The breast or not the breast?

// 6 March 2008

Nourishing one’s own child should be hailed as the most natural thing in the world, and yet breast-feeding is still considered something of a taboo for new and expectant mothers. While it is the woman who is affected physically and emotionally by this process, it seems everyone has an opinion on whether it’s right to pump or not. For this reason many women agonise over the decision, worrying not so much about the physical implications but more the extent to which they will be considered social lepers, cast from civilised society along with their milky udders, for fear they may squirt their messy nourishment across the realm like some sort of psychotic laughing cow.

Frankly, it’s ridiculous, but as more and more emphasis is placed on the need for self-perfection during pregnancy, anything that would imply one is not in complete and utter control of her body is considered disgusting and a part of womanhood that should be shrouded from human eyes. A recent poll of 3,500 mothers across the UK by Kamillosan Chamomile Ointment has revealed the extent to which these negative attitudes have permeated the national consciousness, with motherhood no longer something to proudly embrace but rather something that should be carried out without offending the so-called angelic sensibilities of a country that apparently could not stomach a bit of tit.

More than one fifth of the women who participated claimed they have left their babies screaming from hunger rather than opting for the alternative of feeding them in a public place. Many women fear that they would be judged for their decision to breast-feed, with 38 per cent of new mums banishing themselves to lavatories as they anticipate a negative reception in a public space. In fact 54 percent of mothers claimed to have received unwanted attention when feeding their babies, with more than 14 per cent confessing to having heated arguments with those who have been so abhorred by their actions. Consequently, more than a third of the women questioned opt to use formula milk in public in order to avoid any unnecessary conflagrations. Why is it though that a woman’s body is always considered public property, and thus rightly regulated and controlled by the masses? Is it fair that something as precious as the mother-baby bonding experience is inhibited by those who harbour nothing more than an inflated sense of their own self-importance, and thus feel they can express their opinions so vehemently to the detriment of others? And why is it that breast-feeding is regarded as abhorrent by many?

More than 24 per cent of the women questioned claimed their biggest concern was accidentally exposing their breasts. While this was not a survey of a huge number of women, I think it was accurately representative of the female consensus and feelings about breast-feeding and highlighted the extent to which, as women, our decisions are largely dependent on whether or not our behaviour is considered socially acceptable, more so than if we feel comfortable with it. Women’s breasts, while having the biological function of generating milk to feed babies, have been eroticised by men for centuries through status, paintings and pornography. Breasts have considered men’s playthings and have becoming increasingly sexualised, and thus breast-feeding has become stigmatised because our mammaries have been centralised has serving nothing more than visual sexual gratification for men. Therefore, a breast-feeding woman is difficult to fathom, as she is using a part of her body that has been designated by a traditionally male-dominated porn industry as erotic to fulfil her role as nurturer – unfair don’t you think? Especially as it’s not our fault.

Comments From You

Virago // Posted 6 March 2008 at 4:07 pm

“More than 24 per cent of the women questioned claimed their biggest concern was accidentally exposing their breasts.”

“Women’s breasts, while having the biological function of generating milk to feed babies, have been eroticised by men for centuries through status, paintings and pornography. Breasts have considered men’s playthings and have becoming increasingly sexualised, and thus breast-feeding has become stigmatised because our mammaries have been centralised has serving nothing more than visual sexual gratification for men.”

While I feel that this is to an extent true, I’ve met many men who think breastfeeding is beautiful and natural and many women who think it’s ‘disgusting’ to breastfeed in public. I think it’s more complex than the fact that women’s breasts are so sexualised that the concept of them being used for their other biological purpose (other than giving us pleasure and attracting a mate) freaks people (especially men) out, although of course this does occur.

I think the statistic that more than 24% of women did not want their breasts to be seen reveals the wider issue. Women are confronted with unrealistic images of breasts everyday – plastic surgery adverts, models in bikinis and underwear, women who have had surgery to defy gravity – and furthermore hardly ever see what the normal woman-on-the-street’s breasts look like naked. As a result we have ridiculous expectations of what breasts should be, and hate our own. We feel that we – with our breasts that are uneven, that hang or have stretchmarks – are the ‘freaks’, the odd ones out, when in fact we are normal and the models we see are the exceptions who represent a tiny percetage of the population. This hatred of real breasts even projects to other women, so many women are shocked by seeing other women’s breasts, even disgusted.

