVF attempts. I was reading a recent issue of People (because, I'm not ashamed to admit it, I read People Magazine. And not just in my doctor's office. I read it at my house. And I love it. And I relish it. And I would shout it from the rooftops. I love People Magazine!) and there was a short article about her. The headline ran "Ready For Baby No. 2?" and underneath it was this insipid passage:

Courtney Cox, the star of F/X's upcoming series Dirt, has babies on the brain. On July 25, when asked about having a second child with husband David Arquette, she confessed to Insider, "We're hoping it will happen." Five days later, at the premiere of her animated flick Barnyard, the acress (who's usually not one for personal chit-chat on the red carpet) added, "We're thinking about it." Now the question is, how does 2-year-old Coco Arquette feel about an addition to the family?

No, the real question is how does she make it through the day with numerous reporters completely disregarding how hard she worked for the first pregnancy and rubbing her face into her infertility while she's trying to attend a movie premiere. Why can't they ask her in such a way that reminds the reader that her first pregnancy was a miracle? "Hey, Courtney, it was wonderful that IVF finally worked for you two years ago. Do you think you'll try to conceive again?"

And there is Brooke Shields who could begin robbing little old ladies and I'd still watch her because she uses her celebrity status to bring attention to two stigmatized conditions--infertility and mental illness.

Babyfruit has a post on celebrity miscarriages--some with quotes from the actress and some from tabloids. There's Kirstie Alley, Tori Amos, Valerie Bertinelli, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn, Nancy Kerrigan, Jane Seymour, Emma Thompson, and many others. There are a few people on the list who admitted to using fertility treatments to get pregnant or using adoption to build their family. But if infertility is affecting 1 in 8 people, shouldn't we be hearing stories about infertility from 12.5% of the celebrity population?

Except that why is it our business? somewhat becomes our business when celebrities pick and choose what they reveal, creating a skewed view of their reality. When one does not admit to having plastic surgery after a tummy tuck (though they are completely open about other aspects of their personal life), they create a false reality for teens who look up to these celebrities and believe their bodies are naturally like that. And it's frustrating to see people in a position of power who refuse to use their celebrity status in order to draw attention to a cause (I think fewer people would have misconceptions about A.R.T. if celebrities spoke as openly about fertility treatments as they do about their bodies during pregnancy). And even more frustrating is that the hypocrisy upholds the stigma. If Elizabeth Edwards deems it "unladylike" to talk about infertility (though it's not unladylike to talk about other personal aspects of her life), she sends any advances we've made towards speaking openly about infertility back into the dark ages. It would be as if after women had fought long and hard for the right to vote if the next wave of women milled around shyly, refusing to enter the polling booths because it just wasn't ladylike.

People are entitled to privacy--and we're each entitled to decide how and when (and how much) we speak about infertility. But it's difficult when someone is open to speaking about other aspects of their personal life. When I mentioned my sliding scale a few weeks ago, someone brought up Julia Roberts. And she's someone who frustrates me because she spoke openly about her pregnancy and shared intimate photos of herself with her children with the world. She talked about what she deemed to be stigma-free discussion topics. But she would never be open about whether she conceived her twins through fertility treatments. And her lack of admission--one way or the other--points to the idea that conception is a stigmatized topic. It subtly plants that idea in a newly trying-to-conceive woman's head so that she too chooses not to be open about her infertility struggles. And then we end up where we are now. In or out.

How does a child process their parent's denial over their conception? Do they take a large leap and think, "mom is embarrassed about how I was conceived hence why she won't talk about it though she'll talk about the pregnancy itself?" It's something that I've always been careful about when I speak about my children in front of them. I want them to hear me tell people how they were conceived so that they never have any shame about their conception. I want them to hear how I'm proud of it--as proud of their conception as I am about the subsequent pregnancy. I don't want to murmur about fertility treatments and have my children think that there is anything less "natural" about them (since you know I think natural is only nice--not better).

