When Gwen Stefani spoke about the birth of her son Apollo – at the age of 44 – she revealed that the experience was, by all accounts, a miraculous one. There were no screams for epidurals, nor any embarrassing bodily fluids. In fact, according to an interview with InStyle magazine, she told readers that it transported her to “a whole new spiritual place".
Why has a 2015 interview with Stefani been dredged up this week and fed back to us? She’s just one out of a shortlist of older celebrities who have, according to academics, given birth after the age of 40 seemingly without trauma or intervention. And, according to their detailed study of glossy magazines featuring high-profile new mothers, “false” accounts of middle-aged celebrity pregnancies are fuelling “highly damaging” misconceptions about delaying motherhood.
The research, conducted by New York University School of Medicine and presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) congress in Texas, examined 416 issues of Cosmopolitan, People Magazine and US Weekly from 2010 to 2014. They discovered that, out of the 240 pregnant celebrities featured within their glossy pages, only two were reported as having used assisted reproductive therapy (ART), such as IVF, despite the fact that the majority – 56 per cent – were 35 or older.
The conclusion? Celebrities – and the magazines that glorify them – aren’t being honest with us. And, according to the experts, it’s having a negative impact on the women who are reading them. “We will quite often be having a discussion with someone coming in at 45 or 46 and saying, ‘Can I have IVF with my own eggs?’” Oxford Fertility Unit’s Professor Tim Child was quoted as saying – both in The Telegraph and the Daily Mail. “And I will have to say, ‘No, that’s not going to work.’”
He added: “The problem is all these Hollywood magazines with these women in their forties who are having twins. It's completely unrealistic.”
How much do we really know about anyone’s journey to conceive, based on promotional interviews, Facebook announcements and Instagram?
Are the glossies at fault – or the celebrities? If you look at this morning’s reporting, a disconcerting spotlight is being flashed on women like Janet Jackson, as well as Halle Berry and Gwen Stefani (who had children at the ages of 50, 47 and 44 respectively) to assume full responsibility for busting a stigma that reaches beyond Hollywood.
Let’s take a look at a few headlines, shall we? “Older celebrities who deny IVF treatment are fuelling misconceptions about conceiving in later life,” says The Telegraph, whereas the Daily Mail goes with: “Celebrities 'mislead women into thinking it's easy to become pregnant when over 40 by not revealing they have had fertility treatment’.”
The truth is far more complicated than these headlines would have you believe. Scroll beneath the headlines and you’ll soon discover that the authors’ focus was on the popular media and whether they contribute to public misconceptions about fertility levels at advanced maternal age. And yet the popular media’s first response is to dodge nuance and go for the clickbait instead. The target is, once again, set squarely on stigmatised women.
IVF – for so many women – is a whispered anguish that is endured, not shared. Mention in vitro fertilisation and judgements inevitably abound – especially in the media – singling women with alarming insensitivity. Everyone has a view about IVF and they aren’t simply restricted to Daily Mail headlines. A quick Google reveals the alarming depth of the issue: “She's left it too late.” “It's unnatural.” “It's desperate.” We need to address these judgements head on before we demand that high-profile women lead the charge towards realism and honesty. Why send them out to battle with no armour to protect them? Their silence isn’t a conspiracy – it’s a by-product of a social stigma that stops most women from talking about their struggles to conceive.
The onus can’t be on Gwen Stefani to “get real” and speak up. The pressure on women to conceive by the time they hit 35 – and before they nosedive off that cliff – is everywhere, as is the notion that, when it comes to infertility, silence is a sign of strength.
Celebrities like Janet Jackson aren’t immune to these harmful attitudes just because they’re famous. And how about the thousands of others out there? According to The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) in 2014, 52,288 women had a total of 67,708 cycles of IVF. It’s now widely accepted that these procedures are performed as frequently as other well-known procedures, such as having tonsils removed. And yet how often do we hear them speak? How much do we really know about anyone’s journey to conceive, based on promotional interviews, Facebook announcements and Instagram? Our language needs to change – and the media needs to start listening with a level of sensitivity that the subject deserves. Only then will well-known individuals choose to speak out about their struggles to conceive – if they wish to do so. It’s worth underlining here that the truth surrounding a woman’s body isn’t ours to demand.
Most importantly, IVF isn’t a sign of failure. And infertility isn’t a weakness or a measure of womanhood. Perhaps if we said this openly and regularly, more women would feel emboldened to share their experiences without judgement – celebrity and non-celebrity alike.