Opinion: Breastfeeding as Feminist Issue - Milk Week


By Molly Freeman

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, Britain rolled out a program in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire in which 130 mothers will be given food vouchers worth about $320 if they breastfeed for the first six weeks of their child’s life. The pilot program is meant to increase the practice in poor areas, where breastfeeding is less common.

Researchers have said the program was met with some initial resistance. Clare Relton, one of the project’s researchers, said that once they explained the importance of breastfeeding, as well as the low breastfeeding rates in the UK, people came around to the idea.

According to Relton, babies who are breastfed have fewer health problems and are less likely to develop diabetes and obesity when they’re older. However only 34 percent of babies are breastfed for the first six months of their life despite recommendations from Britain’s National Health Service.

Janet Fyle, policy advisor to the Royal College of Midwives, said the lost breastfeeding rate is a result of the cultural stigma associated with the practice.

“In many areas, including those in this study, there are generations of women who may not have seen anyone breastfeeding their baby, meaning it is not the cultural norm in many communities,” said Fyle.

Unfortunately, Fyle is not optimistic about this new program’s approach. She does not believe motivating the mothers in this study with financial gains will help to improve the problem in the long run—the motive for breastfeeding should be something a mother wants to do for the well being of her child.

Breastfeeding is a woman’s issue—and therefore a feminist issue—as it deals with a woman’s body, but it is rarely discussed as such. While abortion is, of course, a very political subject, breastfeeding is lumped more into health care. That is, if it’s talked about at all.

A stigma surrounds breastfeeding and even though we, collectively as a society, know that it’s healthier for babies, many mothers choose to forgo it because it’s not the norm. How often do you see a new mother breastfeed her child? Rarely, if ever, especially in public. Breastfeeding is something you do mostly alone in the privacy of your own home.

In her column for The Huffington Post, Chantal Molnar attributed the breastfeeding stigma to its being seen as unproductive work. Especially when there is formula available. Molnar said women are often undermined by doctors who tell them to supplement their own milk with formula. Formula can be much more convenient for women because it can be purchased anytime. Breastmilk on the other hand is regulated by the body rather than the woman’s choice, and may need to be pumped at inopportune times.

“We must re-define and respect nursing as productive work, not merely a reproductive function, so that we can move toward elevating and integrating mothers’ place in the workplace and society,” Molner wrote.

Molnar went on to argue that for women to properly integrate into the working world, breastfeeding and other aspects of parenthood such as maternity and paternity leave, pumping facilities, break time, as well as flexible work arrangements need to be instituted and normalized.

Normalizing breastfeeding, as well as everything else that goes along with motherhood and parenthood, will benefit women by celebrating their bodies rather than repressing them and confining mothers to a secluded area of their homes in order to nurse their children.

In her book, Beyond the Breast Bottle Controversy, Penny Van Esterik argued that breastfeeding “encourages women’s self-reliance, confirms a woman’s power to control her own body, which challenges medical hegemony, challenges models of women as consumers and sex objects, requires a new interpretation of women’s work, and encourages solidarity among women.”

Though Van Esterik’s book was published in 1989, it seems we still haven’t made any great strides in breastfeeding. There is a commercial for Luvs diapers from just last year that reinforces the idea that a woman who breastfeeds is either ashamed of it or not, but either way she will be stared at by strangers and possibly criticized for exposing herself in public.

And that’s the heart of the issue: society is always quick to comment on a woman’s body and how she should or shouldn’t display it. In a recent column for Slate, Simon Doonan wrote about why pop stars shouldn’t dress like porn stars. Meanwhile, on the same day, Cosmo.com published an article in which Selena Gomez is often told she’s not sexy enough.

There is the same dichotomy within breastfeeding: if a woman doesn’t breastfeed, she’s told she doesn’t care about her child’s health. And if she does breastfeed, then she is shunned out of the public eye or criticized for making others witness a naked portion of her body. It’s a constant catch-22 for mothers not only while their children are nursing, but for the rest of their childrens’ lives.

Women are no strangers to society and the public telling them what to do with their bodies or shaming them for the decisions they make in regards to their bodies.

In June, just before Wendy Davis’ now-famous filibuster in front of the Texas Senate to oppose anti-abortion legislation, author and activist Kimberley Johnson tweeted: “Bills regulating women’s bodies in 2013 alone: 624.” Her statement angered many, but she was actually wrong.

According to a report released by the Guttmacher Institute, as of April 2013, Republicans had proposed 694 provisions relating to a woman’s body, how she can get pregnant, or how she chooses to terminate a pregnancy. Seventy more provisions than Johnson claimed.

While many, if not all, of these laws pertain to pregnancy and abortion, it goes to show that many people within the US government have no problem with regulating the woman’s body.

But if a society like that of the UK means to rectify a lack of breastfeeding, it’s going to need to address the heart of the issue: how they feel about a woman’s body. Much more effective than a bribe to increase the breastfeeding rate.