Roller derby, stickball, and natural childbirth

I recently attended a presentation of master’s theses by folklore graduate students. One concerned an ethnography of women who participate in flat track roller derby, and the role that their narratives seem to play in the importance of the sport to them.

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A few points: they describe their bruises like trophies. There are fan sites dedicated to showing off derby bruises (or search Pinterest or Tumblr for #derby bruise). A recent roller derby bruise contest had 101 entrants, with the winner getting a $600 skate package.

Skaters are proud of other areas of their lives, where they are mothers, doctors, giant-roller-derby-bruisehairdressers, and so on, but they come to the track for “me time” that includes being so tough the refs say they’re scared. Roller derby women reclaim a narrative authority that serves to rewrite the dominant narrative about women’s feelings and roles in society. Folklorist Elizabeth Thompson was especially interested in how the body itself plays a role in the narrative process of creating and recreating meaning. Empowerment was a strong theme throughout.

These stories of embracing pain as either a method or emblem of empowerment and capability rather than a signifier of victimhood reminded me of the experience of natural childbirth. We are bombarded with reality shows and movies depicting women giving birth that emphasize pain is to be avoided. There used to be a cable show that followed three pregnant women each episode; it seemed rare for one of them to deliver vaginally; in one episode the woman’s mother told her, “You can’t do it without the epidural.”

My experience giving birth naturally (first to a 9 pound, 5 ounce baby then to 10 pound, 11 ouncer) was one of incredible empowerment, and trust in my body’s strength and capability. This is not in any way to denigrate women who need epidurals or C-sections (and thank goodness we have these life-saving technologies!) but our culture does push a message that has resulted in 1/3 of all US pregnancies being delivered by C-section, a rate much higher than in Europe and far surpassing what is medically necessary. This seems to result from an equation that reads, if pain = victimhood (as in rape and domestic violence) and a lack of control, then lack of pain must = empowerment.

But that simplified view of pain and its meaning takes away the opportunity for millionsKelseyplacenta of women to know their bodies intimately, to trust them, to have the opportunity to know what they are capable of by pushing them to the limit. These are similar themes to those expressed by roller derby team members.

A narrative that equates liberation with pain avoidance also reinscribes a cultural view of women as soft, vulnerable, weak, and needing protection. (Once when a man used the word pussy in a derogatory fashion to describe another man as weak, my partner said, “I’ve seen a pussy up close and in action, delivering a ten pound baby. I guarantee you, you will never be as tough as a pussy.”) Of course, there are multiple stories of, and cultural attitudes toward women’s abilities and roles. Another attendee at the presentation mentioned that after women of the Eastern band of the Cherokee worked to revive women’s stickball, it was outlawed or threatened to be outlawed again because the women were considered too violent!

The idea of how “taking control” of our bodies relates to liberation  reminds me of the way that feminist criticisms of pornography have given way to personal porn sites, where women claim liberation and empowerment by managing their own sexual objectification and keeping the profits. When we take control by scheduling a c-section at the convenience of our busy executive schedule, is that definition of empowerment cutting us off from a different kind of power that requires working with our bodies rather than dominating them? When women take control by running their own porn companies as a way to “control their bodies, access their sexual desires, and to enjoy safe and consensual sexual pleasure” that subverts patriarchal rape culture, is that act capable of “flipping the script?” Or are we instead adopting the script and embodying it as our own?

Like most things gender, it’s complicated. The emphasis in Thompson’s thesis on embodied knowledge — on seeing the body itself as a kind of narrative — takes me all the way back to what started this journey for me, the ways that we encode our children from very young ages by the kinds of clothing choices we provide. What forms of knowledge are we asking our daughters to embody? What roles are we preparing these girls for?

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6 Responses to Roller derby, stickball, and natural childbirth

  1. Actually, this was our third year having the Roller Derby Bruise Contest and each year, the prizes were totaling over $1000. Bruises are badges of honor in roller derby, when given and received.

  2. Lena says:

    The way you weave together these three topics in order to demonstrate the value of knowing pain, and thus also knowing one’s strength, is really beautiful and inspiring. Also, it makes me look forward to childbirth a lot more. Thank you!

  3. LuckyMe says:

    I always wonder why a c-section should be weak or stands for losing control. To me it has always been one of the most empowering things. Finally we are able to use all the medical achievements of hundreds of years and can deliver the way w e want, not as some almighty seeming ‘nature/god’-thingy wants to make us believe is the ‘only true’ kind of giving birth! I can not think of anything else showing better that it is my turn now to decide and taking control over my body than to deliver to my terms. When I was little, my mother used to praise that, by the time – and if – I might want to have children, everyone will have a c-section by choice and no one could pressure someone to have a so-called ‘natural’ birth by making them feel guilty about the baby, or for ‘taking the easy way out’ or anything else. And, by the way: I am not afraid of pain – and there are a lot more things to come when raising a child that will hurt you more than this single incident. It does not make you a better person, or a better parent. I am a proud and strong person and I do not need to proof that to me or anyone else, especially not in such a private moment while being pressured by some doctors, nurses and a midwife all with their own agenda. One can be a good parent especially by being a role model for making choices unimpressed of the general opinion/some god (or ‘nature’) idea on what should be good for oneself and trusting one’s own instincts instead. Because that is what really makes for a self-aware and in the long run: empowered life. So please: stop telling people w h a t to chose. Educate them h o w to chose and let them make their own decisions – that is how you create free feeling and thinking persons and a diversity in thoughts and behavior we need to evolve, not only as men or women or pink-lovers but as humans, regardless of any boxes at all.

    • pink says:

      We agree on several points — especially that we should be aware of messages, whether sent by culture or individuals, that pressure us as women either to make certain choices or to feel better or worse about those choices. I don’t think the post says anywhere that women who have C-sections are weak; major abdominal surgery is not a light event. I also don’t think the overall post supports your assertion that I am “telling people what to choose.” I am discussing dominant narratives about a complicated issue, sharing my own personal experience and narratives of roller derby, and noticing how they differ from that dominant narrative. You pretty clearly state that you connect liberation or empowerment with being in control, which, as I’ve pointed out, is the dominant script right now in the U.S. So it’s interesting that you feel so threatened or attacked by someone presenting an alternate experience. According to your beliefs about allowing diversity in thoughts and behavior, you would welcome this exploration, even if it differs from your personal conclusion. As for C-sections, there is ample evidence that planned C-sections result in longer recovery periods, increased risk for serious health complications, and increased difficulty with subsequent pregnancies for women, and for babies, much higher rates of respiratory complication including fluid in the lungs, more difficulty breastfeeding, lower Apgar scores, and higher rates of asthma, food allergies, and lactose intolerance later in life. These are facts, not opinions. As you say, they should not be used to pressure women or make them feel guilty, but I think they should be part of the public conversation about childbirth options.

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