Why Breastfeeding is a Feminist Issue

Obviously, we don’t know anything about the motives of the individuals who first developed infant formula. Perhaps their only goal was to provide an alternative food source for infants of women who, for whatever reason, could not breastfeed themselves and did not have access to a wet nurse. I would like to believe this option rather than the other possibility, which is a bit too heavy on the mustache-twirling chicanery for my tastes.

Be that as it may. What we do know is that the marketing of infant formula is driven by capitalism, an economic system that works only so long as you are able to convince people that they need things they didn’t even know they wanted (obvious examples of this principle are Silly Bands as well as the expansion of formula marketing to poor communities in non-industrialized countries, for whom breastfeeding is not only the more salubrious, but also the only affordable and safe choice. And don’t even get me started on toddler formula). So, with the advent of infant formula, it was in the manufacturers’ best interest to create as big a market for formula as possible.

And here is where the feminist bit comes in. This market was created through the deliberate harnessing of systems of oppression and power at the cost of women’s self-determination and their children’s health. Initially, commercial formula was considered the province of physicians and thus, until the latter part of the last century, physicians were the ones who were in effect “selling” this product to women, who make up a disenfranchised group that has traditionally been left with only two areas of self-determination: childbirth and the feeding of children. The obvious message that this sends is that the physician knows better than the mother what to feed the child. Considering the power differential inherent in a doctor-patient relationship, it is no wonder that most mothers did not think to question whether the physician’s opinion was influenced by hard science or by…dare I say it…the fashionable glint of prescribing something that seemed modern and cutting-edge. And so, control over that most basic of mothering functions – feeding one’s child – was wrested from mothers, who went from having agency in the feeding of their children (if no longer their birthing) to being passive bystanders who were marketed to – who didn’t do, but were done to. (This is even more so the case for women living in poverty – consider that roughly half of infant formula is supplied through WIC in the U.S.).

Simultaneously, formula feeding began to be touted as the “modern” and “normal” way of feeding a child. And if formula feeding is “normal” and “modern,” what does that make breastfeeding? Archaic. Abnormal. Vaguely dirty, perhaps.

And the “vaguely dirty” and “abnormal” part brings me to the second reason why breastfeeding is a feminist issue: the way in which breastfeeding is perceived in our culture. There is the obvious point that comes up whenever a mother gets kicked out of a restaurant for nursing in public, and some cranky bystander giving a sound bite for the local news opines that nobody should ever breastfeed in public because some hapless male teenager, having seen a glimpse of nipple, might be incited to go on a serial rape rampage that ends in a police shootout three states over (I am exaggerating a smidgen. But only a smidgen.). So the obvious point, obviously, is that those sorts of comments say a lot about our collective cultural anxiety when it comes to female sexuality – this idea that all of the oppression that has been heaped on women for the past few millennia has been justified because there is something dangerous about the female condition, and if you don’t watch out, the vagina dentata that you’ve been objectifying for the last two thousand and odd years might rear up and bite you in the…well. Again, that is the obvious point. What is perhaps less obvious are the two logical consequences of our collective cultural conceptualization of breastfeeding.

First, think of breastfeeding in the public realm. Why is it that, in this day and age, people get so squeeged out by a nursing mother? Why is it that the general public repeatedly sends the message that a behavior that is uniquely and exclusively feminine does not belong out in places where people engage in socializing, politicking, trading, working (i.e., all of the traditionally male-dominated moving and shaking in a community) but should rather be relegated to the home and hearth? That certainly looks like gender stereotyping…smells like gender role stereotyping…wait a minute, does this imply that women can act like women, but only at home? Some pretty interesting research certainly suggests that this is the case. For example, a 2004 (Acker) study suggests that benevolent sexism (i.e., having positive attitudes toward women as long as women conform to gender stereotypes) is related to negative attitudes toward nursing in public.

Second, think of breastfeeding in the professional realm (here’s where we get into institutionalized discrimination. Good stuff.) Institutionalized discrimination refers to the unequal treatment of a particular group due to values, rules, or “ways of doing things” that are so embedded within a particular system or organization that they have become all but invisible. (On a side note: one example of this is what is researched in a scientific community, and how the resultant knowledge is disseminated. I think it is pretty interesting that the published research on attitudes toward breastfeeding – and the possible link to sexism (see the preceding paragraph) – is so compelling, yet so sparse. But I digress.) Another example of institutionalized discrimination is how “professional” behavior is defined within corporate culture. This definition obviously includes a dress code, certain kinds of communication style (communication styles that are typically associated with women or racial minority groups are not, for example, viewed as professional), etc. etc. Most relevant here, however, is the expected separation between work and family life – in which a professional is expected to be 100% present at work while at work, and to prevent family life from impinging upon their professional activities. Which raises the question: how can you be a “good mom” (who successfully carries the big old bag ‘o guilt that comes along with that moniker) and a good employee? We all know that implicit in the specter of the “good mom” is that she be “able” to establish a successful breastfeeding relationship. But if leaving a board meeting early to attend your five-year-old’s t-ball game strains the rules of “professional” conduct, then nursing your five-month-old at that same board meeting would blow them straight to hell. And taking a twenty-minute pump break every three hours isn’t exactly the behavioral equivalent of a black power suit.

