I am a breastfeeding counsellor and I have been a breastfeeding mother for the best part of the last seven years. The politics of breastfeeding are central to my feminism: the struggles of breastfeeding women often mirror the oppression of women at other stages in life.
Big business is out to exploit us. Formula companies play on mothers’ insecurities for profit. Their marketing is GENIUS, it makes them seem benign and even caring. They are not. Formula companies are well known for making unsubstantiated or false claims about their products. Their tactics change from country to country depending on advertising laws: in some countries their tins claim their products make babies university ready, in the UK they invented follow-on milk as a way to get round the World Health Organization (WHO) code for ethical marketing of artificial milk, when it was partially adopted by the government.
Someone is waiting to judge every choice we make. Breast is best; but cover up in public. Breast is best; but don’t do it for too long. Breast is best; but your baby is too big to just have breastmilk. Breast is best; but can your small breasts make enough milk? You want to keep breastfeeding? You’re only doing it for yourself. You want to stop breastfeeding? Stop being so selfish.
Meeting societal standards is hard work. We find that a lot of what our culture and media has told us about mothering, breastfeeding and babies is false, yet even after these realisations we still doubt our own choices as a direct result of what we’ve been repeatedly told is ‘right’. The dichotomous nature of juggling what seems right for us, with what we’ve been told we ‘should’ be doing, eventually sucks all our confidence and joy away.
Privilege pays. White, affluent, educated women of a certain age are the most likely to breastfeed. These women live in more affluent areas beside other mothers who have breastfed, they feel confident about speaking up, they have means and transport to make their way to support, or they can pay for support to come to them. Of course, because these are the women who breastfeed, they are also the women who go on to become breastfeeding peer supporters and counsellors, compounding the idea that breastfeeding is only for a certain group of women.
I think we need to start with ensuring all women receive respectful care and accurate information without judgment or assumptions. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, right?
Words: Lynsey Hansford