Let’s talk about breasts, baby. Again.

Oh, ungod, I’m going to have to write about breastfeeding again and people are going to think I think about nothing else, and and – fuck it.

So Abortion Rights, an organisation I’ve supported for years, tweeted a link to this article by Jessica Valenti, arguing that a hospital is wrong to stop providing free formula milk, calling it “brilliant”. When I and others questioned this, the twitter account owner responded that if we wre pro-choice, it was inconsistent not to see breastfeeding advocacy as “shaming” and formula feeding as a “free choice”.

This is a load of crap. “Choice” is the most abused word in feminism, to my mind. Choice is never absolute – choice can only be free when there are no constraints on it, and every choice takes place in a cultural, educational, personal context. So to say “choice” is the answer is to say that women don’t choose to be scientists, and they should just get over it and get to their books. Or, perhaps more pertinently in the context, it’s like saying that a total lack of sex education desn’t matter, as long as women can choose abortion if they have an unwanted pregnancy. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know the alternatives, the health consequences of unprotected sex, if they feel pressured into penis-in-vagina sex in the first place, because we have framed the question over-simplistically, and we have answered the question with “choice”.

Fuck choice. I want liberation. I want my breasts not to be sexualised commodities to be sold back to me, but rather a part of my body which offer pleasure, function, decorativeness, health-giving properties… I want motherhood to be a valuable and valued contribution in the context of my family, community and society. I want breastmilk to be recognised for its health, bonding, economic and empowering properties. THEN you can ask me to choose.


30 Responses to Let’s talk about breasts, baby. Again.

  1. christine says:

    RIGHT ON!!

  2. Farren says:

    The problem is that a few bad apples have poisoned the cider and now we have to deal with feelings. We have to address our culture of guilt and shame and convince all mothers – no matter what they are feeding their babies – that we stand together. That they have the right to education about childbirth and breastfeeding. That our doctors, nurses, and hospitals are letting us down. That they have the right to breastfeed – or not – but at least be offered truth and scientific fact before making that choice.

  3. Kat says:

    Wow, I was thinking the exact same thing before I went to sleep last night: choice isn’t choice if you don’t have options. And it’s probably controversial, but the “choice” to have an abortion isn’t really a choice either if you know that there is no social support system which would enable you to have the baby instead of a termination. Sorry Americans, your country kinda sucks 🙂

    • Kelly says:

      Well said.

    • micaela says:

      my thoughts last night as I was doing dishes were along the same lines. That’s always been a sticking point for me with abortion, the lack of education before sex, and the lack of a real support system after. But we’re pro-life here in the US, just so you know.

      But yes, to the comment above mine, the previous ones, and to the whole post before it. YES! How is it that they don’t see it?

  4. Karen says:

    exactly! everyone always has an agenda in our choices. Sometimes they’re truly altruistic, sometimes personal, often economic. And can we please please please get over the “shaming” thing? Shame exists between our own ears and no one can make us feel it unless we ourselves feel it first.

  5. Carolyn says:

    Yes! I’ve been thinking about choice and feminism. Michele Duggar, the mother of “19 Kids and Counting,” when questioned about her daughters’ futures, said that her daughters want to be mothers of many many children because “that is what’s in their hearts.” So she is saying that women in her culture truly choose to live this way. Bullshit. If a woman, with all of the opportunities that should be available to her truly choose to have 20 kids, I support that choice. If a woman chooses to have no kids at all, I support that too. But to say that Michele Duggar chose her life is bullshit.

    Same with formula. I think very few women actually “choose” to use formula. They use it because they did not get the support or information they needed to breastfeed successfully. If a woman truly chose to use formula, I would question how much she really knows about formula vs. breastmilk.

    • Mary says:

      If a woman truly chose to use formula, I would question how much she really knows about formula vs. breastmilk.

      Or maybe, just maybe, she has different priorities to you?

      • Liza says:

        Thank you Mary. There are a ton of reasons why a mom wouldn’t breastfeed. The reasons may not make sense to you, but you aren’t walking in that mom’s shoes.

        I can’t believe how people just can’t mind their own business. If a mom doesn’t want to breastfeed why does anyone care? Sometimes its just too personal and touchy feely. I had pain and blood when breastfeeding so I stopped. It wasn’t worth loosing the good time I was having with my baby to endure being uncomfortable until it got better. They are only 1, 2, 3, 4 weeks old and so on, one time. I wanted to enjoy every second of every minute of their lives. I CHOSE to stop breastfeeding and fed my kids formula.

