Vogue Gives Models Free Rein to Discuss Home Births
It's part of a broader positioning of the famous and beautiful as modern "wellness" gurus.
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Gisele Bündchen appears on the new cover of British Vogue. Given she is Gisele, she doesn’t really need a news peg for this honor, but we get one anyway, which is that she is writing a cookbook. She had British Vogue over to the Manhattan apartment that she apparently spends only a few nights a year in (you know, Tom Brady, Tampa etc.) to prepare spring rolls made with brown rice paper, carrots, apples, cucumber, and cabbage, alongside a cashew-ginger sauce.
This is how the contents of Bündchen’s fridge are described: “Tubs of hummus and cartons of coconut milk chill side by side on the top shelf; various packets of organic seeds (flax, hemp, chia) are lined up in neat rows, alongside a loaf of ancient grain gluten-free bread.”
The story explains that the conceit for the cookbook is “a collection of personal home recipes, which promises to provide an intriguing window into precisely what fuels her famously fit family.” An earlier Hollywood Reporter article provides more detail:
The cookbook, which will be published in spring 2024 via Clarkson Potter, was inspired by her health and wellness routines and will feature healthy recipes that she makes for herself and her family and follows the flexible 80/20 cooking approach — the everyday diet where a person eats nutritiously for 80 percent of meals and indulge in less healthy foods for the remaining 20 percent — which Bündchen adopted several years ago.
There is obvious consumer appeal in this idea. Who wouldn’t want to know the diet secrets of two people that are among the most celebrated in the world for their physical attributes? Particularly when it is couched in the idea of, not dieting or weight loss, but the glittering generality that has replaced those dated ideas, wellness.
Bündchen reiterates to British Vogue what she wrote about in her 2018 book Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life: when she was in her early career as a model and working nearly every day of the year, she would start each day with a mocha Frappuccino and three cigarettes, and finish it with bottle of red wine every night. She was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks. She then went to see a naturopath who prescribed a “detox,” British Vogue says, of “no sugar, no grains, no dairy, no caffeine, no alcohol, no cigarettes.”
Three months later and her debilitating symptoms had all but disappeared. To this day she wakes up religiously at 5am to meditate and work out.
Research does support the idea that a healthy diet can reduce anxiety, though it doesn’t have to be quite as restrictive as Bündchen’s. The New York Times reported on a 2017 study of people who were clinically depressed; they were split into two groups — one that went on a Mediterranean-style diet (that allowed for wholegrain bread) and one that made no dietary changes but met with a researcher who provided “social support.” Both groups were counseled to continue taking any medication they had been prescribed to treat their depression. Both groups saw improvements in their depression, but the group that made the dietary changes saw a notably larger improvement than the group that continued eating an unhealthy diet high in processed meats, sugary foods, and refined carbohydrates.
Previously on Back Row: Kate Hudson’s Absurd Empire
A book of Bündchen’s “home recipes” that she makes for her family suggests this is the food consumed by Brady, whose diet was previously detailed in his book The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance. It infamously excluded nightshades (such as eggplants, tomatoes, bell peppers, and potatoes) because he adheres to an “anti-inflammatory” diet consisting primarily of “alkaline” foods. Vox has a thorough and excellent debunking of his claims in an article by Julia Belluz, who wrote:
Unfortunately, with this book, Brady joins the club of diet gurus selling pseudoscience and woo about the body and nutrition. There’s no evidence that following Brady’s diet will turn his readers into “sustained peak performers” or do the specific things he claims — like rebalance the body’s pH level. (Your lungs and kidneys do that.) And while it may be true that the diet and “muscle pliability” routine help Brady stay strong and healthy, it’s probably not working for the reasons he suggests.
But looking to celebrities for health advice, while ill-advised, is a routine part of the modern exaltation of these stars. Another piece of British Vogue’s profile stood out to me, where Bündchen talks about giving birth at home.
She continues, “I remember, in the beginning, [Brady] wasn’t into the idea of home birth. He was like, ‘You’re not going to do that, because you’re going to die.’” Bündchen persuaded Brady to watch several videos on home birthing before he relented. “I made it clear that this is my body and I’m going to decide how I give birth.” She describes the 18 hours of labour with Benjamin Rein as “the most beautiful experience of my life”.
