Somehow, when someone, even famous folks, undergo surgery to remove their spleen or some other drab organ, it doesn’t make any waves in the media. But when it comes to the uterus, for some reason people are convinced that it’s their business and that their opinion actually matters.
Take Lena Dunham, for instance. In an article in Vogue last week, the “Girls” creator wrote about the hysterectomy she had last year after years of suffering from painful endometriosis, a disease that affects the uterine lining and can seriously disrupt women’s lives in numerous ways. The news elicited tons of reaction; it seemed the whole world just had to express an opinion on the matter: How could she choose a hysterectomy at 31? Why choose a hysterectomy because of endometriosis? Poor thing, she won’t be able to have kids now. Did she try anything else before taking this step? Will it really help? To all these questions, there is a single answer: Why the hell is it any of your business?
Not that it’s impossible to express empathy, but the reactions have gone far beyond this. And yes, in Dunham’s case, there is another variable in the story – the public aspect of her life (more on that later). In any case, the hysterectomy of an American celebrity is certainly not the only instance where people are quick to stick their noses in. (Israelis are especially prone to this, it seems.) The list of such opportunities is practically endless.
As you near age 30, if you haven’t had kids yet, people start to remind you that the clock is ticking. As the years go by, the reminders become more frequent. And more frequent. And more frequent. Everyone thinks it’s his job to watch your clock. And say you’ve started to fulfill your presumed calling in life and already had a child: Don’t delude yourself that you’ve escaped the busybodies. Before you know it, the next question comes: So when is your little darling going to get a sibling?
But wait – don’t be tempted to think that going in the opposite direction will save you either. If you happen to want a larger than average number of children, you’re going to get walloped just the same: Why would she have so many kids? They have the money for that? How can she give each one enough attention? And so on and so forth.
Empire of Reproduction
And that’s nothing compared to your situation if you, heaven forfend, God save us all, have no desire to become a parent and have no intention of ever having kids. In some Western countries, they won’t bug you too much about it, but in Israel such a choice instantly ostracizes you, distancing you from society as we know it. Being a single woman isn’t thought of so highly here either, but a single woman who decides to have a child is more socially acceptable than a woman who chooses not to do that, whether she’s single or married. Welcome to the Empire of Reproduction, and don’t you even think about not doing your part for the crazed demographic race that goes on here. The rate of fertility treatments in Israel is among the highest in the world; they are much more generously funded by the state than in other countries. A Health Ministry study from a few years ago found that many women undergo fertility treatments that have practically no chance of resulting in pregnancy, and pay a high physical and emotional price for it.
But even before you get on (or don’t get on, God forbid!) the reproductive track, your uterus is a battlefield. This is literally true, when it comes to the IDF. The growing trend of religious young women opting to do army service is sparking panic and fierce opposition from certain rabbis and others. One objection cited by these opponents is that women who do combat service will suffer a prolapsed uterus as a result. There are rabbis who say this, MK Miki Zohar says this, but doctors say it is nonsense – and you can choose whom to believe. (Incidentally, multiple births are actually a risk factor for uterine prolapse, and I’ve yet to hear a rabbi come out against that). As someone who, to put it mildly, does not view military service as a feminist action, I won’t get further involved in this lofty discussion, which is liable to cause brain prolapse.
Your uterus is not yours at numerous other times throughout your life. For example, during pregnancy and childbirth there are always doctors who know better than you do how you should act, thanks to the medicalization of the field that is taking it out of the hands of the woman whose body is involved. The decision of whether to keep an unwanted pregnancy is also not up to the woman, of course. Often, an employer will not hesitate to stick his nose in: In job interviews, a woman of childbearing age will nearly always be asked about her plans to have children, or how she’ll manage to juggle children and work – questions a man is never asked.
And back to Dunham: Yes, she is a writer and actress whose body and personal life figures prominently in her work. Yes, she herself wrote a magazine article about her hysterectomy. Her decision to write about it raises awareness about endometriosis, a disease that, in addition to all the pain it can cause, usually takes years to be correctly diagnosed. Raising awareness is a good thing. The problem is the torrent of judgmental responses that so acutely illustrate the degree to which the female body, especially its reproductive organs, has been appropriated from its actual owners.
Reaction was similar five years ago when Angelina Jolie announced that she’d had a prophylactic mastectomy because of her high risk for contracting breast cancer. In speaking publicly about their decisions, Jolie and Dunham exemplifed that essential feminist statement that the personal is political. That is a notion that forcefully undermined the separation between the private and public sphere, a separation that serves to preserve the gender balance of power. When the whole world has something to say about it, it’s a tad less feminist.