        Feminists think I’m selfish – I don’t care. I love my kids and they are healthy and that’s all that matters. After meeting with an LLL consultant and pediatrician, both whom tried to get me to change my mind, I made an informed decision and decided the pain wasn’t worth getting through. MY DECISION, not other women who think they know best for my family.

        All the people that insist that every mom should breastfeed no matter what the circumstances, should have to show their grocery receipts on how they are feeding their family after breastfeeding is over. I bet the receipts show food that isn’t wholesome and natural. Just because you breastfeed does not make you a good mom. Many factors go into being a good mom. Not being judgmental and supportive of women is a good start

        breastfeeding = good
        formula feeding = good
        starving baby = bad

      • Kate says:

        Donn’t seem to be able to reply to the comment I want to (too far down the comment tree), so: I think you know why it’s irritating as hell to have to disavow extreme/ unkind members of your movement before you’re allowed to open your mouth on the subject. When anti-feminists say to feminists that they have to say they’re not in favour of bomb attacks or castration before they can talk about maternity leave or equal pay, that’s derailing.

      • Mary says:

        Actually, I consider it pretty important as a feminist to clearly and repeatedly disassociate myself from anti-trans or anti-sex-work feminists and white feminists who silence women of colour. I do try to take responsibility for what is said by groups I identify with, because I think it harms my cause when statements like that are unchallenged by people within a movement.

        But if you have confused the articles you’re talking about, then it seems pretty unfair to accuse Glitz of having brought criticism of formula-using mothers seems unfair, when you did actually refer to an article (and mocked it on Twitter) which was explicitly about criticism of women using formula. And you also have left this sentiment unchallenged:

        “If a woman truly chose to use formula, I would question how much she really knows about formula vs. breastmilk.”

        If this comment is derailing, then what you’re saying is that I, a woman who may be responsible for feeding a child at some point in the future, have structural power over you, a woman who has breastfed. If that is what you think, then I absolutely agree that this is a topic on which we can’t talk, because I don’t accept that analysis.

  6. Bronwyn says:

    mostly I find that people get way bent out of shape when it comes to infant feeding. I’ve had to use both and thank goodness I don’t use formula anymore but it did help my son get over the hump and allow me to build my supply so I could breastfeed exclusively again.

  7. Completely disagree. Choices take place in a context, and that context is rich and complex. To suggest that a woman’s decision not to breastfeed is determined purely by an ‘anti-breastfeeding culture’ is, I think, both patronising and cruel.

    Friends of mine have decided not to breastfeed because they did not want to live with the pain of cracked and bleeding nipples, and because it was incompatible with their jobs. I have heard the canard over and over again that bleeding nipples are only caused by lack of proper support and instruction; I’m not a mother, I wouldn’t know, but if there are no breastfeeding consultants to hand to support a mother in pain and alarmed by blood in her child’s stools, should she just soldier on suck up the pain? I say no. Equally, if a woman needs to be out of the house for 12 hours a day to pay the rent, or if, for whatever reason, she finds breastfeeding upsetting, difficult, disturbing or triggering, we should respect that woman’s choice taken within those circumstances.

    Because of course the choice to formula feed happens in a context. You seem to ignore many aspects of that context, including a woman’s ability to evaluate a situation and reach the best choice for her baby and her. I’m all in favour of more information, more support for learning to breastfeed and more respect for breastfeeding in society, but I consider it terrifying that feminists and the British NHS are ganging up on women for whom, for whatever reason, breast is not best.

    • Kate says:

      Feminists are “ganging up” on women? This argument is taking place between two groups of women who *both* explicitly term themselves feminist, so that is nonsense. And in my experience, the NHS is far from unsupportive of the choice to formula feed, and far from universally supportive of the choice to breastfeed.

    • Kate says:

      Okay, trying to articulate what makes me so angry bout the rest of your comment: something along the lines of: there is nothing here condemning mothers who formula feed. Nothing. That’s something you brought to the table. This is about whether the choice between breastfeeding and formula feeding is made based on information and cultural imperetives which allow a choice based only on personal factors. I also do not say, and never have, that nobody would choose formula in a free context. I know plenty who would have.

