How we visually represent the birth process is not just a minor detail, but a reflection of fundamental beliefs about the nature of birth and women's bodies. In other words, visual depictions of women giving birth are politically charged texts, not just neutral representations of reality.
Take, for example, the almost universal lithotomy (or in layman's terms, stranded beetle or beached whale) position in illustrations of the birth process. This position is certainly not culturally consistent or physiologically appropriate in most cases. It emerged out of a particular set of historical circumstances and has become solidified in Western obstetric practice, despite it being one of the worst positions, mechanically, for the birthing mother. Not to mention more painful for most women! It is, however, more convenient for the birth attendant.
For example, these two 3-D videos of birth, showing the baby in relation to the mother's skeletal structure. They are beautiful illustrations, but of course they show the mother supine.
3D Medical Animation of Normal Vaginal Birth
Normal Birth Animation
My suggestion: tilt your head or your computer screen 90 degrees to view an upright birth (supported squat, birth stool, or sitting on a toilet) and 180 degrees to see birth on hands & knees. A simple but effective technology! If you are a doula, midwife, childbirth educator, or one of those wonderful progressive physicians, you can subvert the message of your existing supine illustrations by simply rotating them around, emphasizing to your clients the importance of giving birth in upright, physiological positions that work with gravity and the maternal pelvis. And, of course, stress that the woman should always have freedom of movement and position changes during labor and birth.
You might also have noticed that both of these animations show just the torso or the pelvis, rather than the entire woman giving birth. This is another artifact of a certain cultural view of birth and of women's role in the birth process. For a more lengthy discussion on this topic, please read Bearing Meaning: The Language of Birth. In particular, chapters 6-8 and 10-11 analyze the changing meanings and representations of birth in both Williams Obstetrics and Our Bodies, Ourselves.
One of the most remarkable departures from the disembodied-supine-torso representation of birth is this series of illustrations from Birth International, an Australian childbirth education and midwifery products company. They designed a series of six charts showing the birth process, designed to enable "women to develop confidence in being able to give birth." The illustrations show "a woman truly giving birth to her child, rather than being delivered of a baby." The charts' purpose is to teach women that they have the ability to birth their babies without assistance. The text comments: "If you want to show women how they can 'do it themselves,' then you need these pictures to reinforce your message."
Note that the charts show the whole woman in relation to the physiological process. The woman is upright and mobile, and because she is close to the ground, needs no one to "catch" the baby for her.
Now, I do take issue with some of the wording in the advertisement--that they are
"the only charts in the world that show birth in its truly natural state"--because the term natural is highly charged with multiple layers of meaning, some that are oppressive to women, some that essentialize female nature, and some that emphasize biological determinism. However, I find Birth International's political project admirable. These charts call into question the "natural" position of lying on one's back, integrate the woman giving birth back into the baby's descent and emergence, and encourage confidence and power in the birthing woman.