Published on January 11th, 2018 | by Jen Bryant0
Reframing Teen Pregnancy: A Q+A with Natasha Vianna of #NoTeenShame
It’s been years, but I still remember how I felt the first time I saw the anti-teen pregnancy ad campaign sponsored by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Featuring words like “CHEAP,” “DIRTY,” and “REJECT” plastered across pictures of miserable-looking teens, the ads hit me like a punch in the gut. They were an unwelcome reminder that no matter how hard I tried to be a good parent, I could still be reduced to a set of stereotypes with just a few images, crafted by those with the power and authority to shape public perception of teen moms like me.
The PSAs made me feel angry and powerless. I was just a young mom living in a small town with limited resources; meanwhile, the ads were sponsored by a major organization with public backing and approval. Sure, I was upset, but what could I do to change the conversation?
Natasha Vianna had a different reaction. In 2013, the New York Human Resources Association launched a similarly disempowering series of ads in NYC. Their aim: to prevent teen pregnancy by way of teen mom shaming.
“I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” one ad says, its bubbly font in sharp contrast to the crying baby in the photo. Another features a worried-looking toddler next to the words “Honestly Mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” Although these ads were released years later than the ones I saw as a new mom, the message is the same: Teen parents are reckless and selfish, jeopardizing the lives and futures of the babies they were foolish enough to think they could raise.
In response to the ad campaign, Natasha—a former teen mom—joined forces with seven other young mothers across the country to form #NoTeenShame, “a movement illuminating the need for shame-free LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education & equitable access to resources and support for young families.” The movement views teen pregnancy through a larger lens of reproductive justice, bringing a welcome cultural context to the dialogue on teen pregnancy and adding a much-needed perspective: that of teen moms themselves.
Since its inception, #NoTeenShame has received national recognition—proving that, contrary to popular opinion, you can change the world and change diapers at the same time.
JEN BRYANT: In 2013, you and several other teen moms created #NoTeenShame, a social movement designed to fight against the stigmatization and erasure of young parents, particularly teen moms of color. How did the movement come about?
NATASHA VIANNA: In March of 2013, I saw an ad that the New York Human Resources Association launched on billboards that used the images of children to shame teenage moms. In these ads, babies of color were photographed with messages to young men about the burden of paying child support and messages to young women about the same young men who leave after they get pregnant. I was immediately repulsed by the ads, knowing they were using stereotypes about young parents of color in them. Further, the objective was to prevent teenage pregnancy and considered a prevention campaign. Yet, none of the ads educated young people about unplanned pregnancy prevention. Instead, these framed young parents and their babies as social pariahs, also a strategic method of stigmatizing young parents.
After responding to the ads and sparking a national dialogue, I was hopeful that teen pregnancy prevention organizations would take note. But just 2 months later, both the Candies Foundation and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy launched their annual teen pregnancy prevention campaigns. In the Candies’ campaign, they used images of Carly Rae Jepsen with a tagline reading “You should be changing the world, not diapers.” In the National Campaign’s campaign, they published narrowly framed statistics about teenage mothers. Again, both campaigns framed young parents as failures and neither campaign presented young people with information on how to prevent an unplanned pregnancy.
As the former editor for The PushBack, created by Gretchen Sisson in 2009, I had developed virtual relationships with other young mothers who frequently expressed the same frustration with these ads. Every year, we had to survive through the negative depictions of ourselves in media and campaigns while trying to prove to the world that we weren’t what those campaigns made us out to be. Together, and with the help of the Stronger Families Young Parents Cohort members, we launched #NoTeenShame as a young parent-led response to the stigmatization of teen pregnancy through these campaigns. We were 7 young mothers from across the country with different stories, but we all felt the stigma and its impact on our ability to be the best parents to our children.
JEN BRYANT: Advocating for teen parents is sometimes misconstrued as encouraging teen pregnancy. What has been the public reaction to #NoTeenShame?
NATASHA VIANNA: The reaction to #NoTeenShame has been largely positive with media accurately covering our work, organizations partnering with us to improve their work, and policymakers inviting us to be a part of legislative processes that would improve support for young parents. In fewer instances, we have been met with questions about the message we would send to young people if we spoke too loudly and too proudly about our identities as young mothers. “Are you saying it’s okay to have a teenage pregnancy?” To that we say, if you truly believe that young people shouldn’t be faced with an unplanned pregnancy, you should be doing everything in your power to ensure young people aren’t facing an unplanned pregnancy. For starters, you can fight for comprehensive sex ed, talk to your children, teach healthy relationships, ensure young people have access to healthcare, and so much more. Until all young people have what they need to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, we will continue to see young people facing unplanned pregnancies. And for those people, we want to show them that you have the right to make the best choice for yourself and if you choose to parent, you can still be everything you want to be.
JEN BRYANT: A few years ago, you gave a really great TED talk. In it, you discussed the barriers to education that you experienced as a pregnant high school student, such as being denied access to college prep courses. Your guidance counselor even told you that it would be “a miracle if you graduate” – she just assumed that you’d drop out. You’re now the director of communications at a tech company, as well as an accomplished activist and writer. How did you push through the shaming and rise above the lowered expectations others had for you to get to where you are today?