This is all the information we get about Bündchen’s birth experience. We don’t know what her backup plan was in case something went wrong, how far away a hospital was, or who performed the birth and what credentials that person had. It reminded me of American Vogue’s profile of Gigi Hadid last year, in which she talked about her home birth. Hadid decided to give birth at home after the pandemic hit, which reduced the number of people she could have in the delivery room, which meant her mom Yolanda and sister Bella could not be present. Vogue reported:
Then she and Malik watched the 2008 documentary The Business of Being Born, which is critical of medical interventions and depicts a successful home birth. “We both looked at each other and were like, I think that’s the call,” Gigi says.
She went on to describe the birth as a excruciating, but, similar to Bündchen, enjoyable:
Gigi’s Zoom doula, Malibu High classmate Carson Meyer, had prepared her for the moment where the mother feels she can’t go any longer without drugs. “I had to dig deep,” Gigi says. “I knew it was going to be the craziest pain in my life, but you have to surrender to it and be like, ‘This is what it is.’ I loved that.”
Brown University professor Emily Oster, whose research focuses on health and development economics, writes extensively about how COVID risks impact children and pregnancy. She has discussed in her Substack whether the pandemic merited switching to a home birth:
I cannot emphasize enough: No.
She also notes in her book Expecting Better, which contains a chapter on home birth: "Home-birth women tend to be rich, highly educated, and white.” She adds that around a third of women planning home births end up going to a hospital. This could because of a medical reason — like, your midwife thinks your labor is progressing too slowly — or because a woman decides she wants an epidural. She notes, “Some studies suggest that mortality risks are higher with a home birth, others do not. Risks are low in any case.” But of course, there are lots of considerations to make when having a home birth. Who will deliver your baby and what certifications do they have? How close will you be to a hospital? Is your pregnancy low-risk and therefore eligible for a home birth? Like the British Vogue profile of Bündchen, Vogue’s profile of Hadid didn’t get into any of this.
I don’t expect these magazines to go into the same detail that a book like Oster’s does, but they could at least provide some sort of brief parenthetical disclaimer about home birth or direct women to a credible source to get more information. It’s possible the writers of both of these stories asked these women more probing questions about their health philosophies, but the reader isn’t told if that was the case. So Vogue is left taking the word of these models as gospel.
But of course, health advice from famous, beautiful, fit people sells, and dubious health advice seldom seems to stand in the way of many celebrities’ careers. Bündchen previously shared her philosophy on breastfeeding, stating, “There should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.” She later walked back the remarks in a blog post after outcry. But years later, she was back to talking about breastfeeding again in People:
“My kids never got sick when I was breastfeeding,” the supermodel said, explaining that she found breast milk to be “a magical thing.”
“If they had something in their eyes, I’d put milk in their eyes. Before their flight, I would get a dropper and put milk up their nose … to [ward off] the bacteria on the plane,” she recalled.
(Oster writes that benefits of breastfeeding are often overstated, particularly when compared to how difficult breastfeeding can be for many moms, but notes, “Breastfeeding seems to improve digestion in the first year, lowers rashes for infants and is especially important for preterm babies. It also seems likely that it has some impact on reducing ear infections in young children and lowers the risk of breast cancer for the mother.”)
And oftentimes, doling out health advice that is not supported by science is a great way for celebrities to make money. Brady’s book was a number one New York Times bestseller, with more than 45,000 copies sold in its first week, according to Publishers Weekly.
Models — because they look so good, and because beauty and health are seen as interchangeable — have long been portrayed as having health expertise. Usually what’s not discussed in profiles that do this are the considerable advantages these women have that enable them to look the way they do in the stunning images of them a magazine like Vogue creates. (Bündchen’s new cover shoot by Steven Meisel is gorgeous.)
These might range from personal trainers to dietitians to plastic surgery. The shoots themselves employ the best stylists, photographers, makeup artists, and retouchers in the world. Women’s magazines have thankfully moved away from advising women on how to lose weight, but now they’re simply couching similar advice in the guise of wellness that suggests women will feel better if they eat a diet that promotes weight loss all the same. Positioning models as health gurus may be one thing when it comes to telling women which spring roll recipes to make for their families, but is another entirely when it comes to their philosophies on risky medical scenarios like childbirth.
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