I have heard expressions of disgust at the concept of breastfeeding in public from men and women and the only way this can be combatted is to screw the concept of the ‘ideal’ breast and be proud of our own. The ‘Human Variation Project’ is one such site attempting to show the beautiful variation in the human body, how different this is to the ideals we see in adverts, films and magazines, and how lovely we all are. It’s not going to change the world on its own, but it’s a start, and the more people contribute the more representative it will become.

joanne // Posted 6 March 2008 at 6:39 pm

While women should certainly be able to breastfeed freely if it’s what they feel is best for them, I’ve seen many feminists (or women claiming to be feminists) put enormous amounts of pressure on other women to breastfeed exclusively and for extended periods of time, and who actively engage in making women who don’t, or can’t, do this feel like failures.

This behavior is no better and no more acceptable than people being “disgusted” by breastfeeding. These feminists are every bit as guilty of fetishizing breasts as men by making new mothers feel inadequate for not fulfilling their “natural” duties, yet they are rarely challenged. I know several women who for various personal (i.e. none of anyone’s business) reasons did not breastfeed and as a consequence had to face the wrath of militant breastfeeders who get away with being nasty and abusive because they’re on the “right” side.

Rachel // Posted 6 March 2008 at 8:17 pm

When me and my twin sister were babies, my mum used to double breastfeed us while sitting outside. In the late 80s she got several horrified looks, including once being asked to go behind a screen in a hospital so as not to embaress the other patients (!!!). I don’t think my amazing mother was very representative of her generation though…

B // Posted 6 March 2008 at 9:26 pm

I would like firstly to agree with Joanne, and then to say that I actually don’t agree that this is a representative survey. I think that most people, actually no women, who clicked and read the questions who are quite confident about feeding in public would think ‘oh for god’s sake’ and click away without answering anything.

Kirsten // Posted 6 March 2008 at 9:46 pm

There is no excuse whatsoever for nasty or abusive behaviour towards women, however I believe also that all women deserve the whole truth about artifical feeding.

I personally have never witnessed women being pressured into breastfeeding or abused for not doing it. What I have seen a lot of though is women being told about risks of artificial feeding and them getting angry with the women who are telling them instead of getting angry about the lack of support and information available in our society today.

Sugar-coating the truth so that women aren’t ‘made to feel bad’ is patronising and a betrayal, but worse than that it’s the children who pay the price. It is estimated that neonatal deaths would be reduced by 22% if all women breastfed in the first hour of life – that equates to 1 million babies’ lives saved. http://www.dfid.gov.uk/News/files/pressreleases/breastfeeding.asp

Beastfeeding can be *incredibly* difficult. I went through hell with it and it’s without doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so I don’t blame women who give up due to lack of support and information. If I hadn’t known what I know about artificial feeding and if I hadn’t have had all the support I had, I definitely would’ve stopped too so I do really understand how it happens.

Women shouldn’t breastfeed because it’s ‘best for them’, but because it’s every child’s birthright. Why are there no milk banks so that women who can’t feed access human milk for their babies? Get angry with government for not doing more, get angry with formula manufacturers who constantly exploit loopholes in the law regarding formula adverts, get angry with TV producers who don’t show enough positive examples breastfeeding, but don’t get angry with women who care passionately enough about breastfeeding and about women that they want to make sure that every decision not to breastfeeding is fully informed. If a woman is fully informed about the risks to herself and her baby of not breastfeeding and she chooses not to, that’s her decision but the truth remains and people will talk about it because it is one of the biggest public health issues in the world today.