      • Mary says:

        I think you actually got your links wrong – you’ve said “this article by Jessica Valenti” but you’ve linked to the The F-Word one. The Jessica Valenti article is here, and it includes things like this:

        “#breastfeeding has been the most challenging, and at times the most grueling, thing I have ever done in my life! But the same way I chose to become a mother. I am choosing to make that sacrifice. Anything less is not option. Being a mother is all about sacrifice and if you aren’t willing to make those sacrifices for the health and well being of your child then maybe you should think twice about becoming a mother.”

        I don’t know why you haven’t addressed or distanced yourself from comments like that – I genuinely don’t know if it’s because you agree with them, or whether it’s because to you they represent an extremist position which has nothing to do with the majority of pro-breastfeeding discussion. But every time I see my friends who are pro-breastfeeding have a go at someone who is saying “it’s also OK not to breastfeed” for not getting it, without also distancing themselves from comments like that, I mentally conclude that these are not people I will be speaking to about breastfeeding issues if I’m ever in that situation.

      • Mary says:

        Also, whilst I’m not actually against the decision to stop giving out free formula, I think the question of “what is medical need” is an incredibly important one, not least because it’s not clear anywhere whether they’re talking about the baby’s medical need (ie. is the baby losing weight) or the mother’s medical need. I absolutely want the right to decide then and there between the long-term benefits of breastfeeding or the short-term benefits of make-the-pain-stop-please.

      • I’m glad you don’t mean to say that nobody would choose formula in a free context. You suggest that we can only talk about choice once we have reached a feminist utopia in your final paragraph. I suggest that we all have to make decisions in an imperfect context now.

    • Emily says:

      As feminists don’t we have to ask whether a woman should have to choose between her job and breastfeeding? I dont judge a woman who feels she has to bottle feed to keep her job, but I want to support a movement that says she should have the right to have her job accommodate her need to breastfeed.

      In my experience virtually all “mommy wars” Internet fiascos begin with people taking as a personal judgment something that is a structural criticism. How does “formula companies engage in shady practices that push hospitals to push formula; and there is much more hospitals, families, and employers could do to support breastfeeding – and here’s some benefits for society if they would do that” turn into ” you’re a bad mommy because you used formula”? I’ll tell you how – the patriarchy has us all so damn insecure about our own choices and our own worth that we hear every critique as a personal attack.

      • Kate says:

        Yes, thank you for clarifying so eloquently.

      • Mary says:

        I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here, but Kate refers to Jessica Valenti’s article which is explicitly about breastfeeding advocates who ARE attacking formula-using parents. Including a substantial quote from someone who says that if women aren’t prepared to “make sacrifices” for breastfeeding, they should “think twice” about being mothers. It’s not about strawmen: it’s really out there.

        I genuinely don’t see why it’s so hard for someone too say, “yes, that is an extreme position, that is not what the majority of breastfeeding advocates believe, that is not what I believe.” But instead, I see several of my breastfeeding friends on Twitter mocking Valenti for her screwed-up ideas of what breastfeeding advocates are “really” like. And it doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence that these are people who’ll be supportive if I or my partner ever choose to use formula, for whatever reason.

  8. Katy Jacobo says:

    Hell.yes. Great piece. Thank you.

  9. Mary, Kate didn’t get her links wrong, she got her attribution wrong – she’s not referring to the Jessica Valenti article you linked to, she’s referring to the article she linked to, which is by “Guest blogger Laurie Hearts.”

  10. No, I’m wrong. I give up, I clearly fail at reading comprehension. Even though I agree it should be much more difficult for hospital staff to hand out bottles of formula instead of helping women to breastfeed. I know far more women who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t than women who wanted to formula feed and couldn’t.

    • Kate says:

      A mix of both – the Abortion rights tweeter did link to the Valenti article, but I was more talking about the F Word one. Must work out how to clarify without making the comments nonsensical.

      • Dunno.

        New idea: I wonder whether it would be as useful to insist that hospitals which handed out formula free to parents should have to pay for it from their infant nutrition budget, rather than that parents should have to source it themselves? If it cost retail rather than industry-subsidised bulk-purchase, hospital staff might be slightly less keen to hand it out. It’s not cheap, after all.

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