Some issues call for plain talking, a democratic and inclusive rhetoric. Not going round the houses. Breastfeeding is one of those, and yet talking about feeding babies naturally, from the breast, is one of Western culture’s strangest and most irrational taboos. Recently, on the Facebook fansite ‘The Politics of Breastfeeding,’ one mum wrote that when she asked an official at an unamed London tourist destination if there was anywhere she could go to feed her baby the official replied ‘Would that be bottle or non-bottle feeding?’ He or she felt there was some sort of indelicacy or a taboo in using the word ‘breast.’ Was it disgust at breastfeeding that prompted this linguistic choice? Or was it a sense that mentioning this woman’s breast was somehow sexually inappropriate? Or a combination of both?

Either way, it is clear that breastfeeding is something that makes many people uncomfortable even to talk about, let alone witness. And yet it is breastfeeding that has kept us alive as a species. Breastfeeding is older than all aspects of our culture: older than science, medicine, agriculture, war, artistic endeavour, or using fire to cook food.  Humans are mammals. Mammal: from the word mammary, or breast. Humans are animals that feed their young with their milk. Breastfeeding is what defines us as human.(1)

How has it come to this? That we can’t even talk openly and without embarrassment about breastfeeding; that women get thrown out of some public places for breastfeeding; that many women in the west find breastfeeding so difficult they give up before their babies are six weeks old (50% of mothers abandon breastfeeding in the UK at or before six weeks); that many teenagers, and especially teenage girls I have spoken to, seem to find the very idea of breastfeeding disgusting (although many of the girls might be quite happy to countenance the idea of major surgery in order to ‘enhance’ the appearance of their breasts).

One reason breastfeeding has become difficult is the increasingly porn-saturated world we live in. In women’s magazines, men’s magazines, on TV, in films, on the internet, breasts are fetishized as sexual objects and women have internalized it all, worrying constantly that their boobs are the wrong size or shape, that their breasts are not sexy enough. These days, the ‘perfect’ breast is not a real breast but an artificially pneumatic and pert surgically altered one. Are you starving yourself slowly in the name of fashion like Victoria Beckham? Well pump up those shrunken malnourished mammaries with a couple of globes of silicone. Childrearing given you a pair of spaniel’s ears? Get them lifted and re-shaped like Ulrika Jonsson.  This kind of self-loathing is tolerated and normal these days. But breastfeeding is not.

But the institutional misogyny that we live with day-to-day is not the only reason breastfeeding is so beleagured. Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the formula industry, whose aggressive marketing tactics were angrily and systematically detailed by Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding twenty or so years ago. As the new edition of the book makes clear, those strategies have only become more sophisticated despite WHO recommendations that children be breastfed for at least a year and increasing medical recognition of how vital breastfeeding is to the long-term health of both infants and their mothers. These days, Nestlé and others can use the internet, and especially spam bloggers on sites such as Facebook, to market their products, and can rely on the supermarkets to reinforce the message that bottle-feeding is the norm (the sign for baby changing rooms in some supermarkets is a baby bottle, for instance, and the packaging on Tesco’s own-brand newborn nappies recently featured an image of a woman bottle-feeding a baby). Of course the supermarkets love formula: there is no money to be made when women breastfeed. There is no profit-margin on breastmilk.

Profit is to be made in abundance by the food giants whose position as market leaders is often largely determined by the amount of formula they sell.(2) And so the formula companies continue to aggressively promote their products in the developing world to women who can barely afford to feed themselves (Nestlé, for instance, recently ‘donated’ substantial quantities of ‘food products’ to the people of Haiti: philanthropy or an attempt to secure ‘brand loyalty’ in an emerging and potentially lucrative market?) .(3)

As we can see, breastfeeding is a feminist issue: breastmilk is a superior product and breastfeeding is a political act: it says that a mother does not subscribe to the idea that breasts are for male sexual pleasure and that she is resisting the body-fascism which is endemic in our society. It’s a health issue, as we all know: breastmilk is a live substance which changes in its composition to combat the pathogens in a mother’s immediate enviroment, and which gives the correct proportion of proteins, fats and vitamins for the stage of development a baby is at. It protects against allergies, obesity, cancer–the list goes on. It is also an ecological issue: breastfeeding does not involve packaging and the use of carbon involved in making formula. It doesn’t require you to use electricity to heat a feed to the correct temperature. Nor do you need to use plastic bottles and disposable teats to feed your babies. There is no waste: babies take what they need and no more–not so with formula, where it is a matter of safety to discard unused formula from any one feed after an hour or two. Breastfeeding is also a fiscal issue: many of the chronic healthcare problems which financially bog down the NHS (e.g. obesity) could perhaps be alleviated if more babies were breastfed (formula feeding is controlled by the person giving the bottle and does not allow the baby to regulate how much they take in; breastfeeding allows the baby to regulate their own food-consumption).

But who cares about breastfeeding? As a breastfeeding mother of twins, I do–very much. But apart from a small number of breastfeeding women, some medical professionals and charities such as Save The Children, who else does?  When I got Gabrielle Palmer’s book out of the library a few months ago, I spoke to the librarian about the book. It turns out she had breastfed her daughter for two years out in Kenya thirty or so years previously. But when she first saw the book’s title she commented ‘Politics of Breastfeeding?’ I didn’t think there was any politics inloved in breastfeeding’. It seems that most people, even many women who have breastfed, have internalized the idea that this fundamental issue isn’t an issue at all–because it isn’t glamorous or profitable or sexy and because it concerns women, who don’t even regard themselves at important. Politics? That’s what men do, isn’t it?

1) Gabrielle Palmer eloquently makes this point in The Politics of Breastfeeding.

2) Save the Children, which today (15 May 07)  publishes a report on the baby-milk industry, reckons that the total value of baby-milk and baby-food imports is worth almost £16m a year in Bangladesh alone. Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2007/may/15/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth] This article is an excellent summary of the marketing tactics used by Nestlé and others to promote formula.

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