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Georgia Storm

Professor Granillo

English 103

25 November 2018

The Labors of Oppression for the Birth of Equality and Empowerment

When a woman is preparing to become a mother and welcome a child there are plenty of

concerns; however many are unaware that depending on her race and the culture with which she

resides these concerns can be much greater than those with privilege. Because of this the birth of

a child can be controversial because it reflects a culture’s values. Birth practices reflect the

culture’s view of women as well as race due to the two constantly intersecting. Photographer

Natalie Lennard takes on the politics of birth and the intersectionality of feminism in her

photography series titled ​Birth undisturbed​. While critics believe Natalie Lennard’s photograph

“Aquadural” is solely an avocation for alternative birth, it accomplishes much more by

empowering women of color. By use of the cultural criticism and feminist concepts cultural

work, sisterhood and semiotic, Lennard empowers the oppressed women of color and argues

America amplify their perspectives in order to diversify the white patriarchal model of health


“Aquadural” is a dynamic image that contrasts the western medicinal model of birth

Americans are accustomed to seeing today. The image features a woman of color submerged

under the amazon sea with a look of serenity on her face as she admires her new child. She is in

the moments after-birth with the umbilical cord still attached and placenta not yet delivered

(Lennard). In an interview, Lennard speaks about wanting to create an image that was not only a
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replication of modern day water birth but would “create pictures for what we don’t have,”

(Aquadural). This vision became the recreation of indigenous communities practice of waterbirth

in the ocean within “Aquadrual”. Many would say the piece is making a statement solely within

birth discourse in regards to alternative approaches aside from the western model however,

taking the context of the photo into consideration through a cultural criticism and feminist lens, it

makes a larger proclamation within the discourses of race and gender in America.

Despite critics claiming Lennards “Aquadural” is purely a statement about alternative

approaches to birth, through understanding the context behind the photograph it can be argued

that it adds to the discourses of gender and race. As cultural critic Stephen Greenblatt’s states

one must “point to the culturally specific nature of texts as products of particular periods and

discursive formations,” (Lai 4). ​Black women of America had a cruel history of childbirth, which

roots back to their enslavement and it initiated ​“medical doctors and slave owners began to work

closely to protect the reproductive health of black women who were held in bondage,” and were

treated cruelly in the process “often being operated on with no anesthesia,” (Benia 20). This

original framework still carries out within the institution of western obstetrics today as there is a

disparity in maternal mortality rates between races; the gap is rooted within the oppression of the

black woman. Black mothers are three to four times more likely to die to pregnancy-related

causes than white mothers (Villarosa). The start of American gynecology and the disparities of

its numbers today speak volumes about women of color’s disposition in the modern world of

birth and American culture as a whole. As studies have found that alternating the mainstream

birth model have reduced the risk of black maternal mortality (Villarosa). Natalie Lennard’s
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photography portrays these alternative methods and by use of cultural criticism concept of

cultural work the piece counteracts these damaging aspects of black women in birth.

By use of the concept cultural work, Natalie Lennard’s photograph challenges the

ideologies of “normal birth” defined by the white patriarchal model and advocates to diversify

this definition within America’s healthcare system. This concept of cultural work, or

transformation of ideologies, is exhibited in “Aquadural’s” positive representation of indigenous

practices (Tyson 281). Lennard’s piece depicts waterbirth in the ocean, a tradition of many

indigenous cultures (Lennard). This is done so in a positive tone as the scene exuberates serenity

while mother and baby free float within the ocean at ease. This positive depiction is a contrast to

the dominant culture’s portrayals of indigenous communities throughout history as “savage” or

“uneducated”. As one cultural critic writes, “patriarchal power structure admittedly has reduced

history ​per se ​into ​his ​story,” (Lai 19). Therefore, this acknowledgment of minorities culture’s

approach to birth, alternative to the white patriarchal model, is something women of color can

identify with as it was practiced by their own ancestors. As feminist critic Carolyn Denard notes,

many African American women are concerned with “values of their own ethnic group rather than

with those of women in general,” (Dennard 171). Therefore, this cultural work empowers

women of color as it is a positive representation of their culture’s practice and values. It also

argues America should amplify the experiences of women of color as their knowledge of

indigenous birth culture can be an alternative approach that not only diversifies but reduces black

maternal mortality within the white patriarchal model of health care as well. Cultural criticism

concept cultural work can be utilized to analyze not only the positive representation of

indigenous practices but the solidarity of the woman as well.

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The concept of cultural work can also be identified within the visual of a woman by

herself. All that is in Lennard’s piece speaks volumes, however the lack of certain aspects within

“Aquadural” makes a statement as well. For example, the absence of others in the illustration

making the woman in solitude during her birth. This imagery contrasts the common American

birth scene where many are present such as partners, physicians, nurses, and family. This cultural

work transforms the ideologies regarding birth, by showing it is not dependent upon the

institution of medicine built by privileged men, but it is the woman herself in control of her own

birth, bringing a child into the world. During a time when women of color are under threat due to

the American model of health care, this imagery is empowering as it creates a sense of separation

between themselves and the very system oppressing them. ​With respect to Lennard's cultural

work, Aquadural inspires women of color to remain in power of their child-birth and recognize

the importance of their voice in oppressive systems of American obstetrics​. Lennard’s

photograph empowers women of color by exhibiting the concept cultural work and promoting

the feminist concept of sisterhood.

