All Women Are Real, So Stop Drawing Artificial Lines

I'd like to see the word "real" abolished from conversations about human beings.
Publish date:
May 1, 2014
pregnancy, women, real women

A number of us at xoJane had quite an emotional conversation earlier this week about this article at takepart profiling the work of photographer Jade Beall. She's been working on an amazing project photographing the bodies of post-partum cis women, often with their children, to showcase the ways pregnancy changes the body, and how radically different individual bodies can look after pregnancy. It's a striking counterpoint to the idea that post-baby bodies need to be whipped back into shape and hidden away until they're up to snuff again -- these are images of women with stretch marks and squishy tummies and other legacies of pregnancy, and they are beautiful.

Yet, for some of us, the framing of Beall's work was offputting, and it distracted us from the project itself.

"This is what a mother's body really looks like," the headline tells us, and my gut response to that framing was very different from that of the women here who've had children.

Here is where we're going to have a little TSA roleplaying and paw through my baggage, because so much of my response to this article and to the way this photography project is being presented comes from the lens through which I view the world. Yet, the same held true for all of us. This is a deeply personal topic and one that can be a bit of a lightning rod.

I was struck, as was Marianne, by the implication that in order to be a "real mother," you must personally carry your child. Marianne was adopted, and her mom is her mom, period. Emily's an adoptive mom, and her body is a mother's body, period, even if she didn't give birth to her son.

Women who are infertile and pursue assisted fertility are moms. Disabled people who can't safely carry children but can adopt are moms. Anyone who provides a child with a safe, loving, warm home and identifies as a mom is a real mother, and her body is a real mother's body. Framing "real mothers" as only cis women who've been pregnant is an injustice to so many different kinds of mothers and different kinds of families.

The experience of carrying a wanted pregnancy to term is wonderful and complex and unique, and obviously those who have had that experience have a great deal of emotions about it, as I witnessed during the discussion that unfolded on the discussion thread amongst us about the article. It's not an experience I've had, and thus it's not one that I can speak to -- likewise, adoption is not an experience I've shared, and it's not one I can speak to.

But I can speak to my other response to the article, which was one of frustration and exclusion, thanks to the common social attitude that women aren't "real" unless they've personally had children. The first time someone told me that he doesn't view women as "real" unless they've had kids -- and that he can always tell if they've carried children -- I was aghast and taken aback, but I chalked it down to a fluke. As I encountered the same attitude again and again, I realized that, no, numerous people actually do think this way, and it's not at all uncommon.

I've had these kinds of comments leveled at me under the assumption that I'm a woman, and that I want to do my part to become "real," like I've been sitting around on a turnip truck waiting for the right moment to emerge. These kinds of comments are thrown at actual women in a way that can feel endlessly undermining and upsetting (especially if they're trying to get pregnant or have struggled with loss). When photographs of post-partum bodies frame them as "real" examples of motherhood, that's troubling in itself, but it comes with additional distress for people who feel like inadequate mothers (or children) because of how their families came to be.

It's another way that society tries to define women, rather than allowing women to define themselves. You don't need to have the capacity to have children to be a woman, and your womanhood isn't predicated on your anatomy or whether you've had children. For that matter, you don't have to have carried a child to be a mom, and not everyone who has delivered a baby is a mother. But this kind of framing sweeps this aside.

When people asked me why I felt so passionately upset by the framing of Beall's work, I said:

When you spend a lot of your life being told you aren't "real," these kinds of things can feel like the twist of a knife, not like an affirmation of something that is actually really cool -- that some bodies are capable of gestating and birthing new human beings.

As a genderqueer person who's often read female, I get slotted into the "woman" box a great deal of the time. I get informed that my identity doesn't matter or is irrelevant -- I'm told that I'm falsifying my identity when I write about women's issues, that I can't have it both ways and "claim" I'm not a woman while covering women's issues, despite the fact that they obviously affect me, and the experience of gender oppression is one that I share with women. I spend every day fighting to assert and defend my gender identity, and thus, the word "real" is a red flag for me.

I feared the very fact of my fertility so much that I had an invasive abdominal surgery to ensure that I could never have children. I have a very personal and real connection to this, right down to the scar that hovers right under the elastic of my boxers.

The only person who decides if an aspect of someone's identity is "real" is the individual.

I noted that the flaw here lay not with the project, but with the way people are talking about it, and that this matters, intensely:

If we never talk about these attitudes, they won't change, and they matter. It matters when a careless journo makes a comment that makes it seem like adoptive parents aren't real, or when people are told that some kinds of women are real and others are fake. These things also influence the way people perceive and discuss the project and other works like it, regardless of the creator's intent, so we need to talk about them. I'm a media and culture critic: it's what I do. Just because it ain't the 'Times' doesn't mean it's not influential.

The way we frame conversations about bodies matters. And I'd like to see the word "real" abolished from conversations about human beings. We're all real. We all came here through different means. None of us are less valid than others.