And thus, as a culture, we are talking out of both sides of our mouths. We send a strong implicit message that all good mothers must try to breastfeed, but have simultaneously created a pervasive cultural myth that paints breastfeeding as something that is good to try but pretty much impossible to “succeed at,” especially if you are not able to stay home with your child.

And that message is getting through to mothers loud and clear: Research shows that the percentage of women who are biologically unable to produce a sufficient amount of milk to feed their child hovers somewhere around 3%. Yet fewer than 40% of babies are exclusively breastfed at 2 months, and fewer than 12% of babies are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months. Of course, there are plenty of moms who end up formula-feeding because their baby has trouble nursing, or because they were separated from their baby at birth and it was too hard to make up for that critical first half hour, or because they have some sort of medical condition, or because their life constraints make it difficult to be the only person responsible for feeding their child, or who were knocked over by PPD and couldn’t handle also having to worry about figuring out how to breastfeed, or who choose to bottle-feed because that is what they want to do, which is their decision, and that is totally okay with me (not that any mom should give a rat’s ass what I think about how she feeds her kid). But far more than 3% of moms report that they are formula-feeding (or supplementing) not because they want to, but because they are not producing enough milk for their baby. And it is those moms that I am concerned with – those moms from whom society took the basic choice of how to feed their children. How did these moms, many of whom were excited to start breastfeeding and determined to make it work, end up concluding that their bodies were letting them down when, for their vast majority, this could not statistically be the case?

Consider this: the one thing that definitively, unequivocally stops milk letdown in its tracks is stress and anxiety.  And what is more likely to cause stress and anxiety than attempting to exclusively nurse a baby when you are living in a culture where articles in parenting magazines talk about the difficulties of breastfeeding, where you rarely (if ever) see other women nursing, where your mom asks why you aren’t formula feeding, where your mailbox is flooded with formula coupons from the moment you make your first OB appointment, where – if you are a woman of color, or have a non-heteronormative look, or you have a disability, or you’re heavy – there are few (if any) images in the media of nursing women who look like you, where your child’s pediatrician suggests supplementation as a solution for “problems” that really aren’t (e.g., a two-month-old who cries a lot, a five-month-old who doesn’t yet sleep through the night)?

So finally, we arrive at victim-blaming (could any article about women in society be complete without it?). Because collectively, as a society, we are really stacking the deck against successful breastfeeding relationships. But when we talk about a mother who wanted to nurse her child but was not able to do so, we don’t ever say that society let her down. We say that her body must have let her down, or that she didn’t “want” it enough – a defective body or a defective mothering instinct. This, of course, conveniently deflects attention from the ways in which society lets down nursing mothers – and thus permits us, as a society, to continue to refuse to take responsibility for what has been described as an international health crisis, while heaping blame on mothers.

So here’s your chance, people. Breastfeeding is about feminism. And feminism is about empowerment, about making choices, about being cognizant of where society’s messages are coming from, and about being thoughtful about which of those messages you choose to accept or play along with. So you can make a stand for feminism today.  You can do it by boycotting Nestle, by organizing a nurse-in, by writing a letter to the editor of some parenting magazine that runs articles on breastfeeding next to a Similac ad, or by saying something nice to a breastfeeding mom in a restaurant (research shows that women who nurse in public are met with fewer looks and gestures of approval than are women who bottle-feed in public). You can do it by asking your employer what her policy is for supporting nursing mothers. You can do it by teaching your kids that nursing is the normal way of feeding an infant. You can do it by listening compassionately and nonjudgmentally to a friend who wasn’t able to nurse, and by respecting the decision of a friend who chose not to nurse. When my baby wakes up from her nap, I am going to do it by nourishing her from my breasts. How is that for multitasking – feeding a baby while checking facebook and sticking it to the man.

Mirjam Quinn lives in Chicago. She loves her husband, her kids, books, yoga, ice cream, her job, and a good argument.

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