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Feminist view of breastfeeding

(80 Posts)
NotQuiteSoDesperate Wed 31-Aug-11 21:54:50

Sorry it this has been done to death already, but I'm really interested in what the feminist view is of breastfeeding. Now, it's nearly 18 years since I last bf my DS2, but I find many of the threads about bf on MN really absorbing. I thought that we had it quite hard all those years ago, but I'm astonished to read that things seem even worse these days.

All of these Mils and DMs who don't support their daughters, DH/DPs who don't support their wives/partners. Women on MN who find bf disgusting etc., and don't support other women feeding in public or feeding older toddlers.

I just wonder how we have managed to get to a place where our society makes it so hard for women to do something that should be a normal, natural skill. But it doesn't seem to be! Is it simply capitalism in the form of the FF companies? Is it the undermining of a womanly art/skill? For what reason? If it were something men could do, would it be supported/praised/in the Olympics?

I'm simply puzzled.

TheRealMBJ Wed 31-Aug-11 22:04:47

Yes, it is a feminist issue. The support of optimal Maternal and infant health can be nothing but a feminist issue.

Here and here

Will come back to discuss tomorrow. Need to go to bed now.

NotQuiteSoDesperate Wed 31-Aug-11 22:09:20

Thanks, I will follow up those links.

TheRealMBJ Wed 31-Aug-11 22:11:24

Oh, and sakura is very good on this.

Justfeckinggoogleit Wed 31-Aug-11 22:13:00

Whilst some women continue to think tits are for men and so give their babies inferior artificial stuff, it will always be a feminist issue.

LRDTheFeministDragon Wed 31-Aug-11 22:14:06

Hi. smile

I think this is interesting too. I know people will say better than I can about the sexualization of women's bodies and I am sure that is a big part of the problem.

But I'd not really thought about the dynamics at play with MILs/Mothers not supporting their daughters/daughters-in-law before, but you're right it seems to be quite prevalent and quite odd. I have the opposite situation - my mum (ridiculously, IMO) insisted on telling me and both her daughters-in-law, at great length and before any of us had had babies, that we must breastfeed and that FF was 'really disgusting' and 'ignorant'. That's not a great attitude either IMO!

I think the problems with breastfeeding start with it being a social status thing, that only poor women do it, and then lots of people in my gran's generation must I suppose feel guilty/angry that they were encouraged by the latest medical advice to FF, and now they are seen as being in the wrong. And that sense of guilt about your own body not having done what it should have is so close, psychologically to shame for someone else's. It is very easy IMO to transfer the guilt onto someone else, to make yourself feel better by saying 'no, I shouldn't feel guilty for not breastfeeding, you should feel ashamed for it'.

I think that's why you get all this ridiculously OTT rhetoric about 'she was flapping her whole boob around on the top of the number 10 bus and blinded a pensioner with the twang of her nursing bra' ... you have to exaggerate breastfeeding to make it shameful.

The awful thing is, women who FF their babies because doctors and nurses told them it was right shouldn't feel guilty - it is in reality a pretty small issue in a child's life! Women are constantly made to feel guilty about not being perfect mothers.

BertieBotts Wed 31-Aug-11 22:27:00

Have you read "The Politics of Breastfeeding"? It's really good and highlights the main issues really well.

My personal thoughts in a nutshell are if there was less money put into promotion and more money put into decent support it would be beneficial for all mothers, and would probably enable women to breastfeed for longer. The biggest problem in this country is not that women don't want to breastfeed, but that they stop well before they were ready, and in at least 90% of cases I'd imagine this is due to lack of support. I hate the shaming that goes on on BF/FF threads too - whether you give up because you wanted to or you didn't or you never started, don't feel guilty! Feel angry if you like at the lack of HCPs who have decent BF knowledge or the various myths which float around and creep into things, but guilt shouldn't factor at all. We all make the best decision we can with the information and circumstances we have at the time. It is the formula companies, in the main part, who are at fault, but never individual parents making choices about what works for them.

I also think that FF advertising should be banned or massively restricted just because when they had true free rein in this country (in the 50s/60s/70s) and situations in various other countries, even now, even in developed nations like the US (lots of detail in the book) it can be massively undermining. Probably a few adverts for follow on milk as we have now don't have a huge effect, but TBH I'd like to see it banned completely, just because the companies involved have shown they can't be trusted, they still find loopholes and break the guidelines all the time just because the fine is less than they gain in sales/reputation by doing that.

