The Daily News

LFCA Latest Issue: Friday, September 25, 2009.

Latest Post on BlogHer: Parenting after Infertility.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Naomi Campbell and the Cyst that Wasn't--or--Word Choice Changes Everything


Naomi Campbell: supermodel, phone thrower, jetsetter...and stirrup queen? News sources are buzzing with Naomi Campbell's battle with infertility, struggle with infertility, and renewed fertility. But it sort of begs the question: if an infertile woman is not actively trying to get pregnant, is she battling infertility?

I ask this not as a commentary on Naomi Campbell's journey towards single motherhood--she has no obligation to tell us how many donor inseminations she has done or what this mysterious non-cyst was that was removed from her...vague...reproductive tract. I ask this because of the assumptions that are made by the journalists when writing their headlines.

Battle and struggle are active words connoting constant vigilance and active measures. I hear struggle and I don't picture a person going about their day; I picture me, bloated on stims to the point where I couldn't close my jeans, sniffling through the lunch hour.

Yet Campbell reveals very little about the steps she attempted to get pregnant prior to the surgery in March nor has she discussed what has happened since with the exception of the fact that she changed boyfriends. In fact, it is not clear at all that she ever attempted to get pregnant despite the cyst-that-turned-out-to-be-something-different-when-they-opened-it-up. Just because someone cannot have children does not mean that they are actively trying to have children.

Hence my issue with "battle" and "struggle."

The slipperiness of language is not only used to blow up a story to make it newsworthy (I guess "Naomi Campbell Has Fibroid Removed! or Naomi Campbell's Polyp Party-Crasher! just doesn't have the same ring) but celebrities employ word choice to make something interesting seem less so.

This summer, when People magazine announced that Rebecca Romijn was carrying twins, they casually mentioned in the article that the babies were conceived "without the help of in vitro fertilization or the fertility drug Clomid." The investigative reporter in me immediately said, "why not add IUI with injectables to the list...hmm?...UNLESS THAT WAS HOW ROMIJN OBTAINED HER PREGNANCY GLOW AND BABY BUMP!"

The problem with celebrities revealing some and not all or journalists playing with language is that it leads to misinformation. And while it isn't of dire importance to know whether or not a dress came off the rack or is truly couture, it is important for men and women to have facts about reproductive health straight so that they make sound decisions about the timing and route of their own family building. When you go into reproduction believing that AMA stands for the American Music Awards you can understand why some people are shocked to learn how much fertility declines after advance maternal age is reached after the age of 35.

Which is also why journalists need to learn that the proper term is transfer rather than implant. A doctor cannot implant embryos into a woman's uterus. Using that term makes IVF sound as if it is instantly successful--a panacea for all your infertility woes. And when the New York Times can't get the terminology correct, it sets a tone of sloppiness (lest you think the New York Times has changed their ways since 2000, the same mistake is still repeated in 2008).

We need to use the same energy we bring to educating young girls on the realities of teen pregnancy to educate adult women about the limitations of fertility. To not believe celebrities who claim that fertility can be miraculously restored with every small operation or those who strangely know their child's gender when they're in the first trimester (but who did not use IVF with PGD according to a reliable source in their camp!). And, at the same time, make sure that the general public doesn't believe that IVF is a newfangled procedure only performed on nameless, baby-desperate women in secluded clinics. After all, if 12% of the reproductive age population is infertile, you have to believe that more than a few Prada-clad celebrity babies were the product of fertility circumventing procedures.

Unless, of course, movie careers ensure unending fertility.

I'm not a fertile woman, but I play one on tv.

Cross-posted with BlogHer.


More than one have said it in the comments so I wanted to respond in the post to be clear--you can struggle and battle infertility in many many different ways. Through any of the four paths (treatments, adoption, donor gametes, or living child-free) and all four are active paths with mindful decisions. You could battle infertility without ever seeing a reproductive endocrinologist. You could struggle with infertility and not be actively trying to build your family.

