Cultural analysis of reproduction

First published in 1987 in the USA, The woman in the body is known as a landmark in the field of the anthropological studies of gender. Striving for some kind of critical voice, north-American researcher Emily Martin (New York University) examines how cultural processes can affect the concepts of women about their own bodies. Now, after almost twenty years since its first publication, CLAM and Garamond Publishers have translated into Portuguese one of Martin’s most important work.

During three years, the author interviewed 165 women of different ethnics, ages and social classes who lived in Baltimore. Opposing the concepts of medicine with common American women’s point of views, Emily Martin shows the different ways through which women’s reproductive processes are seen in the American culture. In this interview, she talks about the stereotypes medicine uses to refer to women’s bodies and the changes the book has made into their lives for the last two decades.

What motivations made you write “The woman in the body”?

For one thing, I had tenure. This meant I felt free to begin work in the US, something anthropologists had not done very often in those years. (Prestige was attached to getting grants to go as far away from the US as possible, as I did in my earlier research in Chinese villages.) For another, I had just had my first child and the experience galvanized me. I was shocked at the extent to which birth had become something controlled by rigid hospital standards of production and by physicians’ complacent acceptance of these standards. I set out to use my anthropological training to figure out what underlying cultural assumptions were in play and what historical changes had occurred.

You defined your study as a feminist analysis of science. Who did you expect to reach, in the 80’s, with the publication of the book?

I was striving for some kind of critical voice I could use to describe the normal practice of obstetrics and for a different language that I thought women themselves might already be speaking to describe their experiences. I imagined that the book would make physicians angry (and it did) and hoped that women might find it eye-opening. Its main audience turned out to be undergraduate college students, many of whom told me they had sent a copy of the book to their mothers.

What results did it bring to the self perception of women towards menstruation, menopause, pregnancy and birth?

This is a hard question to answer in general. I only really know what people have written and told me – that it influenced how they thought about their bodies as they realized with a shock how many negative images they had had. Many women told me their birth planning was influenced by The woman in the body: they knew ahead of time what obstacles lay ahead if they wanted to determine their own birth practices. Of course, these warnings about birth were already available in feminist health books. What The woman in the body provided was a connected analysis of cultural assumptions that affected women all across the life span, from the negative view of menstruation as “waste,” or “failed production,” to birth as a dangerous event that had to be strictly controlled, to menopause, which spelled the end of a woman’s reproductivity. The extent and thoroughness of these ways of denigrating women’s bodily process were mind-blowing to many people. The editors of the feminist “bible” of health care, Our Bodies Our Selves, revised the sections on menstruation and menopause because of the book.

In 1987, when the book came out, you warned to the fact that the concepts of biology were filled with cultural stereotypes. Which stereotypes did you spot then?

Most of them revolved around imagining the body of a woman as a machine for production, a machine that only worked well when it was giving birth according to medically defined schedules. When menstruating it was failing to produce (instead giving off disgusting waste); after menopause it was useless.

How did you see this issue today? Do theses stereotypes still exist or the situation has changed?

In my next book, Flexible Bodies, I traced the emergence of complex systems models of the body that exist now alongside the older machine images. Complex systems thinking came into being in connection with computer networks, globalization, worldwide epidemics, and HIV/AIDS. Complex systems imagery has the potential to give far more dignity and positive value to women’s physiology: on the machine model women’s bodies have been castigated for being unstable and changeable, as opposed to men’s apparently more stable and constant bodies. On the complex systems model, changeability and flexible adaptation are the most desirable traits.

In some ways the situation seems to have changed for the better. I get the sense women expect to have more choice in birthing, for example. We know from further anthropological work (by Robbie Davis-Floyd) that middle class women especially value highly technological birth for the sense of control and safety it gives them. In general, the “patient” has become a “consumer,” in birthing as in other medical fields, and consumers are expected to be offered a variety of choices. However, sometimes the choices are more apparent than real. Homey decorations in the labor room do not make up for a hospital’s high cesarean section rate! Even more importantly, it is white middle class women who occupy the prime position as consumers of the birth experience, and frequently other women are left out of the equation.

Your work operates in the field of articulation between feminism and science. How do you see the relationship between anthropology and feminism nowadays?

I would say this field is vigorous. There is a separate section of the American Anthropological Association devoted to feminist anthropology. Perhaps as important, feminist issues have more often than not simply been incorporated as a matter of course into most studies in the anthropology of science.

How do you analyze the anthropological studies on gender and body nowadays? What changes and contributions have taken place since the publication of your book, in the 80’s?

The major development in the interim was queer theory, on the theoretical front, and the burgeoning of science studies on both theoretical and ethnographic fronts. Queer theory, and so-called post-structuralist theory generally have thrown into question what seemed at the time I wrote to be rather stable categories: race, gender, and class, for example.

There have been numerous insightful anthropological studies of new technologies, for example sonography, that are being used much more intensively and deeply influence the process of conception and birth. Another important area that has flourished is the ways genetic screening in pregnancy can affect our conceptions of what kind of fetus is acceptable.

What studies have you been developing lately?

After The Woman in the Body, I wrote Flexible Bodies: Tracking Immunity in American Culture from the Days of Polio to the Age of AIDS. This book was based on collaborative research with a small group of graduate students. We followed AIDS activist organizations, HIV/AIDS support groups, immunology classes in college and graduate school, an HIV/AIDS clinic, an immunology lab, and workplace training sessions that sought to increase workers’ flexibility. The book explores the emerging ideals of flexibility and risk taking in a number of domains in American popular culture, work places, and science. As with The Woman in the Body, I was most interested in how these ideals work out differently for people according to their different identities, by virtue of sexuality, gender, race or class.

My current research looks at minds instead of bodies. The book, in press at Princeton University Press, is called Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture. It is an ethnographic inquiry into mania and depression in their American cultural and historical contexts. Arguing that mania and depression have a cultural life outside the confines of a psychiatric diagnosis, the book challenges the integrity of the sometimes-arbitrary line between reason and unreason, and offers a way for us to understand how people living under the description of manic depression (bipolar disorder) belong fully to the human condition.