Earlier this week there was an article in the Times written by a woman called Emma who has spent the best part of her twenties being anorexic and has now decided that 2011, at the age of 33, will be the year when she kicks the disease and puts on enough weight so that she – in her words – can become fertile again.
A few things worried me about this piece, not least the bald spotlight of someone so vulnerable playing their life out on the pages of a national newspaper – although she isn’t the first, and she certainly wont be the last. But the point that stuck the most was her, and ultimately our, obsession with fertility.
The ability to conceive and give birth has dominated the entire history of women, and in no small way does it continue to shape perceptions about what women can, and cannot do; and how they can, and cannot, contribute to society. Having a choice about when and if you have a baby has been the single biggest act of emancipation for women the world over, and in countries where women are denied this right the human rights record is consistently appalling.
Therefore, making fertility the thing which doesn’t default define who you are, has been the greatest legacy for the women’s movement. I would venture that this has given women the chance to choose their own societal positions, and to that end many say they see themselves as mothers first, and women second. Many don’t. This is an important thing, because it is self-defined, and it doesn’t have to be the same for everyone.
Emma, in beating her anorexia, is defining herself through her fertility. As she says, “The whole point of this challenge, after all, is to get to the stage where I can have a baby.” That is an admirable goal, and one which pitches itself very differently from the seven unsuccessful years of therapy she cites. I also worry it might be an unachievable one. Fertility works in weird and wonderful ways – it now seems swathes of women in the Western world spend their early decades trying not to get pregnant, and then their later ones desperately attempting to. Yes, age has a hell of a lot to do with it, as does health, certainly. But sometimes babies just don’t happen, for inexplicable and frustrating reasons. Sometimes they don’t happen to young women with a clean bill of health, they don’t happen to loving couples who desperately want them, they don’t happen to women who place all of their hopes and dreams into that clear blue line.
Defining yourself through your fertility is a wary thing to do, if you are vulnerable in so many other ways. Emma is now writing a weekly column tracking the peaks and troughs of her battle against anorexia as she inches ever closer to the elusive 50kg she says she needs to be to regain her fertility. But there is nothing to say that Emma, on reaching her ideal weight, can have a baby. Who knows the potential damage caused by ten years eating nothing but an apple a day? Who knows whether Emma, without her history of anorexia, might just have problems conceiving like lots of other normal people? Who knows whether her partner is fertile? What does Emma do then?
I wish Emma all the best, but I also wish I had read an article about a woman beating her anorexia with the primary goal of making herself happy, that happiness would be the thing that defines her first, and motherhood second. Despite the leaps and bounds, women will never be fully in control of their fertility; we are only ever in control of how it defines us. I hope Emma realises that.