Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Breastfeeding and Feminism

I kind of can't believe that I haven't already written about this, but alas, when The Boob Geek (who you should definitely like on facebook if you're at all into breastfeeding and/or science) asked me if I'd written anything on Breast feeding as a Feminist issue, I realized that I had not. She went on to pay me the highest compliment a feminist can receive, which is to be called a "real feminist," so here we are.

I mean, to me, this is a no brainer. Breastfeeding is a thing that women's bodies do (no, not all women's bodies, and yes, some men's bodies). OF COURSE it is a feminist issue. The fact that women's bodies, especially the fun parts like the boobs, are so thoroughly legislated and debated over is...kind of one of the biggies in Feminism. One of the very foundations of feminism is women having agency over their own body, their own person. One of the very foundations is women having the right to make informed decisions about their own bodies; their own lives.

And that's sort of the crux of it, in some ways.

Breast feeding is a thing that happens by way of women's bodies; it is a choice in women's lives. It is, by its very nature, a feminist issue.

Of course, it's a bit more complex than that, or a super smart lady like The Boob Geek wouldn't be requesting my two cents on it, now would she?

Let us explore some of the more common arguments.

Breast feeding makes it difficult for women to work, and feminists work, duh. 

Well first of all, some of the strongest feminists I know are stay at home moms, so the assumption that anyone who embraces the ideals of feminism also works outside of the home is wrong, right off the bat.

A lot of us DO work, however, and it is a legitimate point that balancing a breastfeeding relationship with a career can be challenging even under the best of circumstances. Some work environments are not supportive of pumping. They lack the appropriate spaces (private, with a lock, not a bathroom or a break room or a coat room or a conference room-all places I've pumped). They lack adequate break time. They lack places to store pumped milk.

After working (and pumping all day) mothers don't have much time to nurse their babies, because they have houses to clean and dinners to cook and older kids to help with homework and husbands whose feet need rubbing.

So, like, none of that means that breastfeeding and feminism are not compatible. What it means is that feminism isn't done yet. See, one of the things about feminism? Is that it doesn't mean that we just allow women to perform traditionally male roles and allow them into traditionally male spaces and call it good. It means that we don't expect women to have careers and earn money AND do all of the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing. It means a paradigm shift to a society that values and prioritizes traditionally female roles and responsibilities equally. That entails things like longer (and, *gasp* PAID!) maternity leaves, de-stigmatizing pumping and making accommodations like adequate time and space for pumping, flexible scheduling to allow for the additional break time, allowing working part time from home, and providing on-site child-care. It ALSO means more accommodations for fathers to take a more active role in parenting, such as flexible scheduling, working part time from home, and paternity leave. It means acknowledging and accepting that no, women cannot do it ALL which is okay, because SPOILER ALERT, neither can men. It means a paradigm shift to a society that distributes the work load more evenly between partners, so that when both partners are working, both partners are also sharing the responsibilities of keeping a house and raising children.

Now, this doesn't address the additional challenges of single motherhood, but I doubt anyone is prepared for me to suggest that single mothers be provided a nanny, house cleaning service, and personal chef for the first two years of each child's life, so y'all, help out the single moms in your lives, they work harder than the rest of us put together.

Breastfeeding is NOT free, it's expensive and just another way to market unnecessary items to women. 

First off, if you think the marketing of breast feeding related products is predatory and problematic, let me introduce you to a thing called formula marketing, because, holy crap. It is true that marketing is used to convince women that we are insufficient and broken and flawed and need SO MANY PRODUCTS to make up for our many failures. This is true across the board, not just with breast feeding products. We don't need nursing covers. (If we want to cover, a light blanket or shawl works just fine!) We don't need strips to test our milk for alcohol (if we're drunk enough that nursing our babies is a problem, we're too drunk to work those strips, I promise). We (at least, the vast majority of us) don't need special tea or supplements to make more milk. We don't need our nursing bras to be sexy (but if we WANT them to be sexy, that's okay, too).

Of course, the fact that we don't need those particular things doesn't mean breast feeding, especially for working mothers, is free. Working mothers need a high quality breast pump. We need bags or bottles to store our pumped milk in. Breast feeding is definitely easier and more comfortable with supportive nursing bras or tanks. Those who deal with things like chafed nipples might want soothing balms or lanolin, and those early days of engorgement can be made much more bearable with those gel thingies you can throw in the freezer.

So obviously, breast feeding is not feminist, because Marxist Feminist Dialectic, right? Well no. Again, this calls for a shift. It calls for insurance companies to cover breast pumps and for programs like WIC to provide them (they do!). It calls for breast feeding advocates to be mindful of matters of privilege and class as they relate to breast feeding, and to advocate appropriately. It calls for feminists to be just as vocally critical of unnecessary products and predatory marketing in the breast feeding industry as we are of them in the formula industry, in the cosmetics industry, in the fashion industry, and in basically every industry that markets to women.

Breastfeeding activists are dictating what women must do with their own bodies and shaming them into compliance. This is anti-feminist.

It's no surprise that every cause has its extremists, and that there are, indeed, breast feeding activists who proclaim that not breast feeding for any reason is selfish and that formula is poison. These are the exception, not the rule.

In my experience in 5 years as breast feeding advocate, the vast majority of us are focused on supporting women who DO wish to breast feed in accomplishing their goals by normalizing breast feeding, by disseminating accurate and current information, and by working to increase access to resources that protect the breast feeding relationship. We work to de-sexualize the female breasts and to embrace them for their primary role in infant feeding as well as for their secondary sexual functions.

We strive to empower women to make informed decisions for their own bodies, for their own lives, in ways that meet their own personal needs and goals. It doesn't get much more feminist than that.


  1. Thanks for this! I like how grounded it is in the real and pragmatic. As neither a women nor even a father, it gives me perspective I wouldn't readily come by. I also really appreciate your articulation of feminism's unfinished business. In some ways, feminism has only won the rights of men. It makes sense this would be, since that is what we have collectively valued, but we best not stop at that.

    I'd add a modifier to the "real feminist" tag: real subversive feminist. It seems one of the underlying problems with breast feeding from the perspective of the patriarchal power structure is the way it reminds us that real power, the fundamental creative power to nourish life, does not need the hierarchies consent. This power is determined from within, it is intrinsic, it is not granted by authority, or extrinsic. In this way, the very act of breast feeding causes a little legitimacy problem for hierarchies based on externally granted power over.

  2. I find it incredibly on point that Facebook refused to boost this by saying an image of a woman breastfeeding was sexual in nature. If breastfeeding was sexual than it would be sexual assault of a minor. WHICH IT ISN'T.
    Whereas actual sexually objectifying pictures of women, or violence objectification are totally given a pass.

    It's a complete confirmation that breastfeeding is seen as *actually* perverse in this culture. Whereas treating women as less than full functioning humans for sexual and violent gratification is enthusiastically okay.

    *Of course* breastfeeding is a feminist issue.

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