I was introduced to the art of using the traditional Mexican shawl called the rebozo back in 2013 when I attended a workshop by doula Stacia Smales Hill on rebozo use for labour and birth. During the same year I also attended a workshop by Dr Rocio Alarcon, who taught a postnatal massage technique called closing the bones, some elements of which included rocking and binding with a rebozo.
Over the course of the following years I pursued my knowledge further by doing several more workshops with Rocio, and several other rebozo workshops with different focuses, such as the rebozo for labour progress and malposition with Selina Wallis, micromovements with Francoise Freedman, 2 different spinning babies with Jennifer Walker and Gail Tully, and a workshop on healing diastasis recti with Birthlight which included many rebozo techniques.
I am also a babywearing instructor, and as such use rebozos and wraps to carry babies too.
As I started teaching workshops around closing the bones and rebozo work as well as babywearing, the incredibly versatile use of the cloth really blew my mind.
As I met people through teaching, I constantly questioned people I met about their culture’s practises, I started to build a picture in my mind of something much more universal than the rebozo.
It seems that every culture had a piece of cloth of some kind, call it a shawl, a sarong, a scarf, or a wrap.
Whilst the rebozo is a traditional shawl from Mexico and some South American countries, I found that other cultures used different pieces of cloths in the same fashion.
Cold countries often us thick, woollen fabrics (think Welsh Shawl or Scottish plaid), and warmer countries, cooler, thin, cotton fabric (think African Kanga or Indonesian Sarong).
There are almost too many fabrics to count, but one thing is for sure, women have used all sorts of cloths in incredibly versatile ways, and what I’m going to say below about the rebozo is true for many other cultures too. It’s a truly universal practise.
I spent a few years believing that the use of the rebozo during labour was uniquely South American but I have since met a Somalian midwife who told me how they use their traditional shawl, called a Garbasar, in a similar way during labour. Supporting a pregnant woman from the same country confirmed this, and in fact her mother even showed me how it is used to bind the abdomen post birth.
I trained a Moroccan birth worker in doing closing the bones, and she was surprised when she started offering the massage that women came forward and told her they’d had a similar treatment in the local hammam (Steam bath/wet room) after birth (using a traditional Moroccan cloth called a Mendil). Tunisia offers a similar practise called a fouta massage (the fouta is a hammam towel, which is very similar in nature to the Turkish towel-it has become a very popular alternative to beach towels in France recently).
I am lucky to be part of a multicultural family, being French and married to a man from Hong Kong. In Hong Kong I’ve been told they use a long piece of muslin cloth to bind the woman’s hips and abdomen after birth, and my mother in law showed me how the midwifes taught her to wrap her belly with a towel post birth.
It’s also quite fascinating to see how contact with foreign cultures can influence each other. For example I recently acquired a Dutch postpartum girdle called a Sluitlaken. I couldn’t help but notice how similar to Indonesian postpartum binding it looks, then a friend pointed out than Holland used to have Indonesian colonies!
So, what can you do with a rebozo (or a scarf of shawl)?
Pretty much all cultures on the planet, some kind of cloth is used to cradle and carry a baby. In some cultures is used to rock and soothe the baby too. Rocking is such a primal rhythm we all experienced it in our mother’s womb, that we find it soothing all through our lives. Even in Europe there are pictures of women wearing their babies in Welsh shawls which date from the 1940s.
Later, when the baby grew into a toddler and child, she would use the cloth to dress up, pretend play (including carrying toys and/or animals, pretending to carry a baby), make a den etc.
As the child grew into a young woman she would use the cloth as a shawl to keep warm, as a clothing accessory, a blanket, to carry siblings ( in traditional cultures women learn baby care from a very young age as they tend to live with extended families), and to carry loads on her back or head.
Later still when she became a woman, she might have been given her own shawl as part of a menarche ceremony. She might have worn a special cloth on her wedding day.
When she became pregnant, she would have used the shawl to support her belly, and her midwives would have used it to alleviate the aches and pains of pregnancy, and maybe to help the baby move into the best position for birth.
During labour she would have used the shawl to hang from, to pull on, and her birth attendants would have used it to provide comfort measures, such as sifting, rocking, shaking, and wrapping.
After the birth she would have had a “baby moon”. Again this is something pretty much universal in the world-women the world around have been alleviated from household tasks and cared for by family members for the first 30 to 40 days postpartum. During this time they would rest so they could recover from growing and birthing their baby and get to know their baby and learn to care for them. Her birth attendants and the community of women would have come to feed her nourishing food, and help her body heal from the pregnancy and birth by using a combination of their hands, massage techniques and using the cloth to help move and bind her hips and abdomen to help them back into place. In the West we used to have this practise called “churching” whereby the new mother was expected to rest for a month before rejoining the community and be welcome back during a special blessing at the church (you can read about it here). The research I have done for my upcoming book “Why postnatal recovery matters” has also shown me that the rest AND the binding still used to be part of the UK culture, less than 70 years ago.
She then would have start to use the cloth to carry her baby and start the cycle all over again.
Later as she grew old, her family members would have used the cloth to rock and soothe aches and pain.
Women would have been buried with their shawl using it as a shroud.
So you see, a traditional cloth, rebozo, shawl or cloth can be used to support a woman throughout her whole life. It is a universal phenomenon on our planet.
As the shawl came out of fashion and modern practises like using pushchairs became seen as more fashionable and desirable, this skill was soon lost, and because like most traditional women-only practises, it was just passed on orally rather than written about, the knowledge was lost very quickly, in one or two generations. We also tend to embrace “modern” practises mindlessly, seeing traditional ones as backwards and old fashioned.
Mexican and Chinese friends tell me that nobody wants to use the traditional shawl or carrier these days as only remote farmers or beggars still use them.
This is something that we need to reclaim and teach all women, as it is part of the essence of women circles and supporting women through life transitions.
This is why I am so passionate about passing this skills to both expectant and new mothers, and to anybody who works with expectant and new mothers. It is our birthright!
You can learn more about the Rebozo and its many wonderful uses to support pregnancy, birth and the postpartum in my online rebozo course.
(This is an update from a blog I published originally in 2018)
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