The stigma surrounding infertility and the heavy burden it bears is partially a result of the limited conversation surrounding this topic. But whose responsibility is it to speak up?
Words by Sophie Braybrook
Five years ago, when Fertility Help Hub founder Eloise was TTC (trying to conceive), the community and information around infertility was incredibly limited, which manifested feelings of shame and isolation among those TTC. Storytelling through Fertility Help Hub’s Instagram, Facebook page, podcast,blog and newsletter, has allowed for connection through shared experience, which is a powerful tool when dissipating these emotions.
During a conversation with Kelly Clarkson in February, actor and comedian Abby Elliott revealed her personal struggle and desire for people to talk more openly about infertility: “So many people go through this, and we don’t talk about this enough,” Abby explained, “we need to raise understanding and awareness.”
We can all agree with Abby on this one, but whose responsibility is it to shift the narrative? Do celebrities who are trying to conceive have a responsibility to use their power, prestige and platforms to normalise infertility? Should we expect our idols to divulge personal elements of their lives to break the silence and quash the stigma?
We catch up with two industry experts and three women TTC to understand the effect celebrity infertility stories have had on them and their clients. We found that celebrity stories can offer some women TTC tremendous hope and comfort through shared experience while burdening others with jealousy and inaccurate information. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, celebrity infertility stories do contribute toward the eradication of infertility stigma within society – normalising both the issues and conversation surrounding infertility.
We conclude that it’s problematic to expect those in the public eye to demystify infertility, and that this responsibility should be placed on the experts instead.
Celebrity Stories Offering Hope and Shared Experience During Times of Trauma
Finding Hope through Celebrity Infertility Stories
We caught up with Ruth*, 31, who has been trying to conceive for two years and finds comfort when reading celebrity stories. Ruth’s celebrity content consumption started with Izzy Judd’s incredible podcast Let’s Talk Fertility and book, Dare to Dream. Both address and detail Izzy and her husband (and McFly’s drummer) Harry’s personal fertility struggle, including IVF and plenty of emotions.
“When reading Izzy’s infertility story, I felt this profound sense of hope for me and other women with similar experiences,” Ruth added. “Izzy is so open and reading her story feels like you are being handed a warm drink on a cold day. The book helped me process a few things a little better, like normalising feelings of anger and frustration when hearing pregnancy announcements.”
Celebrities acknowledging infertility on Instagram has provided hope for Ruth too: “Reading Anne Hathaway’s post helped me realise that it’s not just me who’s struggling,” Ruth explained. “It has happened to her too and if she can become pregnant then so can I!”
Celebrity Infertility Stories Creating Shared Experience and Community
Anne kept her fertility private until she became pregnant with her second child, announcing her struggles in a brief but powerful statement, reading, “For everyone going through infertility and conception hell, please know it was not a straight line to either of my pregnancies. Sending you extra love.”
You only need to look at the comments posted by followers in response to such Instagram announcements to understand the level of comfort, connection and community simple statements like Anne’s are capable of creating.
One user wrote the following under the star’s post: “I appreciate you talking about infertility. So many women, including myself, struggle with this problem and it doesn’t get talked about… my story felt too taboo to talk about… Thank you for sharing and helping others through it too!”. Another commented, “Wonderful and needed words. Thank you!”
When TTC, our very own Eloise also found comfort in hearing celebrities share their infertility stories. Reading about public figures “Helped me realise even stars can have issues,” Eloise explained, “I guess a shared painful experience, showing we weren’t the only ones dealing with it.”
Shared trauma that can have incredibly positive mental effects on those experiencing it, and sometimes this support can be derived by consuming content from people we’ll never have contact with.
Journalist and author Elizabeth Day launched her popular podcast – How to Fail – after she was unable to have a baby. Founded on the premise that we should talk about and even celebrate our ‘failures’, in each episode Elizabeth asks her famous guests to reveal their most shameful moments. Elizabeth’s podcast has been a roaring success for normalising ‘failures’ like infertility, reducing stigma by opening the conversation around the undesirable topics.