For further information see: http://www.drjaygordon.com/development/bf/bfoutcomes.asp

http://promom.org/101/

http://www.theecologist.org/archive_detail.asp?content_id=586

http://www.breastfeeding.com/reading_room/what_should_know_formula.html

http://www.motherchronicle.com/watchyourlanguage.html

http://www.iwantmymum.com/site/?p=154&preview=true

Amity // Posted 7 March 2008 at 8:27 am

I have to disagree with Joanne. First and foremost, the term ‘militant breastfeeders’ is no better than the term ‘feminazi’ and its usage needs to stop, especially amongst so-called feminist circles. I am a breastfeeding activist and very rarely do I run across someone who I would term as a bit ‘militant’ (i.e. insensitive) in their views. Yes, they exist, just like fanatics exist amongst any group. But the vast majority of breastfeeding advocates simply want to provide pregnant women and new mums with the support and correct information they need to succeed. GPs and health visitors give horribly outdated or blatantly incorrect information and keep women constantly second-guessing themselves. Most breastfeeding activists’ aims are not to make women who didn’t succeed feel badly about themselves, merely to arm them with more information so that perhaps they have more tools to succeed if ever they try again with subsequent children and to stop the cycle of breastfeeding myths being perpetuated by word of mouth.

Often, those with the biggest obstacles to overcome are women have been misinformed, unsupported and undermined throughout the process. A well-meaning partner or sympathetic friend seeing someone they care about struggle to establish breastfeeding may encourage her to give up for “sanity’s sake” when if they had just hung in a little longer and gotten help from a lactation consultant, the relationship could’ve flourished. That is not a judgment on those women who truly want to give up (or not try at all — that’s absolutely their choice) but the fact remains that so many women say they desperately wanted to breastfeed but couldn’t because of x, y or z, when x, y and z were myths fed to them by family members, public misconceptions or ignorant health professionals. Merely correcting those myths and wanting to help women successfully feed their babies is hardly militant. Please don’t tar an entire group with the same brush as a result of a few bad apples.

Evie // Posted 7 March 2008 at 10:23 am

Kirsten says: “I personally have never witnessed women being pressured into breastfeeding or abused for not doing it.What I have seen a lot of though is women being told about risks of artificial feeding and them getting angry with the women who are telling them instead of getting angry about the lack of support and information available in our society today”.

Sorry Kirsten but if you’re a mother who can’t breastfeed or is having major difficulties, so you’re bottlefeeding your baby and another mother comes up to you and says: “You do realise how terribly terribly bad bottlefeeding is don’t you? Would you like to read some leaflets on how bad it is or perhaps you’d like me to give you some statistics?” And you wonder why such information is not received with open arms?

The statistics you quote about neonatal deaths are deaths in the developing world where hospital care is sporadic and clean water not something to take for granted. The reasons our babies are more likely to survive is because we live in something approaching a democracy, women are better fed, and we don’t have to walk for three days to find a doctor. It’s not just because of breastfeeding.

I’m not getting angry with the government. I’m getting angry with this endless moralising about breastfeeding.

Jane // Posted 7 March 2008 at 10:36 am

I didn’t give up breastfeeding because of ‘lack of support and information’ as Kirsten suggests. I gave up because my right breast was only producing a dribble of milk no matter how often I used an electric pump. It became engorged and infected. Time and time again I asked if she was latching on correctly and the answer was ‘yes’. I spoke to La Leche. And many women who had breastfed tut tutted and sighed and said ‘what a shame’ and made sure to give me the statistics of how bad bottlefeeding is, as I bottlefed my contented baby after two months of struggle.

To all you women who can and did breastfeed, be very very careful with your ‘support’ and ‘care’. It can come across as patronising, interfering and downright smug.

joanne // Posted 7 March 2008 at 10:47 am

Kirsten and Amity (sorry to combine my responses), the fact that you even consistently refer to it as “artificial feeding” is exactly the sort of patronizing behavior I’m referring to. Would you say that a woman who had an emergency c-section had an “artificial birth”? Do you honestly believe that telling a woman she’s artificially feeding her baby is going to accomplish *anything* other than make her feel awful? It would make me feel awful and I have significantly less tolerance than the average person for such hyperbole. I have seen first-hand the damage attitudes such as yours does.

