Barbara Kruger’s 1989 silkscreen, 'Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground)', has arguably become one of the most iconic pieces of feminist art. Initially intended as a work of protest art for reproductive freedom in 1989, over 27 years later Kruger’s imagery and political message remains relevant: women are still protesting for the security of their reproductive rights.
Kruger’s powerful lettering alludes to the frontline of a combat zone and within the context of the ‘body’, prompts a reflection on a very different kind of war. ‘Your Body is a Battleground ’ is a statement about the fight for reproductive freedom. It highlights the external political decisions, often made by men, that have direct and indirect consequences on the bodies and lives of women. It is a statement about what it means to endure womanhood in a patriarchal society.
In a society which has traditionally controlled the way we think about and treat women’s bodies, the feminist aim concerning reproductive rights is to essentially give women choice. It is the radical notion that women should have access to safe healthcare, accurate information and be treated with respect when being cared for by the professionals who assist and enable them to make decisions about their own bodies.
In recent months I have kept coming back to reflect on Kruger’s work, and her words, and what reproductive freedom entails. The words ‘Your Body is a battleground ’ took a different meaning: I have felt a sort of battle within myself and with my own body, following my experience of miscarriage. It was the saddest experience of my life. I never anticipated it nor did I expect the anger, confusion and guilt I felt afterwards, towards myself and towards those I loved most.
People seem to have no qualms in asking women involved in heterosexual relationships about their reproductive plans. In fact, during my very first day of being married I was asked when my partner and I would start trying for a baby and, from then on, I have been asked if I want children, when and how many, countless times. Interestingly enough though, I have not been asked since my miscarriage. In fact, no one has asked me after the miscarriage if I still want children. So what is it that makes my body public property up until something such as miscarriage happens?
To quote Elizabeth Grotz, ‘some concept of the body is essential to understanding social production, oppression and resistance; and that the body need not, indeed must not be considered merely a biological entity, but can be seen as a socially inscribed, historically marked, physically and interpersonally significant product’. As Grotz’s quote suggests, the body, and I would argue especially the female body in it’s traditional form, has been policed, misunderstood and misrepresented to the point that we do not leave room to adequately discuss the reality of the body and it’s functions, or indeed why we perceive it the way we do.
There is a rhetoric surrounding women’s bodies that leaves a noticeable gap in terms of how we address the reality of women’s issues. Society is still failing to challenge the constraints of ‘taboos’ specific to the female body. The general narrative does not factor in the physical diversity of women’s bodies and bodily experiences, such as: the woman’s pregnant body, the woman’s menstruating body, the woman’s transitioning body, the woman’s aging body, the women’s ‘irregular’ body. This being the case, we leave little room for discussing what happens when women exist outside of the realm of what is deemed ‘socially acceptable’. In particular, the experience of miscarriage becomes alienating because not only is it traumatic, it is not a choice. As a society we place an enormous amount of worth on women as natural maternal pro-creating beings. Miscarriage is a quiet and cruel side effect of nature that shatters this otherwise ‘perfect’ illusion.
The answer and harsh reality is that society is totally ill-equipped to deal with giving women the airtime needed in order to challenge preconceptions and positively change perspectives, and support women through these processes. I have learnt this first hand. Immediately after my body went through miscarriage, I felt a sense of difference and exclusion. I felt ashamed to have been so naïve to the deception of promised motherhood and completely unprepared for anything other than a happy ending. From a feminist perspective, I felt even less in control of my body. It was not my choice or decision but it still happened to me. I felt betrayed by my own self.