BUT the problem I had with the headline is that it makes a lot of assumptions. It is not clear from anything Naomi Campbell said that she ever tried to have a child, wanted to have a child prior to the operation, or was upset. All of that was assumed by the journalist and the title made sensational. It may be true that she battled infertility or it may not. The point is that journalists are choosing how infertility is portrayed vs. presenting a realistic vision of the information presented (and the problem, of course, is that if all she reveals is that she had a non-cyst removed, it isn't newsworthy and they have to make it larger and newsworthy in order to justify placing it in the magazine).

If Naomi Campbell had said, "I was actively trying for three years to have a baby and didn't realize anything was wrong until I started seeing an RE. I'm really lucky that I had medical intervention and hopefully, my fertility is now restored"--well, that deserves a blurb in a magazine and perhaps a title with the word "struggle." And she may have said that, but when it doesn't make it into the article, I have to go with what I read. And I read nothing in any of those blurbs that stated there had been a struggle or battle or that she had even tried to build her family. And that, to me, is sensationalizing a story with assumptions rather than presenting facts.

Which is a long way of saying that I am in agreement--you can struggle emotionally with infertility forever. And you can struggle financially with infertility long after you're done with the actual family building. And you can struggle physically with the conditions that brought on the infertility indefinitely. But I'd only put on the label of struggle or battle if the sentiment came from you. I would never assume that I knew how you were processing your infertility. I can only write generally how many do process infertility based on my own experience and what others write. But I can never speak specifically about an individual person's experience.


Kristin said...

The improper use of terminology and the sheer volume of bad information regarding fertility drive me insane. Thanks for this post.

Jess said...

Hahahaha! That last line, Mel! You slay me!

I agree. With so much of the "advice" we get trackable to poor information, it's frustrating to see major publications get it wrong again and again and celebrities hide behind smoke screens.

Jendeis said...

Nah, it was just that their heart was pure and they reallllly, realllly believed and then they clapped a lot...oh wait, that's Tinkerbell.

Lisa said...

Oh, it kills me when I read "the doctor implanted 2 embryos..." or, even worse "the doctor implanted 2 eggs...).

Listen, if there's a doctor who can automatically "implant" embryos, sign me up!

Jen J said...


I've said everything that you've said - including the bit about Rebecca & Jerry and their "fraternal twin girls conceived without the help of IVF or Clomid - just from patience & having fun"

Hmmm.... something smells fishy there. On one hand it's nobody's business what my (or a celebrity's) private life is, but why the big cover-up?

Thanks for doing this post!

kate said...

I'm an infertile woman, actively not trying to conceive who is very definitely battling infertility. My choice to take the not-trying-to-conceive path at this point is a direct result of the years of fruitless trying. About 50% of the time, I am very, very unhappy with that choice, and the other half, I do an awesome job convincing myself that I am really happy (whether I am or not, I just don't know). Why can't I just live my life??? I'm miserable when working on a baby, and miserable when I'm not. Infertility has dug it's heels into my life, and will not let go.

So there is the answer to that question. Yes, there is a battle whether you are working on it or not.

But, I get the idea that perhaps the question you were asking is whether a woman who is absolutely uninterested in conception, but is still fertility challenged, would be considered one of our sisters-in-arms. And in my opinion, that all comes down to identity. There are blogs listed here that I read and (honestly) think, "why does this person have a blog listed on an infertility site?" (erm, at times, mine definitely falls into that category). But ultimately, I have to remember that even if a person hasn't even dipped a toe into the TTC pool, if they identify as infertile, I have to respect their story in that way. Conversely, a woman who has blocked tubes, endometriosis, diminished ovarian reserve, a partner with a vasectomy or WHATEVER- if that woman does NOT identify herself as infertile because of her decision to not pursue parenting, then I have to respect that she does not want to be identified as battling infertility. And thus, as usual, the media is rabidly wrong in it's labeling of a woman's "down there" issues as battles with infertility.