Also, breastfeeding is *not* “every child’s birthright”, any more than life itself is every child’s birthright. Breastfeeding must be the woman’s choice, and it is as much her right to decide how to feed her child as it is her right to decide to have a child in the first place. Women are not infants who need crusaders to tell them about the horrors of not breastfeeding, we are perfectly capable of informing ourselves and making decisions that are best for us and our children – and that doesn’t always mean breastfeeding (yes, I know you can’t wrap your head around the possibility that breastfeeding *isn’t* the right choice for everyone and that you will persist on blaming external factors – lack of support, information, etc. – for women giving up too soon, but the bottom line is some women can’t, or simply do not want, to breastfeed).

As far as I can tell there is a huge amount of pro-breastfeeding information out there already. In fact, just about anything I’ve ever read about *bottle-feeding* has stated that “breast is best”. When I was in hospital there were posters everywhere and I was only having a stomach op! Here in Northern Ireland there’s been a big bus and television campaign to encourage breastfeeding and I know that recently pregnant friends have been put under a *lot* of pressure to breastfeed from healthcare workers. But I suppose that as long as some women persist in not doing it, you will try to blame everyone but yourselves.

I will continue to use the term “militant breastfeeders” for as long as these women try to enforce their misguided views on women, for as long as wonderful new mothers I know are told that breastfeeding should come before their mental health when suffering from PND, and when I hear them say that women who don’t breastfeed should have their children taken into care, because this is not acceptable and I don’t know what the heck it is if it isn’t militant. It seems odd to me that in my relatively limited experience I have encountered so many of these women, yet you breastfeeding activists seem to think they’re a minority? Perhaps that’s what you need to believe. Experience has proven otherwise for me (a non-breastfed, perfectly healthy and intelligent individual who miraculously made it to adulthood).

Amity // Posted 7 March 2008 at 12:30 pm

Joanne, I’m not sure why you decided to lump your response to me in with Kirsten’s and then only reference things she said (I never said anything about artificial feeding or birthrights), but I will address your points anyway.

“Breastfeeding must be the woman’s choice, and it is as much her right to decide how to feed her child as it is her right to decide to have a child in the first place. Women are not infants who need crusaders to tell them about the horrors of not breastfeeding, we are perfectly capable of informing ourselves and making decisions that are best for us and our children – and that doesn’t always mean breastfeeding (yes, I know you can’t wrap your head around the possibility that breastfeeding *isn’t* the right choice for everyone and that you will persist on blaming external factors – lack of support, information, etc. – for women giving up too soon, but the bottom line is some women can’t, or simply do not want, to breastfeed).”

You will see from my first post that I was talking about sharing information with women who WANTED to breastfeed, not those who chose not to. I even stated that not breastfeeding is a perfectly valid choice and each woman’s own to make. I was not talking about walking up to women and just randomly spouting off breastfeeding facts, as you seem to imply. I’m talking about when I’m having a conversation with someone and they say something like “My doctor told me my milk was sour and there wasn’t enough for the baby because he was big so I switched to formula,” or “I got thrush and the antibiotics they put me on meant I had to stop breastfeeding.” In cases like that it’s obvious they were given bad information because neither of those situations are reasons that one would ‘have’ to stop. Keeping silent about what I know to be untrue instead of perhaps helping arm them with better information for the next time hardly seems like a malicious act to me, worthy of your disgust and derision.

I guess that’s what I don’t get — all of the hostility towards people who just genuinely want to help their fellow mums. As I already stated, I realise that there are a few bad apples out there who shove it down people’s throats but there are far, far more women who don’t do this and it’s really unfair to call them all ‘breastfeeding nazis’ and the like. It just seems to me that sometimes it’s the women who ‘don’t want to hear it’ who are more hostile to breastfeeding than anyone else.