Hardgoing Wed 31-Aug-11 22:35:09

My husband overstepped the mark by telling me to continue breastfeeding when I was having difficulties. I don't think that's what you are referring to, but it still rankles with me now, as I think that women's bodies are their own business, and the less others have to say about them, and their use in breastfeeding the better.

For me, the key feminist issue is the active promotion of formula in developing countries, which for economic and health reasons, is simply appalling.

NotQuiteSoDesperate Wed 31-Aug-11 23:14:36

Interesting about the guilt factor. My DM was unable to continue to bf me due to mastitis and an abscess. And she seems to feel so guilty about this - maybe because I bf both DSs with very few problems. She still goes on about it to this day - very sad.

Also, I am horrified to read about the lack of knowledge amongst so many HCPs - if they don't know enough to support women, then it's no wonder that bf rates are so poor.

LRDTheFeministDragon Wed 31-Aug-11 23:51:50

Oh, your poor mum.

I may be a horrible, suspicious person, but I do think in general medics often do not know (and sometimes do not care) a great deal about women's bodies. I think the lack of research and education is pretty shocking in all sorts of areas, not just breastfeeding. And so the same/guilt gets passed on to women. sad

Some people genuinely do not know that breasts are primarily for breastfeeding.

Incidentally, I often find myself wondering this so I don't know if anyone can answer - how come, when people post threads about breastfeeding a child who's older than [insert perfectly normal date here], there's always a response about it being 'more for the mum than the baby'? I don't agree that it is more for the mum, so I don't want to raise this on threads, but why is the idea of something being good for a mum seen as such a clinching argument?!

UsingMainlySpoons Thu 01-Sep-11 00:06:36

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Continuum Thu 01-Sep-11 09:10:57

I agree that the for the mum thing appears to have sexual overtones from some people, obviously as some people can't understand that the same parts of the body can be used for feeding or sex. I think I'll start directing people to hands which apparently manage this job quite well!

Also there's the other idea in society that kids, especially son, can be "too attached". It's an undercurrent I'm aware of given that I have been and will again be a home educator. That suspicion that boys will end up "soft" (gay!) because of too much female contact. I don't have a girl so I don't know if there's similar pressure.

And it's all just another way to devalue the important role of woman as parent, mixed in with negative stereotypes of being needy and desperate to be loved or not giving their partner enough attention because it's going to the child. All that shit basically.

And another thought occurs to me, the whole breastfeeding message is targeted solely at women, thus it's on their shoulders whether they fail or succeed. It's on their shoulders whether they're educated about it or not. But the partner cannot be taken out of the equation as there are other factors at play and other influences in life.

TheRealMBJ Thu 01-Sep-11 09:13:49

The Politics of Breastfeeding is very good at unpacking some of the issues.

To me BF and the lack of support and knowledge surrounding it falls along the same continuum as the medicalisation of childbirth and the lack of belief in the ability of women to care for their own children.

(Obviously I am not taking about medical intervention where a mother or baby's life are in danger, cases of child neglect or the true inability to breastfeed. Just before anyone jumps down my throat and suggests that I am saying we should revert back to the 19th century interms of infant and maternal mortality)

It all originates from the same root cause, the devaluation of women's contribution in the support and continuation of society (and assuming that a man-made substitute is adequate) And the view that our beings belong to men (sexualisation of breasts). There are echoes of this same argument in the 'feminist housewife' discussion.

The guilt thing by the way is a red-herring by the way. It is a great way in which to divide the sisterhood too. Breastfeeding women and the support of breastfeeding does not makeother women feel guilty anymore than natural childbirth makes women who hvae interventions feel guilty. That they have these feelings are not in dispute but the blame for them (the feelings) is misdirected. Instead of being angry at the lack of adequate support.

Just one more thought.

Breastfeeding is a great way in which society shames women. If you don't do it, do it too openly, do it in public, feed more than one baby, stop too early, continue too long.

Continuum Thu 01-Sep-11 10:31:35

I think I should read that as next month ds2 will be arriving and I have some issues about breastfeeding in public to get over. I always timed feeds for a feeding room with ds1 and it's not something I want to do this time. I also don't want to buy a cover, I resent the idea I should drape something over myself although I have a friend who did and it makes things easier from that perspective. I still may do it, but I resent feeling like I should!