Utilizing a feminist lens, Lennard’s photograph promotes the concept of sisterhood, or

the “psychological and political bonding among women based on recognition of common

experiences and goals,” (Tyson 101). “Aquadural” illustration’s primary focus is a woman of

color birthing (Lennard). Considering that most popular culture in America features a majority of

white women, it is significant that one of ethnicity is front and center in this piece. This is an

illustration within mainstream media that black woman can identify with, creating feelings of

recognition and inclusion. This illustration serves to remind women of color that their shared

experiences due to the intersectionality of their existence which reinforces the psychological and
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political bond amongst them. This bond is a vital force in the movement to transform the black

woman’s experience within the American healthcare system as one scholar writes sisterhood

“​encourages dialogue and collective voice to benefit women of Color by facilitating an improved

quality of life for them,” (Lian 1).​ Through this inclusion, women of color are acknowledged

and appreciated for their beauty and culture therefore empowered. By recognizing their

existence, the illustration is symbolic of how women of color’s voices should be recognized and

amplified in the world of women’s health care. When this happens, the white patriarchal model

of health care will have to be diversified in order to include all women. The concept of

sisterhood is revealed in Lennard’s use of a colored model and can also be detected in her visual

of birth.

The concept of sisterhood is also revealed through the birth experience. The woman and

her child are depicted in the moments after birth with the umbilical cord still attached (Lennard).

Sisterhood is promoted for women of color through this depiction because it is a common

experience among mothers that creates a psychological bond. Not only among mothers but

women at all stages of life because in most cultures much time is spent in preparation for this

moment. Due to this bond of sisterhood, woman will advocate for each other. The avocation

from women with similar experiences due to intersectionality is preface to empowerment

amongst women of color as they feel unified within a system oppressing them. It is through this

sense of unity and empowerment that the argument is made for society to amplify the voices of

the oppressed women of color in order to bring more diversity in the westernized model of

women’s health care, which has silenced them for too long. Lennards piece promotes the

feminist concept of sisterhood but also exhibits the feminist concept semiotic.
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“Aquadural” exhibits the feminist concept semiotic in order to empower women of color

and argue that America amplify their voices. Lennard portrays a primitive aspect of human

nature birth and the bond between mother and child (Lennard). The feminist concept of semiotic

is the nonverbal dimension of language that is acquired as an infant from their mother and keeps

them “in continual contact with [their] instinctual drives and earliest connections to [their]

mothers,” (Tyson 99). Semiotic can be identified in Lennard’s imagery because it portrays this

nonverbal bond between mother and child. French Feminist Kristeva argues, “both our

instinctual drives and earliest connections to our mothers are repressed by our entrance into

language, the dominion of patriarchy,” (Tyson 99) “Aquadural’s” illustration of this connection

resonates with women of color by reminding them of a time before they were limited by the

white patriarchy’s dominion of language. This illustration of language not limited by oppressive

speech therefore empowers them. Because women of color have been silenced by this oppressive

language for centuries, Lennards use of feminist concept semiotic argues that America listen to

women of color especially during a time such a high disparity between white and black maternal

mortality rates. The feminist concept of semiotic gives women of color empowerment as well as

the concept of sisterhood.

Natalie Lennard’s piece “Aquduraul” does much more than advocate for alternative birth

as critics say. The photograph advocates for women of color in America and empowers them. By

use of the cultural criticism and feminist concepts Cultural work, sisterhood and semiotic

Lennard empowers the oppressed women of color and argues America amplify their perspectives

in order to diversify the white patriarchal model of health care. Black women in America

experience dual oppression due to their gender and race. Evidence of this intersectionality can be
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found in the high maternal mortality in America. As studies have proven that this disparity is due

to the systematic racism of American model of health care it is argued that the culture shifts to

amplify women of colors perspectives in order to adapt and diversify this oppressive system.

“Aqudural” accomplishes this by positively representing women of color and the indigenous

practice of water birth their ancestors practiced. It is through this illustration that Lennard

counteracts the oppressive ideologies of the white patriarchal model of health care and empowers

those who have been silenced for too long. In order for an institution to change, the original

frameworks of it must be torn down; therefore the oppression-themed frameworks that built the

American healthcare system must be removed and the voices of all must be incorporated into the

new institution of women's health.

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Works Cited

“AQUADURAL.” ​Birth Undisturbed​, 2018, ​www.birthundisturbed.com/aquadural#0​.

Benia, Cooper Owens Deirdre. ​Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American

Gynecology​. The University of Georgia Press, 2018. ​JSTOR​.

Denard, Carolyn. “The Convergence of Feminism and Ethnicity in the Fiction of Toni

Morrison.”​ Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. ​Ed. Nellie Y. McKay. Boston: G. K. Hall,

1988. 171-78.

Lai, Chung-Hsiung. “Limits and Beyond: Greenblatt, New Historicism and a Feminist

Genealogy.” ​Intergrams ​2006 pp. 4-19. ​LexisNexis. ​Accessed 20 November 2018.

Lennard, Natalie. “AQUADURAL.” ​Birth Undisturbed​, 2018,


Lian, Pearson. "Multicultural Feminism and Sisterhood among Women of Color: Catalyst or

Encumbrance to Social Change Dialogue"​ Paper presented at the annual meeting of the

International Communication Association, Sheraton New York, New York City, NY​.


Tyson, Lois. ​Critical Theory Today: a User-Friendly Guide​. Routledge, 2015.

Villarosa, Linda. “Why America's Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.”

​The New York Times​, The New York Times, 11 Apr. 2018,


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