At any rate, I’m not here to try to change your mind as it’s clear you have already formed your views and are not all that open to hearing other perspectives. C’est la vie!

phoolani // Posted 7 March 2008 at 12:59 pm

Sorry Kirsten and Amity, but I have to largely agree with Joanne on this one. When I had my baby there was considerable pressure to breastfeed; virtually every nurse/mid-wife I encountered during my stay demanded to know (and yes, I have to say demanded aggresively) if I was planning on breastfeeding and it was virtually always the first thing to come out of their mouths (including before such pleasantries as ‘how are you feeling?’) As someone who didn’t have any real opinion on breastfeeding either way, I was somewhat taken aback by this. As it turned out, I failed to breastfeed within the first hour (oh, how ashamed you’ve tried to make me feel now..), nor indeed within the first 18 hours; my baby refused to latch on at all and, despite getting more and more worried, the only assistance I got was several mid-wives repeatedly trying to cram my breast into the baby’s mouth and, when that failed, looks of pure exasperation as if I was somehow failing deliberately. They left me and the (non-fed) baby for a full 20 hours before finally giving in to my repeated demands to get a doctor in to see the baby, whereupon she was whisked to the neo-natal unit. Turns out I wasn’t deliberately failing after all…

It seems to me that child-birth (including breastfeeding) is an area where women consistently fail to support each and their right to make their own choices; I’m really not sure why this is. Many women interested in this area seems to have extremely fixed views as to there being only a certain way to do everything. You only need to go on websites populated by mums and mums-to-be to see what I mean. I remember one poor woman wrote on one saying she was terrified of giving birth and could anybody advise her on how to go about getting an elective c-section. The vitriolic responses she received from posters for daring to suggest that a c-section was a valid option were so awful I almost wept for the woman. Here she was, reaching out for some support from other women and she was basically told she was about to commit a crime against nature!

I’m sure that, on pure health grounds, breastfeeding is indeed best, but to make women feel that they have somehow ‘failed’ from the off with their babies if they don’t (for whatever reason – and there are many, all of them valid) achieves nothing.

joanne // Posted 7 March 2008 at 1:18 pm

Amity, I apologise for responding to you and Kirsten as I did, I obviously should have separated my comments. But in seeing Kirsten’s comments, you must surely now understand where I’m coming from? It’s not that I don’t want to hear other views, I am not *opposed* to your view that breastfeeding, when possible, is best. All evidence points to this being correct.

What I’m opposed to is the kind of attitudes already displayed in this thread. The “hostility” you see is because a lot of us don’t encounter women who just want to help other mums, it’s because we encounter women who are determined to prove that they know best and that anything less than breastfeeding is tantamount to child abuse. This is a very real problem among breastfeeding activists, one I realise you don’t want to associate yourself with, but which nevertheless exists (and exists more than you seem to be willing to acknowledge) and needs to be addressed.

Suzi K // Posted 7 March 2008 at 7:15 pm

Yes Breast is indeed best. Most mothers I know would choose to and did choose to or are currently breastfeeding their babies.

I would disagree with the comments regarding it being every childs right to be breastfed. It is every childs right to have adequate nutrition. Not all women even with the NCT, La Leche League and every lactation consultant in the world can breastfeed and we should support them in this.

I know the support isn’t there ebcuase I was unable to feed my son and it greatly contributed to my PND. Luckily I was able to feed my daughter. but having NCT counselors lecture you for 2 hours about how you are a terrible selfish person who shouldn’t be allowed to have kids because you aren’t feeding and are on anti depressants…………. well it’s not a helpful attitude.

Obviously in an ideal world we would all breastfeed our children, regardless of location and no one would be grossed out about it. But in an ideal world breast wouldn’t be so hugely sexualized, women wouldn’t be hugely pressurized over every choice they make and childbirth would only be medicalised when absolutely necessary.

Kristy // Posted 3 June 2008 at 2:48 am

Here in New Zealand it is the opposite, i decided i didn’t want to breastfeed so that me and my partner can have equal share of the workload without me having to pump my breast into a bottle – that was just my own decision yet midwives looked down on me for not breastfeeding and i got many lectures on how breastfeeding is the only way by so called professionals. What i found to be worse though was the newspaper and magazine articles all over the walls of the maternity ward with headlines such as “formula milk causing child obesity”.

Whether they are pressuring for formula or breast milk – they act like they own our bodies either way.

over here it just makes us women feel like cows – milk milk milk!!

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