Not worthy? A breastfeeding brouhaha

As a new parent, you can be bombarded with information about infant-feeding. Once the marketers get a whiff that a soon-to-be new parent had their first trip to the OB/GYN, the coupons, samples, and pamphlets start arriving in your mailbox. When you read the information closely, there is no consensus. There is no fail-proof trouble-shooting manual on breastfeeding, for instance. When I constantly doubted my breastmilk supply with Katie (and why is spellcheck underlining “breastmilk” on my screen right now?), I couldn’t seem to find any answers as to why Katie only nursed for 10 minutes and why I could never pump more than four ounces after 5 months of nursing (answer: Katie was and always has been a light eater, pumping is not nursing…but those daily bottles of formula the hospital handed out like candy the first few weeks to ward off the jaundice did NOT help).

In short, even to the breastfeeding mother, formula seems like an easy option. Some of us are insulted by it and some of us acquiesce. I’ve been and done both. Even though the literature on infant-feeding is muddied, what’s clear is that infant-feeding is a shockingly fraught issue. Mothers emerge with strong reactions to their choices to breastfeed or use formula. And sometimes, fathers (who are not representative of most men, I would think) write creepy, shitty columns like this. So-called “feminists” (many of whom are single and childless) respond in agreement. Let’s be clear about something: there are feminists out there who have no problem calling themselves such while reviling and belittling those of us who are mothers. The anti-woman sentiment in Amanda Marcotte’s writing, for example, as it pertains to mothers is sickening. But then, when a high-profile U.S. mayor announces that hospitals cannot hand out formula to new parents, some mothers see Bloomberg’s edict as a new front on the War on Women, or whatever. As Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon wrote, “This is not about the formula industry. This is about women’s right to choose what is right for their family and themselves.” Hmm. Okay.

Rather than pit parents against one another over their choices about how best to feed their children, what this discord tells me is something else is at play. At some point in the last century and a half, power dynamics entered the infant feeding equation and as society exerts increasing control over women’s bodies, particularly by pathologizing and medicalizing us, the cultural position on the appropriateness and value of breastfeeding parallels the wholesale cultural rejection of woman’s bodies- and women’s ways of knowing. Unfortunately, the rejection and degradation of women’s bodies also comes bound up in the neoliberal discourse of “choice.”

Still, people argue, “Don’t guilt trip the mothers who don’t breastfeed!” Let me be clear: that’s not what we’re talking about here. At the heart of any dispute, disagreement, or misunderstanding about breastfeeding is: Why do we revile something so natural? And what does the conversation surrounding breastfeeding tell us about women’s and culture’s relationship with the female body? What other forces are in play that facilitate this rejection and sense of failure of the female body?

In short, the concept of “choice” became ensnared and intertwined with our cultural shame and fear of women’s bodies. Look no further than the duplicitous formula marketers to see how easily the false equivalence between a synthetic chemical (infant formula) and breastmilk can be constructed. This, in turn, led to a rejection of breastmilk as a food worthy, satiating, and fulfilling for our children and an acceptance that women’s abilities to create it is a form of oppression.

Make no mistake, this was cultural work, accomplished by the biomedical and marketing industries throughout the 20th Century. In other words, it is no coincidence that any woman “chooses” not to breastfeed and instead “chooses” formula, absent other medical concerns; seeing breastfeeding as a form of oppression, as something to deny- failing to see as normal what our bodies do naturally- is completely in line with all the other ways our culture denies and effaces the value and worth of women and our bodies.

What I’m asking is, then, and what I’m interested in exploring is the ways in which women have come to accept the belittlement of our bodies and what our bodies do. How have we come to internalize that breastfeeding is something improper, gross, disgusting, or even just oppressive? Why do so many women develop relationships with their own bodies that would make them think this of themselves?

It won’t be a simple answer. It never is. Many feminists have done work in this area (see Susan Bordo, for instance). But my guess is, somewhere at the root of my question sits the same reason women are so prone to guilt each other over our childbearing choices. It’s why something as stupid as the “Mommy Wars” even gains traction in the first place. It’s tied to the reason women feel so uncomfortable with their bodies as anything other than a sexual object that they feel uncomfortable nursing their children. It’s the reason women would feel a synthetic chemical is as good as or better than what their own body creates (for free!) to feed their children. It’s the same reason we don’t demand equity in our homes, in our workplaces, in our relationships, and in the public sphere. In short, it’s the reason we are still having this conversation.

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One thought on “Not worthy? A breastfeeding brouhaha

  1. Pingback: About my cross-post in Flyover Feminism « the Feminist Mother

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