|Baby feeding is a Feminist Issue by Chrissy D|
Breastfeeding hit the news again last week with reports of one, potentially imperfect, study from Ohio State University, provoking a vehement response from breastfeeding advocates. The headlines denounced breast milk as, “no better than bottled milk”, and were hard to ignore. As a breastfeeding advocate myself, I wanted to scream back, ‘you’re missing the whole damn point!’
And it’s true, the mainstream media’s reporting on it latched on to the potential ground-breaker that formula fed babies might be akin to breastfed ones in the health and IQ stakes, and miss the point about why breastfeeding matters, to babies and their mothers. Because baby feeding is a Feminist issue.
The study has had coverage on daytime TV shows like Daybreak in the UK, with a triumphant sense of finality; now – finally! – they tell us, formula feeding mums need not feel bad. Those who tried, and ‘failed’ – they encourage us to sigh with relief – need hide in the shadows no longer. Step out into the light, ye formula feeders! But if we really give it some thought, exactly as the dominant cultural hegemony would rather we didn’t, the media has it all wrong. The culturally constructed notion of feeling ‘bad’ about not breastfeeding one’s child is a fake and profitable concern that we’re led to buy into, and it doesn’t even make sense. Of course no one should feel bad. No one should have to feel bad.
But let’s take a step back for a second and consider how the formula industry wants new mums to feel about their ability to breastfeed. Here’s a clue, it’s in their financial interest if you don’t breastfeed. It’s in their interest that you give it a go, and then ‘concede’ that you need their help. Look at their commercials more closely next time: they want you to breastfeed, right? No, they want you to ‘move on’ from breastfeeding…anytime now. The formula industry benefits when we feel powerless, confused by the transitions our bodies have undergone, and alone. It gets the warm and fuzzies as we reach out into the arms of their cuddly semiotics for someone to just tell us we’re doing okay and we’ll be okay. And of course we’ll be okay, and of course we’re doing just grand without them, but they’d rather you didn’t know that. They need us.
To state the bleedin’ obvious, there is no reason that anyone should feel bad when their body can’t do something they wanted it to, in the cases of the many women who are reported to have tried to nurse their babies and not been able. I have had minor heart surgery twice in my life, twice because the first time my body rejected the device. Do I feel like a personal failure for having to undergo emergency surgery to get the damn thing out? Was I thinking, “oh, I really suck at this cardiac thing”? No. I felt lucky to just be alive. It doesn’t make sense that we have this obsession with people not feeling bad for something they can’t control in the first place. To reiterate, no one should have to feel bad.
Secondly, there’s the teeny issue with the treatment and image of breasts in our culture. A lot of the time the midwives and health visitors who first mention breastfeeding to us as new mums or mums-to-be are talking to women (like me) who have never given their breasts a second thought as anything other than just present or, at best, sexual. Many of us (like me) have never even seen someone breastfeed before. It’s not the health professionals’ fault, it’s not the women’s fault either, for how can anyone regard breastfeeding as normal, as the default, when it’s all but hidden from us until that time when we’re suddenly expected to be really open to learning everything about it? Our cultural moment doesn’t have the ability to guide us on matters of lactation, because it has left breastfeeding behind in the pursuit of other dominant interests – money, growth, progress, capital. And these things in part rely on tits in an aesthetic and sexual capacity to stimulate their success; women’s bodies, and how much or little autonomy they have over them, equals the potential for money in the bank for the corporate leaders in many different industries.
I think it’s pretty inarguable that we, as a culture, regard breasts primarily as decorative glands. We talk about their size, shape and position, and almost never about their function as working parts of the female biological machine, the human biological process, y’know, where life outside of the womb begins.
Breastfeeding is free. Breast milk requires no preparation. No products must be bought to initiate lactation, no guidelines consulted. Breast milk as a first food has the power to keep healthcare costs down and is significantly less risky than formula feeding, even in the developed world. Breastfeeding is normal, not weird, and – despite what (again) our mainstream popular culture would like you to believe – breastfeeding advocacy isn’t about being anti-formula feeders, anti-women, anti-anything really. It wants, for nothing in return, to support new mothers in their goals, and isn’t interested in judging them. In. The. Slightest.
The reputation of breasts as mere sexual stimulants undermines women, and disempowers them. A culture obsessed with aesthetic and achieved status keeps from women the truth about how amazing their bodies are and how much more they can do. Women have the right to know what their bodies are capable of: growing and sustaining life. That is empowering, that is feminism. To deny women that knowledge, to sell their own biological imperative to them as an optional extra is to deny them body autonomy. Of course, people say, but what about choice? But is it really a choice for the mother who struggles to breastfeed and receives no support from society except to console “oh well, at least you tried”, here’s plan B?
Breastfeeding is also, must also, be normal because the survival of our species depends upon it. Remember women being the givers and sustainers of life? Yeah, that. When we take breastfeeding out completely, we’re inviting trouble. Natural disasters are indiscriminate in who they affect. A non-breastfed baby, without a lactating mother around him, in a disaster situation – lacking clean water and electricity, a multiplying ground for bacteria, with a limited supply of other resources - stands little chance of survival. No one in the human race lives free of the possibility of such a crisis.
We’ve become so confident in industry to sustain us that we’ve come to see them as normal, and natural infant feeding as something alternative. But it’s not. Stuff that isn’t normal: capitalism, patriarchy, artificial division of domestic and public life. Those are all things the human race could, ultimately, do without.
Breastfeeding matters because it, by its nature, challenges the cultural indoctrination that has led us to consider normal the preservation of the few folk at the top, whilst disregarding the most basic rights (the right to know what our bodies do) of a huge swathe of the population. Normal parenting behaviour needs to be defended and enshrined in law, advised for and against, supported and discouraged, all the while a patriarchal and capitalist hegemony dominates prevails.
Formula feeding mums (of which I was one) should not be made to feel bad for their choice or otherwise to use formula. That’s a given. But a culture that claims to support women whilst all but forcing them to ‘move on’ from natural feeding, as if it’s a race to the end, is unsupportive of the women and children it should be protecting.