The most painful aspect of miscarriage is the silence. To be more specific, this is the silence associated with the first trimester of pregnancy. The cultural practice of keeping the maternal body hidden, unseen and unheard, is a collective coping mechanism adopted to deal with the uncertainty of pregnancy and miscarriage. Reinforced by health professionals, women are advised to remain quiet up until the 12 week mark, after which point it is deemed acceptable to share your news with the world. Following my experience of a miscarriage, I felt cheated by this. I missed out on sharing my happiness, only to have to share my sadness. The closed door approach arguably comes from a place of benevolence, and is advised as a way to protect women because miscarriage is most common during the early stages of pregnancy. However if anything, it can be more damaging. Journalist and author Janet Murray’s recent article, ‘I had a miscarriage. Why can’t we talk about losing a baby?’ for The Guardian revealed 1 in 5 pregnancies ends in miscarriage. The statistics show it is common, but creating a etiquette of silence around the higher-risk-of-miscarriage period can result in an unnecessary and avoidable loneliness in the actual experience of it.
The erasure of conversation surrounding miscarriage does not prevent the indignity for women having to inform people about the death of their baby. Women who miscarry still have to go through their loss, but with the addition of social pressure. The social pressure here being not to reveal a reality that is inconvenient to a society that associates a woman’s worth with her fertility. Traditionally, women have been encouraged to remain quiet in regards to their own issues, especially those that challenge the status quo. What this does is create a culture that embeds women’s issues in shame.
Miscarriages, like the entire conversation surrounding reproductivity, require open conversations. This lack of transparency is two-fold, demonstrating not only the dangers of silence for expecting mothers, but also the insufficient research in the area. Government statistics are limited. The current figures are based on the women who are admitted to hospital and don’t account for women who go to their GP or decide not to seek medical assistance. The message is clear, miscarriage, shrouded in secrecy, is not to be talked about. If there is no record, it never happened and therefore doesn’t require acknowledgement of it taking place. But where does this leave the women who have experienced miscarriages - the women who do require and deserve acknowledgement, understanding and space to grieve?
There is almost no serious conversation or consideration surrounding the mental health of pre- and post-natal women and how to adapt our customs in terms of their needs. The effects of society’s dismissal and unwillingness to talk openly about miscarriage is disturbingly highlighted within Murray’s article which discusses a recent study into women’s mental health. After miscarrying, 1 in 5 women were shown to have anxiety levels similar to those attending psychiatric outpatient services. This is evidence enough that we need to relieve women and men of the burden of suffering in silence.
Miscarriage is a feminist issue because it highlights a topic that disproportionately and directly affects women, yet there is almost no sense of urgency surrounding it. Our culture, saturated in misogyny, creates a one-dimensional view of women as ‘baby makers’, then pays little attention to and no time to understand a glitch in the system. Miscarriage is not a choice, it is something which naturally happens to women all over the world. Compare it to a natural malfunction of the traditional male body and instead what you get is extensive research and billions of dollars pumped in, and the result - viagra. When women see no attention being given to the issues that directly relate to them, we can deduct that we live in a society that does not care for or prioritise them. Overall it emits a message that ultimately suggests that women’s body politics are unimportant, which discourages women from stepping forward to give voice to areas of their lives that deserve recognition.
‘Your body is a battleground’ , may not have originally been intended as such, but the work strikes me now as a statement that works well in summarising both the external effects and internal events of the body. In terms of miscarriages, society has created a situation where the distress caused is unprecedented, the expectation is unrealistic and the situation is unequal. The combination of the notion of all women as mothers and the expected behaviours attributed by terms of gender, contribute to and perpetuate the silences surrounding women’s mental health and wellbeing. To quote Kat Banyard, ‘unless a woman can control her sexual, reproductive, and maternal life… her ability to access other fundamental human rights is severely jeopardized. Without this control, women are unable to participate in society as citizens equal to men’.A society that makes women’s bodies the location of conflict; a society that does not take seriously the autonomy of women over their own bodies; a society that does not give women access to safe healthcare and accurate information, leaves little room for protecting women when they go through bodily battles out of their control. It is as important as ever that we fight for our bodies, by speaking out and not being silenced by the fear of being criticised or marred for doing so. In order to progress as a community we must provide platforms to talk about miscarriage in order to destabilise the attitudes not just surrounding miscarriage itself, but mental wellbeing and feminist politics in general. Whilst some battles may be lost, we must take every small step forward as a victory to enable women to win the war and change how society views women, talks about us and ultimately treats us.