Abbie Goldberg, Ph.D.

Abbie Goldberg Ph.D.

Beyond Blood

Celebrities Are Infertile too: How Openness About Infertility May Help Decrease Shame

Jillian Michaels, of The Biggest Loser, reveals her struggles with infertility.

Posted May 31, 2012

Several weeks ago, Jillian Michaels of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, adopted a girl named Lukensia from Haiti. She became a parent to Lukensia within days of welcoming Pheonix, a baby boy whom her partner Heidi Rhodes had carried, into the world. Interestingly, it was only recently that Michaels revealed her true reason for adopting. Initially, she declared that she planned to adopt instead of becoming pregnant because “I can’t handle doing that to my body.” After being accused of portraying pregnancy as akin to a “disease” that “women should avoid,” Michaels finally explained to the New York Times: “The reality is that I have endometriosis, and I most likely couldn’t get pregnant. I’ve had the X-rays, my tubes are closed, the uterine lining is too thick, blah, blah, blah. I was ashamed about it because I thought I’m supposed to be the healthiest woman in the world, and what does this say about me if I can’t have kids of my own. It was insecurity, which I have to work on.”

Michaels’ decision to “come clean” about her own health issues seems in part to be motivated by her hope that she can help remove some of the stigma and shame that many women feel when struggling with infertility. She joins a list of celebrities that have been open about their fertility challenges and miscarriages (Angela Basset Junior, Hugh Jackman, Emma Thompson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Brooke Shields, Marcia Cross, Celine Dion, Courtney Cox, and Chris Meloni, to name a few), and in some cases, their decisions to use in vitro fertilization (IVF), surrogacy, and adoption as means to becoming parents. Although celebrities, in most cases, have access to significant financial resources that facilitate their biological or adoptive quest for children (and are therefore not “role models” in the sense of being directly comparable to most ordinary folk), their openness is useful insomuch as it helps to challenge the notion that women (and men) are fertile at any age. The reality is that fertility declines with age. In addition, celebrities’ openness about their struggles to conceive may also help to eliminate some of the secrecy and stigma associated with infertility. In my own research on lesbian and heterosexual couples who sought to adopt, about half of lesbian couples and about 80 percent of heterosexual couples had tried to conceive before turning to adoption. Individuals who had tried unsuccessfully to conceive (both men and women, and both lesbians and heterosexuals) sometimes reported feelings of being “damaged,” as well as feeling “guilty” and a sense of “failure.” They also, in some cases, had a sense of shame about their inability to conceive—very much like Jillian Michaels herself.

The good news is that support, counseling, and self-reflection can all help to alleviate negative self-perceptions related to infertility. Indeed, research shows that individuals who report higher levels of social support tend to struggle less with an infertility diagnosis. Greater societal acknowledgment of challenges related to fertility—including miscarriages, endometriosis, and male factor infertility—will likely help to alleviate stressors related to infertility and help individuals, couples, and families grow through infertility.