“ To live is to try and get obstacles out of the way. To remember is trying to put them back in place. ” – Nicolas Behr
Months have passed since I decided that I wanted to write about belonging. About this strange place that defies Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be,” this place where you are and are not simultaneously. Perhaps the very nature of not being is what made me avoid writing it for months: it reminds me of a self who existed within a context, and a self that I grieve.
Immigrating is both dying and reviving. With technology, I can see my life without me. The Saturday nights my friends gather to talk about politics, the soccer on Sundays, the melancholic music my father plays on the guitar, the sounds of the sea and the happiness of our bare feet touching the warm sand. It is all there but me. To see your life without you is a fortune that few have the chance to endure. Like a bridge across the ocean, you don’t belong on your starting point and neither at your destination: you become time across spaces.
A friend of mine said that the English language has an expression for that: it is to be “out of place”. It reminded me of the many times that I would like to say a story, but could not translate in time as the conversations went on, or when the references I had did not make sense in Canada, or the countless times where I, present, was made invisible: being out of place is first assuming that someone can be in place.
Some months ago, I received through the mail a box filled with cherished things from my country: coffee, books, some printed articles, old cards. Within these, there was an old book of mine. The book arrived with the timbered perfume of my bookshelf, and for a moment, a brief moment, I was complete. Somehow, for this brief moment, I defied the English language, immigration, citizenship, and those who made me invisible: I belonged without any place.
Image rights: Henrietta Harris
With maternity and motherhood being romanticized in our society, many women face difficulty in talking realistically about their reproductive health and choices with their physicians. After writing “Compulsory Maternity and Medicine: A Conversation” I asked to women outside of my immediate circle if they had experienced something similar with what I had described and I was stunned with the number of messages that I received and I appreciate the trust that they had when sharing their personal experiences with me. This article is dedicated to them.
When talking about their personal choice of not having children and the possibility of abortion with their health professionals, a recurrent observation point was that many women left their appointments feeling confused or guilty: “There are so many women who I see who wants to have children and cannot”, one of interviewers was told when stated to her doctor that at the age of thirty-four years old, she still had doubts about pregnancy. “At the end, it added up to a pressure that I was already suffering ”, she told. Besides the fact that imprinting personal believes upon any patients—especially upon those in vulnerable positions—is unacceptable, the comparison itself is unfair: different women with different bodies and aspirations cannot and should not be parameters for each other.
Affordability was also something brought to my attention. Some women would like to get pregnant, however this is a choice that is highly limited because of their financial situation and having health care professionals suggesting that they can regret this decision (of not getting pregnant) is heartbreaking: “In this economy even if you want to have a baby, sometimes you truly cannot afford to have one”, said one of the interviewed. Compulsory maternity is bad for everyone, even for those who desire to have children.
Another woman, already a mother, explains that she felt judged by a health professional (who was not the family doctor) about the way that she shows love for her child: "Women generally cry when they see their children had blood taken, don't you feel it?”. Compulsory maternity is a double edge sword: in one way it pushes women to get children and in the other way pull them back to say that they are failing in their duties. And why is that? Why do we want mothers to be strong and fragile in extremes?
As soon as a woman gets pregnant, compulsory maternity ideals give space for another way of shaming and idealization of maternity and motherhood that is unfortunately, as by the example, also present in health care settings. Popularized by the homonymous show, the phenomenon of “Momsplaining” happens when non-parents explain to a mother how she should better care for her children and it involves aspects of motherhood that the parent obviously already considered. Momsplaining, side by side with romanticizing maternity, also dictates how the mother is expected to behave.
Another Canadian woman heard: “your uterus is perfect, time to bear a child”. It is hard for non-health professionals to draw the line that separates what is medical advice and what is personal opinion. This conversation is a way that I found to explore this area and hopefully to support health care professionals and women toward a fairer, pressure and prejudice free environment, but it is only fair to note that not all women experience compulsory maternity. Racialized women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, and impoverished women have different experiences regarding maternity and motherhood within our society. Not all women who suffer with compulsory maternity in healthcare are privileged, but there is disparity between those that society expects to reproduce and this is unscrupulous - for everyone.
Dehumanization means to deprive someone of human qualities or attributes. Multiple populations during the scope of their lives are faced with dehumanization interactions to a certain extent, some demographics however are more susceptible to receive dehumanizing treatments according with their age, gender, nationality, social and economic placement.
This dehumanization process leads to personal and social violence: the painted nonexistence of human's qualities would supposedly validate inhumane treatment. While many individuals can encounter transitional dehumanization (and here the mass media plays also a big role), women are within the group of individuals that encounter systemic dehumanization since an early age and this occurs in many ways, some more vicious than others.
The dehumanization of women's bodies can happen in subtle ways that became naturalized by the pattern of it's repetition. It is not uncommon to people that to perpetrate those patterns is not socially acceptable within many groups and that girls get to know what happens to their bodies other than why do they get their period and how to avoid pregnancy. Girls are encouraged to speak about their body parts with "nicknames", as if body intimacy and knowledge was something promiscuous or obscene. The nicknames or the parent's choice itself is not a problem, but the fact that there is a social sense of shame in talking about it.
At puberty they face an industry that despises their body as it is: period blood can not never leak (not for the girl's well being but because of the social embarrassment) that is supposed to represent. There are many soaps, cleaning tissues, and perfumes for the vagina that with few exceptions are not medically indicated as if we were naturally dirtier than men; not to mention the imposition of shaving (not option) by social shame.
Facing so many taboos to learn and take care about their own anatomy, when older, female teenagers often are misguided when seeking information about sexual health, pleasure and relationships. They are slut-shamed by a society that is the same that judges them if they are too prude as well: until few years ago - and I am writing this in 2018 - there was an almost insignificant number of information about female sex that was not for men's consumption.
During all life, women are faced with massive media propaganda that stigmatizes their bodies and pressures them to fit in a shape that it is inhumane and with the exception of few important organizations, eating disorders for example are not treated as a public health issue, but as individual isolated cases (yet I unfortunately believe that the majority of women that are reading this today know/heard of someone close that had an eating disorder at some point if not themselves) .
At mature life, we keep denying women the right to be old: they need to look, dress, talk and act young. The right to effort in keeping one's youthful appearance in our society is not the possible alternative to a personal choice, but an imposition. Mature women that do not follow facial procedures are often targeted as depressed, tired, lazy and this is madness.
Paraphrasing Brecht, when the madness is multiplied it takes the risk of becoming invisible and if there is no space for reflection we are likely to keep repeating the cycles of using women's bodies as guns pointed to themselves. Note that in this whole description the feelings of embarrassment are socially created; I did not start yet (as I intend) to describe the way women's emotions are dehumanized and the types of violence that women are susceptible as a consequence of this process. Adding that pregnancy, infertility, bisexuality, trans-sexuality, homoaffectivity, ethnicity, disability, economic and social marginalization, transitional or chronic poverty, mental disorders are also part of what women's lives and bodies are made, to not advocate for them is what I would rather call inhumane.
Como diria Alice Ruiz: Sou uma moça polida levando uma vida lascada. Brasileira, vinte sete anos e alguns grilos na sacada.