‘Will you breastfeed?’ they asked, when I was pregnant for the first time. Would I breastfeed? There was something about that question that made me want to cross my arms protectively over my chest.
Would I? You know, lactate? These people, with whom I’d never shared anything more intimate than a smile and a blood-pressure cuff, were asking about the bodily fluids that might squirt from my breasts. It was unnerving, almost invasive, to be de-sexed with such dispassion.
In our culture, breasts are everywhere. Spilling from billboards, television screens and magazines, breasts are used to sell pretty much anything from cars to chocolate bars to restaurants. The implication of this mammary ubiquity places breasts primarily as a symbol of sex, of drawing the power of the male hetero gaze.
The occasional, almost clichéd furore that surrounds a woman breastfeeding at a pool or café whilst a woman in a low-cut top is unremarkable demonstrates a prevalent inability to separate breasts from sex. It’s Madonna/whore dichotomy insisting that a woman is either sexual, or maternal, and never the twain shall meet. And if breasts are for sex—as we’re pummelled with day after day—how can a baby suck on them?
‘In the 20th century, women were presented with an illusion of liberation through the artificial feeding of their babies, only to find breasts appropriated by men and popular culture,’ writes Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts Are Bad For Business. ‘Though any part of a woman’s body can be a focus of eroticism, our era is the first in recorded history where the breast has become a public fetish for male sexual stimulation, while its primary function has been diminished on a vast scale.’
By World Health Organization recommendations, Australian breastfeeding rates are pretty grim. Almost all mothers initiate breastfeeding, but within the first weeks this number sharply dives. By five months, 85 per cent of Australian babies are receiving foods other than breast milk.
The thriving 500,000 year old human race is testament to the robustness of lactation. Our species simply wouldn’t have survived until today if breastfeeding had always reflected current rates. So what’s happening? Why, when most women intend to breastfeed, are they not? Are our modern-day breasts failing us en masse? Or does breastfeeding just suck?
Breastfeeding in the west has declined steadily over the past century, uncoincidentally as the male dominated medical profession increasingly took over the management of childbirth and infant feeding.
In 1748, British physician William Cadogan declared in An Essay Upon Nursing and the Management of Children: ‘It is with great pleasure I see at last the preservation of children become the care of men of sense … this business has been too long fatally left to the management of women, who cannot be supposed to have proper knowledge to fit them for such a task.’
Alongside this invasion of man medicos into a traditionally women-centred space came artificial baby milk. A relatively recent invention in human history, ‘formula’ first appeared in the late nineteenth century. ‘Originally, artificial feeding was only intended as the last option,’ writes Yvette O’Dowd, Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor. (1) ‘ it was insidious marketing which saw artificial feeding leap from last resort to first option … Powerful advertising led many to believe superior to mother’s own milk … health advisors passed on the misleading information fed to them by those whose real interest was in making money. Lots of money.’
Resultant of this century-long commercial assault on breastfeeding, ‘I just couldn’t breastfeed’ is today a well-adopted mantra—whether or not this is physiologically true—because we accept the failure of a woman’s body so readily. And because of this established perception, falsities about how breasts work (or don’t work) continue to circulate.
A new mother is hit with a barrage of advice: techniques, duration, how it should feel, how baby should behave and grow. Even today, not all health professionals employ the latest evidence-based practice in lactation, and advice can be inconsistent from one doctor, child health nurse or ‘baby whisperer’ to the next. But while most claim support of breastfeeding, the advice to mothers that began over a century ago still prevails: to quash maternal instincts, to defer to a more knowledgeable authority. To delay that next breastfeed, despite the tingle in your breasts as baby cries. To watch the clock or an app instead of the baby. To introduce another teat in the form of a dummy or bottle. And while ephemeral relief may be found in employing some of this well-intended advice, it can be a false confidence rooted in the belief that something external to the woman’s body is more predictable, more dependable.
It’s easier to blame a woman's body, than a society that consistently lets her down.
Partner support has been identified as one of the main contributing factors to a woman’s positive breastfeeding outcome. And yet, we hear of partners ‘not letting’ her breastfeed, demanding ‘his breasts back’. Or conversely, a woman may feel forced to breastfeed by a partner when she does not want to, or she may have her caffeine or alcohol intake paternalistically monitored. While partners ought share an equal parenting role, the entitlement to make decisions regarding a woman’s breasts stems from that perception that woman’s bodies are everyone’s property.
This perceived entitlement to a woman’s body manifests most abhorrently in the sexual violence that one in five women suffer. For many women, having experienced assault or abuse can result in breastfeeding aversion that can be almost impossible to overcome.
The appeal to increase breastfeeding rates is well intentioned. However, no women should ever feel forced to breastfeed. She has a right to do with her own body whatever she chooses. But this does not mean the risks of artificial feeding should be censored, nor discourse that seeks to dispel breastfeeding myths stifled, because women also have a right to make choices that are accurately informed. No choice is made in a vacuum, and while we exercise our right to choose, we have a right to break free of entrenched misinformation, sex culture and commercial pressure and make those choices for ourselves.
Will you breastfeed? Well, whether or not she breastfeeds is up to her. All we need to do is value her, and support her with empathy to achieve her own goals. But we do need to give breasts back to women. Because they’re her breasts.