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Why are we so angry at Chrissie Swan?

Clementine Ford
Published: February 6, 2013 - 11:59PM

There’s little doubt that society views women’s bodies as fodder for public scrutiny, judgment and critique. Girls learn from an early age that their lives will be on display for the benefit of other people to either praise or censure, be that through their weight, their looks or their behaviour. It’s an exhausting exercise, but one that’s so deeply internalised that it remains largely unchallenged. In fact, so deeply internalised is the idea of a woman’s responsibility to the public that those same women are among its greatest enforcers - poking and prodding, snootily judging each other in order to satisfy the Schadenfreude that comes from diverting the public’s approbation onto someone who isn’t you. With friends like these, etc.

But nowhere are women’s bodies more politicised and floated on the public share market than during pregnancy. From the moment a pregnant woman reveals her ‘condition’, her body ceases (even more so than before) to belong to her. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, her choice of where and how (and even if) she breastfeeds is open to public debate. While pregnant, she’ll find strangers launching themselves at her out of nowhere and grabbing for her belly, as if the concept of personal space disappears once the possibility of a child appears. (Indeed, for many people the so-called rights of a foetus immediately not only supercede the rights of the woman carrying it, they seem to make her ability to care for it less certain and therefore open to eagle eyed public inspection.) Suddenly, everybody she’s ever met and a greater number of people she hasn’t have an opinion on what she might be doing wrong, not to mention the socially sanctioned conviction that they have a right to share it with her.

It’s a curious truth, and one that speaks to the heart of women’s place in society. We are by and large expected to have babies - and yet when it comes to looking after them both in utero and beyond, we’re considered less capable of making choices on their behalf than people we’ve never even met.

The ugly side of this reared its head yesterday when broadcasting personality Chrissie Swan revealed that she still occasionally smoked despite being pregnant with her third child. It was a forced confession, of sorts. Although Swan had taken pains to hide the habit from even her closest friends and family, she was snapped by a photographer while smoking in her car. And although she pleaded with them not to publish the photographs (knowing full well the kind of braying reaction they’d receive), images of fallen idols sell for big bucks. And so in an attempt to control the story, Swan shared her secret on-air yesterday. Through obvious distress, she explained that she’d found it incredibly difficult to cope with her addiction to cigarettes, particularly when combined with the kind of stress that would challenge anybody - managing three jobs, parenting two children, selling a house and relocating, and doing it all under the watchful eye of the public.

As a former smoker, I know exactly how hard it is to quit the cancer sticks. I took it up as a teenager and smoked for 15 years. There were a few attempts to quit, but after a time I would always succumb again. I’ve now been smoke free for just over two years - but I can’t say with any certainty that circumstances in my life might not lead me to take it up again. This is what addiction is. It’s hard and brutal and it is a lifelong battle, and it cannot be done with the weight of the world against you.

No one’s suggesting that it’s right to expose your unborn child to cigarette smoke - but concern for the welfare of children isn’t what’s driving public outrage here. We know that shaming people doesn’t inspire change, particularly not when you’re dealing with addiction. If the public is so concerned about Chrissie Swan smoking, the last thing they should be doing is adding to her stress levels by standing around in a ring and chanting BAD MOTHER at her. Addiction is hard enough without also exposing yourself to the inevitable backlash of millions of people only too eager to flex their sanctimony muscles.

Because this is what drives backlash. It’s not a concern for the well being of a child. It’s certainly not concern for the well being of its mother. It’s sanctimony, and the gleeful feeling one gets from being part of a bullying mob whose circle of burning pitchforks is unique protection against having to answer for their own sins. It’s the ever present idea that a woman’s body does not belong to her, especially not when she’s carrying a foetus. It’s looking for cracks in the armour, calling the services of the Pregnancy Police so we can engage in a spot of Outrage Olympics.

And at the end of the day, whose business is it anyway? Even the NSW Health Chief believes there are greater atrocities occurring in the world than whether or not a stressed out woman with a baby bump nicks around the corner to have a cigarette. Women have to be trusted to know what’s best for THEIR bodies and THEIR lives. It isn’t our place to police the streets issuing tickets to pregnant women breaking the rules. It certainly isn’t our right to shame them for behaving in a way we don’t approve of.

I trust Chrissie Swan to make the best decisions for herself, knowing the risks as she does. This is because I trust women to make the best decisions for themselves, free from the sanctimonious judgment of those entirely unconnected with her life and circumstances. It's time everyone else got down of their high horses and did the same. We can see your knickers from this angle, and it's not like you all keep a clean house either.

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