Sheila Kitzinger believes that through a woman's body, a society's values are given expression--"about what it means to be a mother, about sickness and health, about beauty and ugliness. If we study childbirth in various countries, we can find out what it means to be a woman in that culture."

In Jamaica, she says, "You're not an adult person until you've had a baby. To be fat is to be rich, with this splendid and precious thing growing inside you. 'You're getting fat' is about the nicest thing you can say to a Jamaican woman."

By contrast, women in more well-developed countries often see pregnancy as a negative experience. "I never imagined I could be so gross," one woman once told her.

A large and lively Britisher, Kitzinger has been an active supporter of prepared childbirth since 1962 when her first book, "The Experience of Childbirth," was published. She has lectured widely in the United States, South America, Israel, Scandinavian countries, South Africa and Australia. In addition to serving as a director of the Oxford Birth Center, she has taught couples and trained teachers for England's National Childbirth Trust.

In Washington recently to begin a six-city speaking tour of this country, Kitzinger attracted a mix of childbirth educators schooled in various backgrounds. "Sheila has the ability to bring together disparate groups," says Washington childbirth educator Judy Sabot, who studied under Kitzinger in Oxford, England. "Everyone has been affected by her writings."

Focusing on the philosophical and psychological aspects of childbirth, Kitzinger's books--about nine--constitute more of an "approach" to the experience than a strict body of "how-to" exercises.

Educated at Oxford University as a social anthropologist, Kitzinger first became interested in the psychological aspects of childbirth through her studies of the way women in other cultures choose to have their babies. "It became obvious to me that we were doing odd things in the West. I realized that pregnanacy was being treated as a disease. It had been taken over by doctors and hospitals."

When women do not have control over the birthing process, they are being denied, she claims, the opportunity to discover that birth is a "sexual act" for which their bodies are well-equipped.

"I'm not saying it's orgasms all the way," she says with a forthright chuckle, "but a woman does experience some of the same feelings she experiences during sex--pressure, distension, heat--and, of course, the same rhythms are involved. During the first stage of labor, the waves of contractions can be enormously satisfying.

"At the end of the first stage, which I describe as the 'stormy sea,' it gets very exciting. You begin to feel taken over, that this isn't me doing it anymore. A feeling of tremendous energy is released."

Just before delivery, "The woman's eyes are shining, ringlets of perspiration surround her face and her cheeks have gone pink. It's obviously a look of sexual excitement. I think this is often too much for the obstetrician. Why else is the woman draped in so many sheets?"

Kitzinger, 53, who has five daughters, is attracted to home delivery because she feels it gives women more freedom to lose control and surrender to the sweep of emotions during birth.

"The right environment to have a child in is the same as the right environment to have sex in," she asserts. "Would you really like to make love on the average narrow delivery table, with bright lights, tables of instruments, and a crowd of masked strangers all being helpful, saying 'Come on, you can do better than that'?"

Clearly, Kitzinger has both feet planted firmly in the romantic tradition. But she does temper her thinking with a certain amount of realism and does not gloss over the fact that for many women, childbirth is unbearable.

"I'm not involved in brain washing. What a woman experiences is very real and pain should be discussed very fully. But pain isn't a simple stimulus and the brain can interpret it in different ways. Fear and misunderstanding can turn pain into anguish."

Kitzinger believes fantasy and imagery can play an important role during childbirth, and for her own deliveries has envisioned her body as a wine press, "Feeling the juices flow as the baby was pressed out."

A favorite image is that of water. She speaks often of the "rush and flow" of emotions and refers to contractions, cresting and falling "like enormous breakers on a rocky coast."

At the moment, she seems particularly enthusiastic about the work of French obstetrician Michel Odent, who allows laboring women in his hospital to relax in plastic wading pools of water. The husband may get in, to provide support for his wife; children also are allowed in the pool to witness the birth.

Odent does not plan to have babies born in the water, but at times women have become so relaxed that they go ahead and deliver. "When it first happened, he had to jump in with his socks on," says Kitzinger. She estimates the French physician has delivered about 95 babies in the water so far. Although the water is not sterilized, no infections have occurred.

"One thing Odent is certain about," says Kitzinger, "is that contractions become more efficient and less painful while women are in the water." In some cases where the woman has been suffering from back pains because the baby is in a posterior position, not only has the ache been relieved, but the baby's position changed once the woman relaxed in the water. The benefits of bathing infants in warm water immediately following birth became well known through France's Dr. Frederick Leboyer, author of the book, "Birth Without Violence."

Kitzinger thinks the use of wading pools "will happen in British hospitals in a matter of weeks," although she acknowledges that all women may not be attracted to the idea of going through labor in "paddling pools."

What she does advocate strongly, however, is that women be given the opportunity to choose the method they feel best suited to them.

She is obviously pleased about the large, spontaneous London demonstration that occurred in April after an obstetrics professor at the Royal Free Hospital, a large teaching hospital in London, declared that all laboring women would be required to use a semi-supine position until all other positions were proven safe.

"It was like a fire running through the country, absolutely extraordinary. Suddenly women were streaming in from Scotland, Cornwall, Wales and the Midlands."

As a result of the protest, which attracted 5,000 people, hospitals in Britain, says Kitzinger, have become much more responsive to the demands of women.

It is not easy for Kitzinger to conceal her delight in describing what she calls the new "birth revolution" in England. For it involves women giving expression to two values which form the cornerstone of her philosophy: self-awareness and the right to control one's own body.

"For far too many women," she has written, "pregnancy and birth is still something that happens to them rather than something they set out consciously and joyfully to do themselves."