Celebrity Infertility Stories Evoking Jealousy and Disconnection
Not everyone feels that same sense of hope and community when reading celebrity infertility stories. Some of the women we approached experience significant feelings of jealousy and disconnection when hearing stories from people in financially privileged positions who are working toward the same goal as themselves.
“I started reading Izzy Judd’s book after our first failed cycle and I only got halfway through,” explained Jackie, 37, who has been TTC for seven years. “I just couldn’t get past how having access to money put them in a league above us, and I guess I still feel a little like that today.
“My god I understand that this journey is soul-crushing whether you have money or not,” Jackie continued, “but I seem to spend most of my time balancing what treatment we can afford, which has resulted in years of sacrificing luxuries. Meanwhile, many celebrities can afford to go private and still treat themselves to holidays and days out.
“I’ve heard of celebs having paid surrogates to carry their child after IVF failures – we would never in a million years be able to afford that,” Jackie added. “It’s just the different cards we’re dealt in life, and we have to make the best with what we have, but there is still that pang of jealousy… and then the guilt for feeling jealous.”
Keira, 40, has been TTC for five years and doesn’t follow celebrity infertility stories, favouring those that better represent her own experience.
“I think I would just be jealous of someone super rich who could afford specialist treatments and consultants I can’t afford,” Keira told Fertility Help Hub. “I prefer following people whose lives I know, like friends, family and stories from ordinary peopleon forums and social media, as I feel their struggles are greater aligned to mine and more relatable.”
Keira too referred to finance, concluding, “Like not being able to afford all the supplements and additional treatments we’d like to.”
Celebrities Shift Trends, Open Conversations and Debunk Stigmas
Whether couples can relate to and derive hope from celebrities’ experiences seems best measured on an individual basis. But, on a societal level, celebrities have always influenced trends and can use their prestige and platforms to permeate the media, draw attention to certain topics and debunk stigmas within entire communities.
“It is so important for celebrities, comedians, politicians and athletes to share their infertility stories” explained Lisa Schuman, a leading expert in family building and licensed therapist. “It helps demystify the process of infertility and normalises and evens the playing field for so many people who still feel infertility is something to feel shame about.
“When single or LGBTQ+ parents are open about fertility treatment, they not only reduce shame around treatment but also support others who desire to build the modern family. Their openness also demonstrates to the family and friends of the parents to be that their child or friend is not ‘different’ and families are built in many different ways.
“We have come a long way as a society; however, we still have a long way to go,” Lisa continued. “When the role models of our society share their stories, it normalises an experience that can be sad and shameful for so many people.”
Celebrities sharing their infertility stories to an extensive audience have the power to educate those who aren’t directly affected by, and therefore ignorant of, infertility.
“Sometimes you don’t need to go into the details of your struggle to tackle the stigma head on,” Ruth said, when speaking of Anne Hathaway’s brief Instagram post. “I think Anne’s post is good food for thought for those unfamiliar with the fertility struggles, and posts like hers might encourage people to think twice before asking personal questions.”
Should Celebs Share?
Despite the positive effect celebrity infertility stories can have, is it the responsibility of stars to share their personal trauma with the world?
Celebrities’ Rights to Privacy
Regardless of their reason for fame, celebrities are commonly hailed societies’ role models, but celebrity reactions to societies’ assignment of this title has resulted in this topic has become a wildly contentious one.
While actor Zendaya spoke about embracing the title in an interview with Sways Universe, singer Rihanna told a 2018 edition of Vogue that “That title was put on me when I was just finding my way, making mistakes in front of the world. I didn’t think it was fair… [it was] a really hard place to be in as a teenager.” Similarly, actor and activist Emma Watson told Interview Magazine that the idea “Puts the fear of god into me, because I feel like I’m destined to fail.”
We can’t expect those in the public eye to behave perfectly, whatever that might look like. And, therefore, we shouldn’t expect pubic figures to open the conversation around infertility, sharing deeply personal and sensitive information for the benefit of others and the eradication of stigma.
