Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Upgeknocked, and a book review

Pregnant again. Had a short little pregnancy in mid-2004 that didn't end well. Conceived on January 12, so am now at day 20. The Pregnancy Journal: A Day-to-Day Guide to a Healthy and Happy Pregnancy says that a lot is happening today "in the development of [the] baby's muscles, bones, spinal cord, and heart." I am of course fretting because I don't feel sick. The phrase "The sicker the mother, the better the outcome" keeps rattling around in my brain. I did feel pretty awful yesterday, even puking once or twice, but today: almost nothing. It was just after this point last time that I started feeling really good, and two weeks later I was fishing something that looked and felt suspiciously like a sea sponge out of the john, and asking S&P to take me to the emergency room.

Last time I bought three books: Sheila Kitzinger's The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth (recommended by my then-midwife and her intern), Ann Douglas's The Mother of All Pregnancy Books (I hate the title, but it's one of the few Canadian resources out there, and it's actually quite good), and the Sears' The Pregnancy Book. I also bought What to Expect When You're Expecting, but promptly took it back when I realized how paranoid and scoldy it is. How can that book have become so popular? Do pregnant women really have such a low opinion of themselves and their instincts that they need to have virtual fingers waggled in their faces?

This time I've bought two more. AM (one of my best friends from college) recommended the Journal mentioned above, and on a whim I bought The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy. This was not such a good idea. At first I liked its humourous, "tell it like it is" approach, but when I got to the chapter about exercise, I started getting pissed.

Before I rant, a bit of background about the author, Vicki McCarty Iovine. She had four kids in six years, so she's got to have some insight about pregnancy and childbirth. And she's a bright one, having graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley, and then picking up a law degree from Cambridge. She's on the board of directors for the Special Olympics. She was also Miss September 1979 in Playboy. My sex-positive feminist streak has complicated feelings about this. I'd love to talk to her about what led her to pose, what the experience was like, whether she ever felt exploited, and what kind of control she had while posing for that most famous bastion of suave male horniness.

I mention this all this because in her Guide, Iovine reveals a number of neuroses about body image, and disturbing assumptions about how her readers' experiences and attitudes will naturally reflect her own. These neuroses are nowhere more clear than in the chapter about exercise, which she says flatly that pregnant women should not do. Her stated reasons are ludicrous: "You Will Be Too Tired." "You Will Not Look Good in Your Leotard." "You Will Get Fatter Anyway." "Exercise Will Not Help You in Labor or Delivery in Any Way." "You Might Endanger the Pregnancy." "Even If You Don't Endanger the Pregnancy, If Something (God Forbid) Goes Wrong, You Will Forever Wonder If Your Exercising Caused It." "It's 'Nine Months Up and Nine Months Down' in the Weight Gaining Department No Matter What You Do." "Our Compulsion to Exercise When We Are Pregnant Is a Reflection of Our Inability to Surrender and Let Nature Run Its Course. SURRENDER DOROTHY!"

Let's take these one at a time. First, the tiredness. It's well known that exercise can boost energy and relieve stress, and some suggest that it even lessens morning sickness and prevents or manages gestational diabetes. Me, I think it's worth it to fight through tiredness three times a week for all that.

Now, looking good in your leotard. (I won't rag on her (much) about the leotard business because she was writing in 1995, but c'mon, nobody wears leotards anymore.) Here's an excerpt: "I don't mean to be nasty, but the women in these [pregnancy exercise] videos look swollen and uncomfortable. And those are the women who looked good enough to volunteer to be on TV in their little striped leotards in the first place! Those of us who would get dressed in absolute darkness to avoid having to inspect ourselves if we could would rather have natural childbirth than have anyone see us in spandex at this point. I have seen some die-hard pregnant women in the gym with their husband's T-shirts over their exercise clothes to camouflage things, but I am one of those who would rather just sulk and stop exercising."

Because, of course, looking good is the most important thing. Wonder whether she knows that exercise during pregnancy can help prevent varicose veins. Ahem.

(I'm not even going to pay much attention to her dismissal of natural childbirth and her blithe assumption that the medical model of birth so prevalent in North America is the best one. Henci Goer and others have been demolishing that myth for years. Goer's meticulously researched survey Obstetric Myths Versus Research Realities even came out the same year Iovine's book did. But hey, if Iovine even knew about it, she may have decided it lacked truthiness.)

"You Will Get Fatter Anyway"? Well, duh. As if one exercises only to avoid being fat. The "Nine Months Up, Nine Months Down" justification for quitting exercise also reveals a remarkable ignorance of the benefits of staying active during and after pregnancy. As for exercise not helping with labour or delivery, that just isn't true, regardless of the anecdotal evidence she offers about her Girlfriends (capitalized throughout, in a grating bit of preciousness).

Endangering the pregnancy? Earlier in the book she mentions that she was worried her husband would leave her if she'd stopped dyeing her hair. There's long been controversy over whether the chemicals in hair dye are harmful to the developing fetus. If endangering a pregnancy were her biggest concern, wouldn't she have been willing to put up with grey roots for at least the first trimester?

Finally, the bit about surrendering and letting Nature run its course. Um, what? Surrendering to what? The desire to sit around on one's increasingly fat ass all day? Hasn't Nature designed pregnant women to be able to carry water and work in fields? What a breathtakingly classist, ethnocentric, willfully ignorant point of view. (And "SURRENDER DOROTHY"? I don't have any Dorothies, and I wouldn't give her one if I did.)

Iovine seems to regard exercise not as something enjoyable (as I do), but as unpleasant drudgery to be done only so that she can fit into her size four clothes. She concludes that since size fours are right out during pregnancy, all women should give up on exercise entirely for those nine months. Worse, she presents her conclusion as somehow empowering, when it actually smacks of Victorian paternalism. Feh, says I.

So I won't be buying any more of Iovine's books. But I will be going back to the gym. So there.

An upcoming entry will be about how hard it is to find reliable information about weight training during pregnancy. There's some out there, but so much material for women who want to keep fit assumes that we do only cardio, and that the heavy lifting is for the boys. Horsefeathers.


Marisa said...

Great review! I just finished writing a paper about the harmful effects of Iovine's uninformed and bias advice provided in the Girlfriends' Guide. I think it's a horrific book and it makes me upset thinking of how many women give it to their friends as gifts!

Anonymous said...

LIGHTEN UP, I think you are all taking away from the fact that this book was written in humor, and even though the name states "The Girlfriends' Guide..." it's not meant to be a "manual for pregnancy." Sometimes, when you are pregnant, you need to laugh at yourself and this book helps women who are expecting do just that. I enjoyed it through 3 pregnancies, it made me laugh each time.