As world breast feeding week begins my twitter timeline is overflowing with the celebration of the milky boob, it’s place in the world as saviour of all, how all mothers should be supported to feed when and where they wish, how breastfeeding is and should be the norm, it’s natural, it’s amazing, it’s simply the best etc etc you get the idea!
Whilst yes on some level, all of those things are true, back down in the real world life is complex, economies cause suffering, gender inequality and structural violence are certainly not a thing of yesteryear, and breastfeeding discourse becomes another way of imposing things onto women’s bodies.
Some argue that reduction in exclusive feeding from birth is a phenomenon of industrialisation and capitalism. Whilst others argue that the practice of exclusive breastfeeding has never really existing both historically and culturally across the globe – the two factors which are often thrown around in feeding or milk reduction debates. Anthropologists have confidently shown how the idealised model of exclusive feeding for six months from birth is based on practices of women living in the global south, who have no other choice due to food scarcity. On the other hand, anthropologists have also shown how the politics of feeding has always involved manipulation by formula milk companies, who are at the root of the depletion and quality arguments surrounding breast milk and nutrition. You see, I said it was complicated. And I haven’t even touched upon the objectification of women’s bodies, sexual trauma, male lactation and milk sharing!
What I observe ultimately, in my research and teaching, is that breasts, human milk and the maternal body as provider of a unique substance that science cannot beat continues to be more, rather than less, of a contentious subject. It seems that the more we (claim) to know, the more emotive and creative the arguments. Making global health initiatives, like World Breastfeeding Week subject to a barrage of standpoint arguments and shouting matches – that ultimately distract from its aim, which is to better the conditions for women who wish (via cultural necessity or desire) to use their bodies to feed and nurture their offspring. And I suppose that’s my point here, any concern for breastfeeding should start with the woman who makes the milk in the first place. It is a social issue but it begins with an individual, and it is she who knows what is best – which may or may not be for her, her breast.