Breastfeeding, Bodies, and Choice

April 16, 2010 § 2 Comments

Ruth‘s mom, a lactation consultant, passed along this fascinating article on breastfeeding and gender equality.

Breastfeeding, like any practice that involves women’s bodies, is highly political. The simple act of feeding your child is prey to a whole host of issues. Class prevents many women from breastfeeding, because it often requires a carefully planned schedule for feeding and pumping milk; for some women who work full-time, taking breaks to pump milk is not an option. Further, cultural biases sometimes dictate that women who can’t or don’t breastfeed their children are bad moms. On the flip side, another stigma maintains that women using their breasts for any purpose other than men’s visual pleasure is absurd and disgusting.

So yet again, we see many conflicting cultural standards and ideals — and policing women’s bodies is the mechanism we use to hash through them. Just like the Stupak amendment, women’s lives and livelihoods are irrelevent: it wasn’t abortion that was a problem, but healthcare reform overall. Yet again, women are the playing cards, and rarely do we win a hand.

Dr. Paige Hall Smith, Director of the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Center for Women’s Health and Wellness and Founder/Co-Director of the annual Breastfeeding & Feminism Symposia (a partnership between UNC Greensboro and UNC Chapel Hill) says that although breastfeeding is seen as a “lifestyle choice” oftentimes, making some women out to be the “better mothers” and others made to feel guilty for their choices, in truth, “these choices are made within a constrained environment.” Smith says, instead, that we need to look not just “at the decisions made but the constraints and structures in society that shape women’s decisions” in order to understand more about why women do or don’t breastfeed for extended periods of time.

My own mother breastfed me exclusively for many months, and after that supplemented my regular diet with breastmilk until I was three years old. And she was very privileged. She was only 26, just starting her career, whereas my dad was 40 and had a great, stable job, which meant that she took more than a year off from work to stay home with me. She loved breastfeeding; she felt proud that she was able to offer me the healthiest feeding option, and the act of feeding brought us physically closer in my first months of life.

I too plan to breastfeed when I have kids. I look forward to the shared experience we’ll have. But I absolutely do not expect all women to do the same — nor do I bemoan the choices that they make about their own bodies. That’s a fundamental part of being pro-choice.

Dr. Smith says, “We need to give women control…That’s the bottom line. We must create structures in society that give women more control over their bodies. Women who have control over their lives, body, time and space [and I’m talking about private, public and work space] are more likely to breastfeed than those who don’t have that same kind of control.”

It’s the feminist answer — work towards equality and justice and we’ll allow women to make decisions they feel are right for themselves.

§ 2 Responses to Breastfeeding, Bodies, and Choice

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