So what do celebrities owe us? The intimate details of their fertility? The intimate details of their bedrooms? Nothing at all? It's a hard question because in part, when someone chooses a career in the public eye, they gain many benefits from being in the public eye. But those jobs also come with several drawbacks. And one of those drawbacks is the fact that people expect you to use your celebrity status for good instead of evil. And when you perpetuate a stigma, you're using your celebrity for evil. So be good, celebrities. Talk about your conception issues. Talk about your pregnancy losses. Make that 12.5% of the nation not feel so quite alone.


serenity said...

To play devil's advocate, I can think of a number of reasons why celebrities don't share their baby-making issues. All the reasons of which I'm thinking makes them very vulnerable; susceptible to attack in the media.

In Elizabeth Edwards case, she might be trying to protect her kids. If she did, in fact, use donor eggs, then she would have to deal with the whole "they're not really yours" issue in the press. That's a tough fight to bring her kids into.

Let's face it - it takes a very strong person to share their pain and suffering, especially about something like trying for a family. Brooke Shields has made it her cause, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

But not everyone has the strength to go public with their struggles, to "come out."

Personally, J and I are currently struggling with telling our family about our infertility. Part of the reason we don't want to tell my mother is because we know she'd put it out there for other people to know, and we REALLY don't want that. Our suffering is very private to us.

I guess I just can't imagine having to share something like that with the entire world. I don't have that kind of strength. And so I suppose I give celebs the benefit of the doubt with this... because I know that *I* wouldn't want to put our pain if our infertility in People magazine. It's not because I am ashamed, it's just that I choose to grieve in private.

Of course, I do not know if my view will change if we ever are lucky enough to conceive our own miracle. So I reserve the right to change my mind here. :)

squarepeg said...

As so often I've thought - you've hit the nail on the head. I could not have said this better.

aah0424 said...

I can go both ways on this topic!

I am very open about my desire to have a baby and the difficult time we are having. It isn't something I find hard to talk about, so if I were a celebrity I would like to think I would be on Good Morning America, on the cover of magazines and become a spokesperson for RESOLVE crusading for the cause. However, it isn't just me I have to think about even as a non-celebrity. My husband isn't as open about it as I am, so before I start babbling away I have to take him in to consideration. That could be the case with some of the celebrities.

Just because someone is a celebrity doesn't mean we have open access to everything in their lives. Many air their dirty laundry, but I would suspect that many of them would like to keep somethings private and this is something that is a very private subject for a lot of people. Even though they are famous and we know more about them then we should, they still go through the same emotional roller coaster we do (they just don't have to worry how they will pay for treatments).

As for Elizabeth Edwards and donor eggs, her childern are young and probably don't really understand the concept. I would hope the Edwards heave told them or plan on it soon, but they may not have wanted to see it on tv every time they turned it on during the election. Dragging this into the political arena could have had lots of repercussions on the family, his politcal career, the Democratic Party, and possibly the donor. The media is unrelentless! I'm not saying I agree with them keeping quite, I just see why they may have done it.

So, I say to each there own. If you want to tell us so we can relate great, if not please don't prance around in your cute maternity clothes and then tell us what an easy birth you had (translated as scehduled C-section). I wouldn't recommend any of the ladies onthe boards and blogs to run out and tell all their friends and family if they aren't ready, so I don't expect famous people to either.

Sami said...

I'm an out of the closet habitual aborter, but as it stands neither my family or my husband's family know whether our problems are male or female factor. Reason being... both my husband and I feel it's not something we wish to discuss. It's a problem that is "ours" rather than my problem or his problem.

As for Elizabeth Edwards... whether she used donor eggs or not - it's truly none of our business. She disclosed that which she felt comfortable disclosing... that she did fertility treatments. Whether a person wants to be completely open, completely closed, or kind of half way out of the closet it's their choice. Remember whether you're a celebrity or not - you only have to tell people that which you feel comfortable with telling.

W said...

Well said.

I do think that celebrities are entitled to some degree of privacy (esp. when it comes to issues of reproduction), and yet they put themselves in the public eye and what a positive impact they could have by speaking more openly about their experiences. It would certainly help the public discourse about these issues.