My issue is slightly at a tangent, but still the same as the whole picture. I am very overweight, have large boobs and they swing low! Even around breastfeeding the images of women are socially pleasing and that could well be extended to it being okay if women look sexually pleasing. So while I wholly reject the boobs being purely for sex, I have apparently taken on board that if you might flash a little bit of boob skin it should conform to societal norms on how women should look attractive. I reject it intellectually, but I feel it and it's shit.

LRDTheFeministDragon Thu 01-Sep-11 10:36:47

UMS - yes, I agree it's sexual. But that is odd in itself ... as if the only pleasure women can take for themselves is sexual? I mean, why is it considered impossible that a woman should be getting a huge amount of happiness out of cuddling and feeding her baby? The fact we have to interpret it as sexual suggests a very narrow view of what our society considers it allowable for women to enjoy.

BertieBotts Thu 01-Sep-11 10:40:06

The "it's just for the mother" thing annoys me. I didn't quite get the sexual thing though, wow. I never thought anyone could be that ignorant confused

Hardgoing I know exactly what you mean. In fact this is what is so wrong with a lot of "advice" given to new mothers who are struggling. Instead of saying "Keep going, I know it's hard, but you'll get through it," or "Just give him a bottle, it's not worth this stress," while both are well-meaning, they can be devastating to hear if you really needed/wanted to hear the opposite. What we should really be doing is listening to what the mother really wants and supporting her in that without bringing any agenda into it. I trained as a peer supporter but in practice I found this hard to do because of various issues which meant I was allowed to go to the group but not actually say I was a peer supporter (it's a long story). One day I desperately wanted to say to one woman if she wanted to switch to bottles that that was a perfectly valid option, but the "real" peer supporters just seemed keen to keep her going even though there were some quite obvious (to me) signs that actually, she had just about reached her limit now.

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about dynamics like this within a group, because we are both members of the local LLL group, and while I find it really supportive and it's one of the only places I don't feel like a freak for still breastfeeding an almost 3 year old, sometimes it turns into quite an anti-bottle environment with comments that, TBH, would probably be taken quite offensively by anyone who had bottlefed out of choice or necessity, and it makes me feel uncomfortable and it just seems quite divisive or dismissive. Another thing with the LLL is that they don't advertise or publicise other than word-of-mouth, though of course it is open to all. Then the other thing we were discussing is the children's centre, the staff there are all for having breastfeeding groups, but I was told when my DS was 16 months old that if I was to be a breastfeeding supporter there that I should discourage him from feeding while at the group, because him being "so old" might put people off. There were quite a few of these little incidents and niggles and snags where it should just be simple, invite everyone, pool knowledge, people can go away and make the decision that is right for them. Excuse the stealing of the book title, but who would have known there would be so much politics about breastfeeding!

BertieBotts Thu 01-Sep-11 10:45:23

Actually, weirdly I'm almost continually amazed at how different the sensation is in my nipples when I'm feeding (I feel almost nothing unless DS is positioned badly, and then it just hurts) and when I'm aroused (completely different and I'm sure I don't have to explain!) though it's been different since I have been with DP as well - with XP (DS' father) I couldn't bear for my nipples to be touched and so they were pretty much off limits, but when I got together with DP (when DS was nearly 2) I was fine with it, though I still find if the touch is too light it's irritating more than anything.

WhollyGhost Thu 01-Sep-11 10:49:02

What Hardgoing said

I think that women's bodies are their own business, and the less others have to say about them, and their use in breastfeeding the better.

Here in the UK the pressure to breastfeed is immense - the grief and pain of women who feel they have failed their babies is horrible to see. Yes, support will help many of them, but formula is wonderful stuff, better than anything previous generations could use.

For some women (like me) breastfeeding is a form of slavery, with a baby who fed little and often, who took weeks and weeks to get established on the breast, and I also had thrush and mastitis to contend with. With hindsight, I think that formula would have been better for us. But because I was an MNer, and had been enthusiastic about preparing for exclusive breastfeeding, the guilt would have been too much. So I put myself through months of torture, and the struggle to breastfeed utterly dominated my baby's first few months of life.

If women choose to use formula for whatever reasons, that is down to them. I don't think it is fair to speculate that they
think tits are for men and so give their babies inferior artificial stuff

their bodies, their choice
there should not be any obligation for women to sacrifice their own welfare for the sake of potential tiny statistical benefits for their infant

StarsAreShining Thu 01-Sep-11 10:57:57

Yes, it is definitely a feminist issue. One I feel quite strongly about after having a less than great experience. I actually felt that I was either going to be guilted into breastfeeding, or hounded into formula feeding because of other people's shock and disgust. There was no room for making an informed decision.