Despite finding comfort in celebrity tales herself, Ruth doesn’t believe public figures have a responsibility to speak up.
“It is an incredibly personal experience whether you are a celebrity or not,” Ruth told Fertility Help Hub, “status doesn’t change that. It does help to shift the stigma if they do talk about it, but they have every right not to open up.”
Unregulated Celebrity Advice
It’s also problematic for us to expect celebrities TTC to tackle stigma by sharing their infertility stories because the accounts we hear are unlikely full, detailed and accurate, which could unintentionally mislead others TTC.
Jackie expressed concerns regarding Strictly Come Dancing stars James and Ola Jordan’s first-time IVF success story, explaining that their infertility story oversimplifies IVF. “They had this platform to talk about it and their story fed into the pre-conceived ideal of IVF: you go to a doctor, have some injections and wow you’re pregnant”, Jackie told Fertility help Hub. “When in reality, that’s really not the story for so many going through IVF or any fertility treatments.”
Sex coach and author of Conceiving with Love Denise Wiesner is equally uneasy about the accuracy of information online.
“Where this gets sticky for me is the over 40 women who freeze their eggs or who use donor eggs and don’t talk about it,” Denise explained. Denise works with several women in their mid- and late-40s who are hopeful that they will conceive naturally after hearing brief and unexplained pregnancy announcements among older celebrities.
“I’ve had women tell me that Halle Barre conceived at 46 and that gave them hope that they could,” Denise told Fertility Help Hub. “I am not sure if Halle conceived naturally or not. There is no way of knowing unless a celebrity comes out and says it.”
We’re all guilty of celebrating our successes while masking any suffering we’ve endured, and celebrities are no different. This is especially true for stars using donors, who, in Eloise’s experience, rarely speak publicly about their experience. Likely so they can tell their children themselves, once they reach an appropriate age.
Demystifying Infertility through the Education System
So, we’ve established that we shouldn’t expect, or rely on, celebrities to reveal detailed and honest accounts of their experiences, to educate society and eradicate infertility stigma. Instead, it would be more reasonable that trained professionals supply regulated information through the education system.
Infertility Taught in Sex Education
Sex education in schools has a heavy focus on avoiding pregnancy, but when infertility is likely to effect five students in a school class of 30, it’s important the syllabus is adjusted to reflect these numbers.
One of the most common problems couples face is a result of the gradual decline in women’s fertility, and systems are failing women who believe natural conception is still easy at 40. While girls are encouraged to gain independence through the establishment of their own careers more now than ever before, this issue has never been so important.
Sex education class provides the perfect opportunity dispel these beliefs, normalise infertility at large and eradicate other such stigmas. For example, shifting the narrative around childless women or the pressure to live up to society’s perception of the ‘perfect woman’ who juggles a successful career, harmonious family, vibrant social life, health and more, to name only two.
Infertility Better Taught in Science
The current inclusion of infertility in the science curriculum is equally limited. If biology class focussed more heavily on medical miracles like IVF, IUI and surrogacy as well as the science behind female fertility decline, the case studies people are exposed to will likely be far more accurate, detailed and representative of those reading them than the average infertility story celebs provide.
The adaptation of the education system in this way could offer the next generation more choice, allowing them to plan accordingly, adjust their expectations and potentially swerve disappointment, as well as helping to eradicate stigma, lessening feelings of isolation and shame for those TTC.
Better Schooling Over Celebrity Education
Ultimately, it’s problematic to expect celebrities to divulge their personal infertility stories in attempt to quash infertility stigma. While celebrities’ stories can help demystify and destigmatise infertility, as well as encouraging other benefits, we cannot expect them to take on this role. Celebrity infertility stories also evoke hope among some TTC, and while this can be positive, inaccuracies can mislead, resulting in further disappointment.
Instead of relying on celebrities to share their infertility stories, we should expect trained and regulated bodies to educate society, starting with more fertility-focussed sex education and biology classes.
*names have been changed
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