But what REALLY irks me is how when Oprah asked Julia Roberts about her boy/girl twins, Julia smiled a smug, toothy grin and answered:

"Just a typical over-achiever."

And I kid you not, Oprah and Julia and the entire ass-kissing audience roared with laughter.

Now if she was blessed to get pregnant with twins without IF treatments, then God bless her -- she's a lucky woman and I don't begrudge any of us healthy, happy, ART-free pregnancies.

But the thought that she may have needed IF treatments and wasn't being honest, and more than -- was claiming 'credit' for that 'achievement', well that made me want to smash my Tivo to smithereens, and I LOVE my Tivo so that's saying something!!

C said...

I can really see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, I think infertile celebs could do so much good for the infertile community if they went public with their struggles. There's so much misinformation out there about IF and ART, and these days it seems like the only way to draw attention to a cause is to get famous faces identified with it.

That said, I can also understand one major motivating factor that would lead a celeb who's public about most aspects of their lives not to disclose IF treatments: their kids. I think Mel makes a very persuasive argument for why kids conceived with ART should never feel like their existence was the result of anything shameful, but most of us aren't followed around by cameras 24/7. In the case of celebrities, the fact that they're pregnant/have given birth generates an enormous amount of publicity, and many parent celebrities (like Julia Roberts) have made a concerted effort to keep their family lives private. In those cases, talking about ART, especially when the kids are young, would open up the media floodgates and put their children in the public eye even more than they already are.

I don't know the answer. I'm thankful for celebrities like Courtney Cox, Brooke Shields, and Emily Robison and Martie Maguire from the Dixie Chicks. Thankful that they've made the decision to raise awareness about infertility, even though it's not exactly a trendy Hollywood cause. I hope that someday women like us won't need advocates, though, because there won't be any stigma attached to infertility.

Motel Manager said...

One correction: most people followed Angelina's pregnancy way more closely than the follow the crisis in the middle east!


Ella said...

As usual you say what's on my brain and you say it in an eloquent matter. I admit to following these celebrity pregnancies with fascination and curiosity in a manner that could almost be described as obsessive. I often wonder where the infertility stories lie in their world too and why we don't hear more about it. The thing is, it's easy to focus on celebrity pregnancies and almost root for them in today's world. For me, it's because "real" news is scary and never uplifting, and following celebrity pregnancies gives me fluffy thoughts to occupy my brain with. If I were inundated with celebrity infertility stories, that would almost make them seem human and real, and my brain can't quite comprehend that or allow that right now . I need good mindless fluff to focus on when battling my own demons.

The Town Criers said...

Aaah...I hadn't thought about that. The whole reason why I read People Magazine is because it is fluff. At least most of it is with heartbreaking stories as well. And it is a huge escape. I think that's why I was so upset with the Friends storyline--it was a sitcom and it was my half hour of escape. And then even my escape time was about infertility.

I definitely agree that everyone is entitled to privacy--and we should all share only what we're comfortable sharing. But if they're willing to share the intimate details of their marriage (or the intimate details of their affairs) but they're unwilling to discuss infertility, it further stigmatizes the subject. Because it sends a message: affairs are something you talk about, but infertility is just too embarrassing to discuss. And then that affects how society views IF. And it trickles down to how comfortable the average person is speaking about their experience with IF. I'm grateful for any celebrity who shares information about their infertility the same way they share other details about their lives. And if celebrities can be vocal about their "happy accidents" (thanks, Britney, I needed to know that) then they should be equally vocal about their unhappy struggles. It doesn't make them tainted--it makes them human.

Katie Spencer said...

I still don't think its anyone's business if a celebrity has used donor eggs to produce a child. It is stretching things to say its the public's business.

I am pregnant from a donor egg IVF, and don't really feel like going around telling everyone that we used a donor. We want to focus on being happy about our pregnancy, not have to fend off weird or stupid questions from people.