Just my thoughts on this topic. I have just found myself really incensed at the recent media treatment of infertility. It's like this girl in one of my classes yesterday making a comment about how people think that there are lots of lesbians at the women's college I attend. And I told here that there likely were a slightly higher percentage here than at other schools, just simply by virtue of the fact that there are only WOMEN here. And she got really upset and was so offended because she perceived that I was calling a bunch of people lesbians when they just WEREN'T. They AREN'T all lesbians, KATE.
And I had to point out that she, not me, was the one who seemed to have the problem. Mislabeling someone's sexual preference is just that- a mislabel. SHE was the one taking it as an insult. Which is why the defensive crap from the Rebecca Romijn camp really makes me mad. THEY'RE the ones that think that infertility is an insult to be defended against, not me, and not (always) the general public. Acting like infertility is a dirty label creates the environment in which it becomes that dirty label. And that is sucky and wrong.


That's enough blog hijacking. Apparently, I had a lot to say about that!

Dreamer4agift said...

I heard on E! news about Naomi Campbell and how she overcame infertility after having a cyst removed...once again, the actual words they used made it sound like infertile=sterile...thus, another improper use of terminology. Drives me crazy. I'm with you, the media changes things around about everything. Then again, they screw everything up, so are we really surprised that infertility procedures are now the new plastic surgery?

docgrumbles said...

OMG! She got made "fertile!" It almost sounds like the non-cyst (what the heck was it???) was the in, she had her infertility removed in an ER!

Sorry, you can't claim infertility until you've had 6 mos to 1 year of disappointment, IMO. Who says she couldn't have conceived around that non-cyst thing if she had been actively trying???


Smiling said...

I think that the language around this is so important, I really believe that talking about infertility has the power to change our experiences with it. It also has the power of making your experience feel understood or not. Having the right words helps so much.

That said I was thinking a lot this morning about my personal struggle with infertility. In my personal case (one where I had most of my ovaries removed at 18 but in no place to start trying to conceive at that time), the years when I wasn't trying were the hardest.

When I insisted in medical investigations to see if I had the luxury to wait to start trying (I was 26 at the time, an age when many reasonably choose to wait a few years to start a family) and the tests results suggested I might have some serious issues (or not, the doctors were a bit confused) I was in an emotional hell. I battled with the decision to jump into trying on our own or waiting a couple years until things were less insane for having kids (you know as in after the international move, after I get certified to do my job, when I got health coverage again.... forget about the financial side of it).

Then last year when I was diagnoses with premature ovarian failure and was told that donor eggs were my only option (yeah, not the best gift for my 29th birthday). I struggled and battled with myself about what to do.

Now I am officially 'trying' in the sense that my donor has started and I will be too in a few weeks. Although I worry and fret a bit, at the moment I am the calmest and happiest I've been about the whole thing since I was 19.

So for me, the struggle very much was in the time proceeding treatment - in my case I don't get to try cycle after cycle (and I know many others don't either). There are no cycles and second chances that I don't create. My struggle is very much around having to make decisions and cope with the emotional side of being more or less post-menopausal before 30. The rest of my life I will have to find a way to redefine myself as a women who can not have oops pregnancies, can not try, can not even use her own eggs. It is when I am trying that I feel the most normal and the least struggle.

That is just my 2 cents from my corner of infertility - that there is real struggle before as well as during/after treatment. Thanks for asking Mel:)

Tara said...

Its a shame that celebrity media is where so many people derive their information from. No wonder so many people are misinformed.

annacyclopedia said...

I really object to the vagueness when celebrities and their handlers talk about IF and treatment. To me, it often comes across as exploiting the issue for attention, but then wanting to cling to their privacy all in the same breath. That Naomi Campbell story is a perfect example. The cyst turned out to be "something more" - like what? A cyst? A polyp? Cancer? An ectopic pregnancy? The part of your brain that inhibits you from physically abusing your staff and complete strangers that somehow broke off and migrated to your reproductive tract?

If you don't want to talk about it, don't talk about it. If you want to talk about it, but still need privacy, get a blog, a counselor, or a friend. And if you want to use infertility to rehabilitate your public image and give you a little more of that compassionate glow, fuck off.

Great post, Mel.

JuliaS said...

Well, you know - that's what you do when you go to Brazil . . .

Thought it was a cyst . . . ? and until she drives it off the lot, how does she know for sure "fertility was restored??"

