14 March 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 843
One recent Tuesday, commuters rushing through Old Street station could see a curious sight. In the midst of busy travellers and corner shops, one shop stood out: a brightly lit room with white décor and a minimalistic look, and neatly printed letters in the window, reading 'Timeless'. At a first glance, the shop looked like a perfumery or a beauty clinic, the walls covered with carefully placed bottles and boxes in pastel colours. On this particular evening, the room was filled with people, largely women, taking their seats for a talk.
But the talk was not about beauty products or skin care, and nothing in the shop was actually for sale. Rather, this was a pop-up egg-freezing 'shop', open to the public for seven days with the goal of informing women, creating awareness and debating social egg freezing and fertility. The event was organised by the creative consultancy The Liminal Space and supported by the London School of Economics and the Wellcome Trust.
Over the week, the shop held a series of talks, and people could come in and look through the highly interesting range of 'products', which were in fact undercover egg-freezing fact sheets. There were four ranges of products, each addressing different aspects of egg freezing. Pink boxes, looking like a three-step facial product, outlined the steps involved in egg freezing – starting with hormone injections, the invasive procedure of extracting the eggs, to what is done with them following extraction. Next, the 'Elixir' products informed 'customers' about the prospects for successful egg freezing, emphasising that there is no guarantee that freezing your eggs will actually result in having a baby. On the contrary, so far the success rate is as low as 6.5 percent (and that is if you are healthy).
Moving on to the 'perfume' section, the range called 'Eau so Pressured' had quotes from women and organisations discussing the competing social pressures on women. Last, but certainly not least, was the 'Timeless serum'. Here, aligned bottles represent a woman's decline in fertility – one for each age between 12 and 50. Each contained a red liquid getting paler and less voluminous for each bottle until we reach 50, where the liquid was completely clear and virtually non-existent. However, from the late 20s it already started looking bleak and I saw more than one woman peering nervously at this visualisation of fertility decline.
Here, I did question if the bottles in front of me were really telling the whole truth. Of course, fertility does go down with age, but it does not decline from when you are 12 (although your egg reserve does decline from birth), and it is not almost gone by the time you reach 30. In this case, the glass is really half full, so to speak. Perhaps they were trying to show the egg reserve was reducing, but I did find this aspect a bit misleading (but seeing stuff like this does really set your biological clock into panic mode).
The Tuesday night I was there, there was a talk called 'Making it work in the work place', where a panel of four women debated the recent decisions of companies such as Apple and Facebook to offer egg freezing to their female employees as part of their benefits package. The panel provided an informative and constructive debate, especially discussing the pressures that employer-funded egg freezing can create. At one point, I caught myself thinking it was a bit too constructive, because everyone pretty much agreed that companies offering egg freezing were mostly out to take advantage of their female workforce, preventing them from having the work–life balance they really want. I thought it would have given the evening a bit more spark if an opponent had also taken part in the debate, defending the idea of workplaces offering egg freezing and standing up to the (otherwise good) points made by the panel, especially considering there were at least a few people in the audience who seemed to be considering freezing their eggs.
I thought the idea of creating awareness about egg freezing by imitating a beauty shop was original and fun. The reference to the beauty industry, where women are similarly being promised that time can be stopped and youth can be eternal, was brilliant. One member of the panel pointed to another parallel between the two industries, arguing that they had both stolen the rhetoric of feminism – both speak of empowering women and giving them the right to choose – but they are really just manipulating women into thinking that they have no other choices.
These points, as well as the general idea behind the shop, tap into the current and very active debate on the so-called millennial generation and the social and economic pressures they are facing. Recently, the Guardian wrote about how people in this generation are increasingly failing to reach many milestones of adulthood, including permanent, well-paid jobs, stable homes, partners and children. The need to extend fertility because of the struggle to earn enough to create a home and have a family demonstrates the pressures this generation is under.
Visiting the shop was informative, and the idea behind it was original and fun, making the shop well worth the visit. What's more, the website, where 'product' descriptions and audio from the talks can still be found, is almost just as good.