This past Saturday, women everywhere very deservingly swelled their chests in pride as we commemorated International Women’s Day. I wanted to focus on a certain group of women in particular, women who don’t seem to get much credit for what they go through: teen moms. We don’t really think about them much when we talk about things like feminism and female advocacy. In fact, we hardly think about how teenage mothers are the ones facing possibly the two toughest times in their lives simultaneously: teenage adolescence and motherhood. In 2011, there were over 300,000 babies born to mothers from ages 15 to 19 in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fifty-seven percent of those births were comprised of black and Hispanic youths. Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy among the western industrialized nations.
Now, that is not to say that I want teenage pregnancy to happen. I recognize that it can be very detrimental to young women’s lives. According to the CDC, only 50 percent of teen mothers receive a high school diploma, as opposed to the 90 percent that do when they haven’t given birth. Children of teen mothers are more likely to do worse in school, drop out, be incarcerated, have health problems, be teen parents themselves and be unemployed. Luckily, however, in 2011, the CDC also reported that birth rates also declined by 11 percent for women ages 15 to 17 and seven percent for women 18 to 19, most likely due to increased knowledge about birth control and options for pregnant teens.
What I want to focus on, though, is with how we treat teenagers after they become mothers. Women who go through pregnancy and eventually birth suffer all types of ridicule and abuse. The entertainment industry, and MTV in particular, even profits from them. With shows like “Teen Mom” and “Teen Mom 2,” MTV gets incredible ratings. This past January, the season five premiere of “Teen Mom 2” had the highest ratings of any of the top 100 television shows on the air, according to Nielsen Ratings. Teenage motherhood, according to MTV, has become a show in the circus for onlookers to gawk at and laugh.
Shows like “Teen Mom” shame women. They shame motherhood. According to a Feb. 11, 2011, ABC News report on the former MTV show “16 and Pregnant,” MTV purposely created drama for the pregnant teen, Whitney Purvis, in order to create a false image of what the effects are of becoming pregnant. “Teen Mom” is also an exaggerated portrayal of being a teen mom, as MTV exaggerates with many of its shows and feeds off it for profit and viewings. If that wasn’t enough, tabloids like TMZ will further feed the flame by making invasive and probably untrue articles about the mothers’ lives. There were thoughts that these shows encourage young women to get pregnant.
MTV likes to give off a vibe that it only has shows like “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” in order to make sure girls either stay away from underage sex altogether or are careful if they do engage in it. However, MTV’s portrayal of these women as aggressive, trashy and irresponsible women has contributed to the hostile stigma concerning teen moms. Gaby Rodriguez, currently a 20-year-old college student studying psychology at Columbia Basin College, learned this firsthand when she faked a pregnancy at high school in 2011. It was part of a social experiment that she kept up for nearly seven months. She published a memoir on the experiment called “The Pregnancy Project.” Rodriguez, who was one of the top students in her class, suddenly had her teachers and peers look down on her, saying that her pregnancy was a “waste of life.” Even her siblings and her boyfriend’s parents came down on her.
One of her close friends even said, “Her attitude is changing, and it might be because of the baby, or she was always this annoying and I never realized it.” Rodriguez ended this experiment at the end of the year and revealed the truth to her classmates. She gave out cards with all the hurtful comments she received during the experiment because of her pregnancy.
Think about what people say when an adult woman gets pregnant. People are supportive. Often times, she’d get gifts and compliments about her baby. People would want to try and feel her growing belly for a kick from the new life. They tell her how she glows, and they always tell her about the best parts about being a mother. They also sympathize with all the hardships about being a mother: morning sickness, cravings, mood swings, stretch marks and, worst of all, postpartum depression.
Now compare that to how we treat teenage mothers. We shame them for getting pregnant. We call them “sluts” and “stupid.” And the most popular question: “Couldn’t you close your legs?” We take advantage of them for our entertainment in “Teen Mom” and gossip. We have online pages dedicated to making fun of pictures of pregnant teens. But at the same time as all of this, teen moms still have to get good grades, go to clubs and try to get into college along with all the symptoms of pregnancy and motherhood.
How do any of our attitudes toward teen moms help anything? When you call her a “slut,” does it feed her baby? Does that teacher telling her that it was a “waste of life,” help her get her diploma? That teenager is taking up more responsibility than you, for herself and for her child that she wants to protect and keep healthy and happy. You can bet that all the CDC statistics of consequences of teenage pregnancy aren’t helped when we ridicule her and make her life more difficult.
Our stigma toward pregnant teens doesn’t stop future teenage pregnancies; it just hurts the ones struggling with it now. The real way to prevent teenage pregnancy is increasing sex education, but that’s not the point. Teen moms and pregnant teens deserve so much support from their environments in school and at home. We need to stop making them commodities for our viewing pleasure with MTV shows. The current representation of teen pregnancies in the media needs to be dismantled. It should be replaced with an acknowledgement that being pregnant and a mother at that age is not ideal and has consequences, but that doesn’t mean teen moms should be shunned. We should actively engage in support and compassion for them, just as we would for a mother who became pregnant as an adult.
Azwad Rahman is a biology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.