I had already decided that I wanted to breastfeed because it's nutritionally superior and free! I went to an antenatal class where we were told that the midwives weren't actually ALLOWED to freely give us information on formula feeding, so if we wanted it, we'd have to raise our hand in front of a very large group of pregnant women. Lovely bit of shaming there. Unsurprisingly, nobody raised their hand. I especially felt under pressure to be doing everything 'the right way' as I was only 19 at the time, so already dealing with a lot of disapproval.

I had an eclamptic seizure after I gave birth, and my son was then admitted to the neonatal unit. Despite my illness, I would set an alarm every three hours to sit and express milk, even during the night, to feed to my son. The pressure to be doing everything 'perfectly' won out. This lack of rest resulted in my blood pressure becoming dangerously high again, and I was told that under no circumstances was I to get out of bed or really do much at all.

I tried to breastfeed when he got home, but I simply wasn't producing enough milk by this point. I felt like an absolute failure. I had to start formula feeding and my milk dried up not long after. The look on the face of the health visitor when I admitted that I'd stopped breastfeeding was disgusting. She didn't ask why or even seem to care. The line seemed to be that there were never any problems with breastfeeding and the only reason you'd stop is because you're lazy or selfish. I couldn't win either way!

I was also quite shocked at how much they were pushing breastfeeding onto us, when we didn't even have the legal right to breastfeed in public and could be asked to move on if it offended somebody. I think that may have changed now, though.

BertieBotts Thu 01-Sep-11 11:00:55

There is way too much emphasis on getting women to start BF and not enough on helping women succeed with BF or equipping them for how it's actually likely to be. Are we really considered so infantile that we are unable to make a choice unless we are shown some fluffy, perfect, easy image of breastfeeding when the early days are for most people not like that at all! It's just insulting, TBH, and it's ridiculous that you basically have to do your own research in order to find a realistic view of it. Really if someone is going to choose not to breastfeed when shown the reality of it in advance, good for them! It might be better for mum & baby's health to breastfeed, but the onslaught of negative emotions when things just aren't working as you thought or you think they should must be more damaging, surely.

Formula is a perfectly reasonable alternative in a country where we have clean water and adequate healthcare.

LRDTheFeministDragon Thu 01-Sep-11 11:02:01

'The "it's just for the mother" thing annoys me. I didn't quite get the sexual thing though, wow. I never thought anyone could be that ignorant'.

I know we shouldn't have a go at ignorance ... but that just is the best response, isn't it?! How can people keep on with this stuff?

WhollyGhost Thu 01-Sep-11 11:07:10

"The line seemed to be that there were never any problems with breastfeeding and the only reason you'd stop is because you're lazy or selfish. "

That line really makes me angry - it is something I've heard a lot and there is little acknowledgement of how much harder it can be for some mothers than others. I also had the pressure to attempt breastfeeding a tube fed baby in SCBU every three hours and to express every three hours with midwives not showing the slightest concern for how brutally exhausting the regime was for me, and how it left me with no chance to have more than a few minutes' rest at a time.

It has always been the case that some babies struggle to breast feed - back before formula was commercially available, in third world countries where it is not available. There should be no guilt or shame about this, anymore than there is guilt or shame about appendicitis or an ear infection. It is bloody amazing that we have such a great alternative instead of feeding our newborns unpasturised, unmodified cows' milk - as my grandmother had to do.

MrsClown Thu 01-Sep-11 11:33:02

I breast fed my son for 3 years. I did it in public and didnt worry about anyone saying anything. My husband at the time and I said that if anyone said anything we would just ask 'what newspaper do you read?'. It should never be a problem and should be up to the individual. There is no way I would have taken my son to the toilet to feed him like some women I know have.

LRDTheFeministDragon Thu 01-Sep-11 11:46:53

grin I like that response ... did you ever have to use it?

WhollyGhost Thu 01-Sep-11 12:01:38

In reality - and I breastfed my dd anywhere and everywhere - I don't think many people give a toss about how we feed our babies. So long as it's not something truly surprising such as coca cola in a baby bottle (which I have genuinely seen, and observed the raised eyebrows all around.

I think the benefits of breastfeeding are often wildly overstated. And the negative responses to it also. In the two years I breastfed my dd, I never once had the slightest negative reaction from anyone, and I took her everywhere with me.

It is a feminist issue, however, because feeding method is being used as a stick to beat new mothers with.

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