Uncensored Birth, Uncensored Truth
That is the number of people who responded to my call for action to petition Facebook and Instagram to change their policies, allowing uncensored birth images and videos on these platforms.
After four years of building a beautiful community on Empowered Birth Project, the response to the petition was exhilarating, heartwarming, and profoundly humbling. The project began as an outlet to document my plans for an unassisted home birth. Soon, it blossomed into a platform to share inspiration and education on behalf of the greater Instagram community. When my plans for a freebirth culminated in an emergency cesarean delivery after 43 weeks of pregnancy, I experienced firsthand the power of a community who uplifted me throughout a challenging postpartum recovery. For every post about a particular struggle I faced during the healing process, there were dozens of comments from other women who shared similar experiences.
Over time, dozens of comments turned to hundreds, and then thousands. What I discovered is not only was I far from alone in my experiences, but there is a dire need for change in the way we inform and support birthing people and their families-- starting with the way we are able to share what birth actually looks like.
23,000 is a relatively small number when compared to Facebook and Instagram’s combined two billion monthly users, but it was enough. It was enough to tip the scales in favor of the tireless efforts of the online birth community to convince the world that birth needs not just to be discussed on social media, but actually seen.
Since news broke of the policy change earlier this year, the birth community has rejoiced in its newfound freedom of expression and flooded the internet with images of uncovered human anatomy burgeoning with new life. They have also buckled down for the long haul of navigating complex recognition technology updates, and continuing the work of advocating for content and pages that have been incorrectly censored within the massive algorithms of Facebook and Instagram.
This seemingly slight re-wording of Facebook’s written community guidelines has far-reaching implications: millions of people are now seeing birth in its truest, raw form-- many for the first time in their lives. Birth has been thrust into the spotlight for the masses on two of the most popular social media platforms in the world.
In the absence of standardized birth education within public school systems, exposure to birth via social media is significant. Throughout my #IGallowuncensoredbirth campaign to lift birth censorship on Facebook and Instagram, scores of women commented that despite giving birth themselves, they had never actually seen what birth looks like! The reality that parents are entering the birth room having little to no idea what birth looks, feels, or sounds like is a sobering one. Somewhere along the line, we are failing to equip our species with a baseline level of knowledge and preparation to deal with the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges of giving birth.
Birth is an everyday miracle that has been enshrouded in mystery for generations since the medical industrial complex quite literally took over the birth room in the early 20th century. Birthing people and birth workers alike have been advocating to reclaim this experience ever since it became commonplace to give mothers a “twilight sleep” cocktail of scopolamine and morphine, allowing them to completely forget the experiences of their births. Hospital policy also forbade partners or companions from witnessing birth or otherwise comforting the mother through labor.
Over time, obstetrical practices have evolved. Yet, a pervasive lack of awareness about childbirth itself, and the myriad of sociocultural challenges faced by birthing families, remains to the present day. The advent of social media brought with it automatic censorship of the human body in birth giving moments, categorizing physiological birth as too offensive for the public eye-- censoring it alongside pornography, graphic violence, hate speech, and more. For years, women and birthing people have been told their power to give birth must be kept hidden. For too long, that power has been stifled and shamed.
Now everything has changed. Showing uncensored birth on social media is our new launching pad from which to ignite dialogue within the public. The landscape of online birth advocacy has become unchartered territory, full of new possibility to educate and inform.
Much of this change can be attributed to a concept redefined by social media itself: influence.
When I started Empowered Birth Project in 2014, the internet still needed a lot of convincing that birth was a topic worthy of conversation. Slowly but surely, one post at a time, I noticed a shift in the collective attitude toward birth. Criticism shifted to curiosity, and apathy to awareness. Today, the number of social media users engaged in the birth conversation numbers in the hundreds of thousands and is growing rapidly.
You see, the conversation is about so much more than the moment a baby emerges from the womb. The birth experience is a microcosm of a much greater human story, one that encompasses a multitude of lived experiences that are present through the birthing person’s formative years and continue long after the physical birth of a child. From access to nourishing food to healthcare services, from unique cultural birthing practices to systemic racial biases, understanding birth means broadening the dialogue beyond the singular moment that traditionally defines it.
Understanding birth involves shining a light into some of the most uncomfortable parts of ourselves and asking the difficult questions. Often this yields answers we don’t want to hear. It requires us to examine our humanity from within, and to question what kind of world we are creating for the children and parents we are birthing.
And sometimes the truth of it all is difficult to hold: that just as the movement to reclaim birth is empowering families to give birth feeling safe and supported, too many birthing people are struggling, even dying. Too many mothers and fathers are leaving the birth room traumatized and carrying that trauma into their parenthood. Obstetric violence is real. Families must fight for living wages and paid time off work to recover from childbirth. The truth is that no matter how much we do, there is always more work to be done.
With the launch of the Yoga Girl Foundation, Rachel Brathen and the voices she has chosen to elevate seek to do just that: face the truth and do the work. By bringing the darkest places of human suffering to light and advancing some of the most important conversations of our time, we are wielding our collective influence on behalf of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. We are learning and growing together and doing better as a community.
Sometimes the truth is painful, messy, and raw, much like birth itself. But there comes a power in seeing it and thereby truly knowing it. And whether it is three or 23,000 people who come to know their true power and influence, change is not only possible, but inevitable.
Katie Vigos is the founder of Empowered Birth Project, an online initiative to remind birthing people of their power and share education and inspiration. She started the platform on Instagram in 2014, and in 2018 successfully petitioned Facebook and Instagram to allow uncensored birth content on their platforms. A registered nurse by profession, Katie lives in Los Angeles, California, where she and her husband are raising their three sons.