What I am really got to get irritated by - is when she starts blaming all her assistant abusing, phone throwing, airline stewardess berating tendencies on - ahem - her former infertile state. "Well, you know, I was under a lot of stress at the time . . ."

I noticed the specific wording about the Romijn/Connelly twins too. We all need good PR people. Especially since Jerry Boy had the good sense to go on late night talk shows and tell everyone his wife is H-U-G-E. Obviously he doesn't handle the press releases . . .

And don't get me started how tv/film handles prematurity on tv either!!


Geohde said...

So with you on the 'implant' thing. Drives me totally bonkers.


Shelby said...

I agree with the misplaced use of the word, 'battle', especially given my own life example. My own Mother was bc free for five years before she became pregnant with me (with my rather fertile Dad, who had 7 before me). She was never 'trying' in that time. She just figured it would happen when it happened.

Fast forward 30 years later as her own daughter deals with IF. While my Mom is supportive and empathetic, she doesn't truly get it because she never actually 'battled' against IF. She might have been infertile, but she never walked the walk of someone who struggles with IF.

And on another note, celebrities and media drive me crazy with their misinformation! What's a girl gotta do to enjoy her celebrity trash without seeing it splashed all over?

Grad3 said...

Kinda makes you wonder about the people sometimes... yikes!

battynurse said...

Well looking at the articles on Naomi Campbell all I know is I want one of them operations that make you fertile. Whatever. Also I love how the celebs are saying we didn't use IVF or Clomid. So to the general public who knows nothing of infertility it looks like women of course are still plenty able to get knocked up the good old fashioned way even into their 40's and it's just a few of us crazies who should resign ourselves to survival of the fittest. Of course to those who are familiar with IF it's obvious when they make a statement like that they still had help in one form or another.

Jenn said...

I think you can be struggling without actively trying to achieve pregnancy. We have IVF for our twins but now another pregnancy is inadvisable. I struggle with that every day even though we are definitely not trying to get pregnant (though I desperately want to).

heather.pnr said...

Naomi Campbell and sloppy journalism aside, I respectfully disagree that only those in the midst of TTC or treatments can claim title to the phrases "battle with infertility" or "struggle with infertility". I have never attempted a pregnancy. We were already aware of our fertility issues and chose not to pursue that route. But I have absolutely struggled emotionally with my infertility. Infertility takes its toll even if you've never looked at a negative pee stick or thrown your feet in the RE's stirrups.

Ms Heathen said...

Interesting and important post, Mel!

Wouldn't it be great if there really was an operation that could suddenly make a woman fertile (where do we all sign up?), or if doctors really could 'implant' embryos into a woman's uterus?!?

The problem with the constant gossip around which celebrities have or have not had fertility treatment lies not only in the inaccurate terminology deployed, but also in the fact that such reports undermine the very real difficulties faced by those who are in fact struggling with what is, after all, a MEDICAL condition. So much of the media coverage of ART seems to promote the idea that fertility treatment is a lifestyle choice for those too busy or too impatient to conceive 'naturally' (viz., the Brangelina twins).

Anonymous said...

I read one of the most annoying & judgemental comments about infertility on an IF blog.

The blogger was venting about someone or other in her life calling herself infertile when she hadn't even 'walked through an RE's' door.

Frankly it's rubbish - the 4 years I had ttc the old fashioned way - well timed sex, OPKs, monitors blah blah - were infinitely more debilitating, stressful & soul destroying than the 2 that I spent in treatment. Anyone who has spent many years trying & failing to conceive is infertile (or as my RE would say subfertile - very few people actually are sterile) you don't need a certificate from a doctor.

Why didn't the woman in question walk through an RE's door before declaring herself infertile? Well perhaps like us she couldn't afford it. Oh how I'd love to be able to put three cycles at Cornell on the credit card *rolls eyes* I'd swap the blogger's success on first cycle (after all of a year trying & a couple of IUIs) for my four barren years in an instant.

I'm not sure where in the definition of infertility it says you're only infertile if you have the $$$$ to pursue treatment or adoption.