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Can the Kardashians Teach You About Assisted Reproductive Technologies?

February 26th, 2020
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Yep, you heard me right. What can be learned about assisted reproductive technologies, or ARTs, from the infamously famous Kardashian sisters?

It turns out a lot.

But who am I? And why do I care?

My name is Sanjana Ramesh and I am a single, 26-year-old woman and PhD candidate. I study health communication, which means I’m interested in how communication strategies – intentionally or unintentionally, inform and/or influence people’s decisions and behaviors to improve health. Specifically, my research focuses on women’s health decisions ‘below the belt’ (i.e., reproductive, pelvic, sexual, etc.). One line of my research that has been near and dear to my heart is on women’s fertility decisions and the many that are related to ARTs. Realistically, I will be close to 30 years old by the time I’m done with my program. I also have no imminent prospect of finding a partner with whom to start a family with. Nor do I believe that having a child during the program would be in my best interest. Time and time again, I am plagued with the age-old questions (from my family members, but also in my own mind) - when am I going to have children, and how?

Did you know that age-related infertility is linked to both maternal age and parity?

Many women are somewhat aware that the quantity and quality of her eggs significantly decreases with age. However, if a woman has not conceived her first child between 27–28 years old, her fertility is additionally compromised. Mind you, the latter is not common knowledge. In fact, most women are extremely unaware of their fertility and reproductive potential, and often make assumptions based on good health and wellness. Age-related infertility is rarely considered by women of reproductive age, let alone health behaviors to preserve fertility. But women are actually highly optimistic about the availability and effectiveness ARTs have for reversing the implications of delayed childbearing. ARTs include fertility preservation, egg/sperm donation, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy and many other procedures used to facilitate pregnancy.

I’ll be honest. I was just like many women who lack knowledge about their fertility and reproductive health. The only reason I know this much is because I took the time to look it up (and for my research agenda, obviously). Needless to say, this is not pleasant news for young female professionals like myself. By not actively trying to have a child in the next two years, I am placing myself at a higher risk for age-related infertility. Even after earning my degree, I am limited to 5 years before I hit “advanced maternal age” at 35 years. Yikes, am I right?

A contemporary, yet complicated opportunity

Yikes, is sort of right. In 2012, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine [ASRM] lifted the experimental label that was once assigned to the non-medical use of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). Social egg-freezing, or the proactive self-donation of eggs for anticipating infertility, is now a viable, accessible and acceptable option for women who may want to delay childbearing for sake of career, education or other pursuits. In fact, in 2014, tech giants like Facebook and Apple even started offering female employees coverage up to $20,000 for social egg freezing. Recently and rapidly, younger millennial women, like myself, have become the new target audience of companies offering “social egg freezing” services. Hurrah! An opportunity does exist for those of us that do want children in the future!

Social egg freezing is a contemporary women’s health decision that holds promise for the new age of modern women. But this decision should not be made lightly. The same population of women who are optimistic about the ability of ARTs to overcome age-related infertility are now afforded a decision for proactive fertility preservation. That sounds good and well, but are young women who report extremely low levels of fertility awareness and knowledge, really equipped to make an informed decision about social egg freezing?

Media Matters…

Soon after taking their new position on ARTs, the ASRM also released a statement criticizing popular media for painting too enthusiastic of an image of social egg freezing. Media is a major source of information that is widely studied for its influence over individual’s health decisions and behaviors. Media representations of ARTs have been criticized for portraying social egg freezing as too enthusiastic, misleading and stigmatizing. Social egg freezers are generally stereotyped as selfish career women, hopeless romantics looking for “the one” or wealthy “Botox and Chardonnay” socialites. The decision to preserve fertility is usually framed as hopeful and proactive but the physical risks, psychological toll and financial strains of social egg freezing lack representation. All the while, increased media attention is also placing more pressure on young women to consider social egg freezing.

So, what do the Kardashians have to do with how people think about ARTs?

In the last decade, reality TV has dominated the entertainment media industry and Kim Kardashian-West is its reigning empress. Keeping Up with the Kardashians (KUWTK), the reality TV series that centers on the lives of Kim and her family members, has garnered and maintained a massive following for over 10 years. The show debuted in 2007 and quickly earned the title of ‘highest-rated Sunday night show’ for adults 18–34 years old. Now in its 17th season with 12 spin-off shows, KUWTK has catapulted the entire Kardashian-Jenner clan to unimaginable levels of stardom. So much so that The New York Times Magazine has dubbed them as the “Kardashian/Jenner Mega-Complex,” suggesting that the Kardashian-Jenners have “not just invaded the culture but metastasized it.”

Coincidentally, ARTs have been a prominent theme in KUWTK since 2012. And on the contrary, KUWTK has actually been revered for bringing necessary portrayals of how women cope with reproductive health issues with ARTs to the cultural scene in a prosocial way [1]. Conversations about ARTs debuted in season 7, episode 17, which was titled “Cut Both Ways.” Get it? This was the first-time viewers – which by the way are upwards of 2 million per episode, were first exposed to the Kardashian sisters’ fertility narratives. Since then, the show has gone on to represent a host of ARTs including social egg freezing, infertility treatments, IVF and gestational surrogacy. Namely, the three eldest sisters: Kourtney, Kim and Khloe, have given their fans and audience members a personal, intimate and authentic look into their fertility journeys.

Why are the Kardashians so influential?

The influence of celebrity culture on health beliefs, attitudes and behavioral intentions was once notoriously disregarded. With the rise of reality TV and social media, celebrities can now infiltrate popular culture at a rapid pace. Celebrity media coverage has been found to mold people’s expectations towards the efficacy of health-related treatments, therapies and technologies, all of which influence consumer demand [2]. Remember when Angelina Jolie penned her now famous essay about genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer? Just two weeks later, the rate of women undergoing genetic testing for breast cancer increased by 64% (“Angelina Jolie Effect”).

From an entertainment media perspective, reality TV has demonstrated significant influence in improving obesity prevention, sexual health, cancer screening behaviors and perceptions around mental health [3] [4] [5]. The Kardashians arguably pioneered a sub-genre of reality TV referred to as “domestic celebrity reality programs.” Suffice it to say, the Kardashians are the most popular celebrity family on reality TV [6]. The format of KUWTK is designed specifically to give viewers an inside look at the Kardashian family beyond the headlines and ultimately make them seem just like a regular family.

Have I got you hooked?

Long story short, the Kardashians and their fertility narratives are particularly interesting because of their celebrity status, reality TV platform and the sheer coverage of personal reproductive health issues that viewers are provided access to. Want to find out more? Check out my next two blog posts in which I uncover the special powers of reality TV and how the Kardashians deploy them in their fertility narratives. I also go over all of the different representations of ARTs in KUWTK in detail. I hope you check them out!

By Sanjana Ramesh

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