NATASHA VIANNA: I went through several phases of shame as a young mother. First, I internalized a lot of the shame and believed that I wasn’t important or valuable. This was hard because it meant tolerating different forms of abuse because I didn’t believe in my self-worth. But it was truly watching my daughter grow in my arms that made me realize I could do something different with my life. When I was depressed and crying every day, I was writing in a journal and I wrote something about leaving a powerful story behind for my granddaughters. That idea sparked something in my mind that made me feel like I could start fighting the shame and defining a future for myself. Twelve years ago, no one believed I would finish high school or ever have a job, let alone a career. My abusive partner told me no one would care for me or love me. My adult peers frequently reminded me that if “I made the bed, I’d have to lay in it.” So I just took off, mentally, emotionally, and physically to push myself to become a person who my daughter would feel truly proud of.
I went to community college while I worked full-time, I worked several jobs at a time so I could learn and advance as much as possible, and I spent any free time I had volunteering at organizations who could help me improve the skills I needed. And I ventured beyond my physical space to find people who would care and love me and these were other young mothers and incredible feminist women who saw my potential and taught me how to break down new doors. A lot of what I had to deal with had everything to do with the sexism and racism women of color face in education and in the workplace; we were just adding another layer where my role as a young mother became a politicized topic that I never asked for.
The feeling of coming into the tech sector wasn’t much different than the fear I felt when I was starting college or speaking in front of policymakers or facing powerful CEOs head on in a national debate. But I remembered that I had already developed the spirit that would get me through it, just like everything else. And whenever that’s not enough, I remind myself that so many of the privileged people around me who are frustrated by both my happiness and success are simply puzzled that a woman who got pregnant at 17 ended up at the same table with them. Because I listened to Shirley and brought my own chair.
JEN BRYANT: New motherhood can be incredibly isolating. This is especially true for teen moms, who often lack access to strong support networks. You’ve spoken before about the difficulties you faced with family members during your pregnancy. How have those relationships changed now that your daughter is older?
NATASHA VIANNA: Over the years, I’ve worked with my family to unpack some of the intergenerational trauma and dynamics that played a role in how I was treated during my pregnancy. My family loves us and treasures my daughter exactly the way I always hoped they would.
JEN BRYANT: The dominant social narrative on teen pregnancy says that our lives are over the second the pregnancy test comes back positive. The PSAs that #NoTeenShame fought against when it was originally created are a good example of the prevalence and acceptability of these types of messages. How can allies to young parents help to change that conversation?
NATASHA VIANNA: We always tell young parent allies and advocates that it’s important to take the time to unlearn what they were taught about teenage pregnancy. Take the time to understand the history of teen pregnancy prevention, its sexist and racist roots in American culture, then analyze how today’s framing of teen pregnancy is largely sexist towards young women and racist towards young women of color. I understand that for many, this is the first time they have been prompted to take a step back and look at teen pregnancy from a lens of reproductive justice, but it’s imperative that we do so when young people don’t all have access to comprehensive sex ed, healthcare, abortion access, or any form of support. For many young mothers, parenthood also wasn’t a choice. For many young mothers, the sexual relationship that led to a pregnancy wasn’t consensual. There are so many factors and things to consider, but as a society, the dominant narrative is that teen pregnancy is bad because teen parents aren’t good parents. Help us change that.
JEN BRYANT: In what ways has your experience of pregnancy and motherhood been different than you expected?
NATASHA VIANNA: I never expected to love motherhood this much. I think when I was pregnant, adults were just preparing me for the hell my life would become. When my daughter was young, everyone wanted to tell me what to do rather than giving me the space to learn. But when we truly had the space and time to bond, I felt a love that I was never expecting. Now that she’s almost 12 years old, I get to see the kind, articulate and intelligent young person that she’s grown to be and I smile because I know I did that. And I never thought I would love Gilmore Girls as much as I do now because it helped me see that a different life isn’t a wrong life.
JEN BRYANT: How does being close in age to your daughter affect your relationship?
NATASHA VIANNA: It hasn’t affected our relationship yet. My daughter likes that we’re constantly mistaken for sisters in public or that people at school or events are shocked that I have a 12-year-old. She finds it hilarious and we always turn the “you look too young to be a mom” comment into an opportunity for me to bore the commenter with extreme details about my skin care regimen and juicing habit (both not true) or we’ll ask people to guess my age and when they guess accurately, we’ll still gasp and pretend it’s a whole 15 years younger. Our goal is to make it so kindly awkward that they never feel compelled to make that comment to someone again.
I imagined that I would have some resentment at some point for missing out on my “youth” to be a mom. But when I look at what I’ve accomplished because she kept me so focused on my own growth, I have no regrets at all. The only thing that will affect our relationship is my promise to her that when she goes to college, I’ll be 35, I am going to Lorelai my way onto campus all the time just to be near her. And no one will question it because, well, I wouldn’t look like a mom.
JEN BRYANT: Who are your role models or biggest influences?
NATASHA VIANNA: I guess you can tell that Lorelai and Rory are soft spots in my heart. I get warm and fuzzy when I think about them because my daughter and I are so much like them. But in real life, I admire people like Solange and Wendy Davis and Sofia Vergara who went on to fulfill their own dreams of becoming exactly who they wanted to become. I admire Loretta Ross for being so true and open about her own teen pregnancy story and being a founding member of the reproductive justice movement we all needed. I’m motivated and inspired by my #NoTeenShame sisters, Gloria, Consuela, Christina, Marylouise, Lisette, and Jasmin, who have become my real chosen sisters. In addition to building and organizing together, we truly love and support each other through the daily challenges we face and it’s been incredible to have that kind of sisterhood.
JEN BRYANT: What’s one thing that you wish more people knew or understood about teen pregnancy?
NATASHA VIANNA When a young person is pregnant, our society is inclined to dictate what their futures will look like, stereotype them, create barriers, and stigmatize them. What would their futures look like if you used the same amount of energy to support them?