Sunday, 27 October 2013

Week Forty - Jeanette

The Politics Of Breastfeeding by Gabrielle Palmer (2009)
Recommended by Kris

I have never breastfed, nor have I ever been breastfed. (I will resist saying ‘and I turned out okay’ because, obviously, that is debatable.) Thus, my opinions of the subject are not grounded in any practical experience.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have any, though.

The benefits of breastfeeding are incontrovertible and to deny them would be stupid. I totally believe that it is a natural process and women should be supported to breastfeed both by healthcare systems and society at large (with the vested commercial interests of artificial milk companies kept at bay). However, what I do get troubled by in breastfeeding dogma is that it’s sometimes accompanied by an implicit (or even explicit) judgement against women who can’t breastfeed, or who choose not to. For me, the narrative can run perilously close to an antifeminist biology-is-destiny outlook, where a woman is expected to do nothing but serve her family.

The Politics Of Breastfeeding, I hoped, would give me an insight into how an innate procedure had become such a charged and emotive issue. Why should I feel that something that is such an intrinsic part of being female can be and is used against women?

It is clear from the outset that Palmer is far from a neutral chronicler of breastfeeding.

In this book I examine the political reasons for a situation which has a profound effect on the whole world from the major economic effects of squandering a natural resource to the individual misery of a sick child or an unhappy woman.

Political reasons analysed by Palmer include the desire of governments to support big business, gender stereotyping, exploitation of the developing world, the sexualisation of culture and, ultimately, the structure of capitalism itself.

Breastfeeding, she broadly argues, is denigrated because women are denigrated in society, partly because of their collectively lower economic contribution: child rearing, at least initially, takes women out of work. Individual men and other women can be supportive, but there is a general lack of will to change this situation because breastfeeding is also in tension with free market economies. Breastmilk, after all, regulates its own supply and demand, no money is exchanged, and it cannot be bettered by a substitute. It is thus immune to market forces – or it should be.

Much as they urge us to think otherwise, the infant feeding product companies are not philanthropic organisations, but competitive commercial enterprises. It is in their interests that women find it difficult to breastfeed.

Palmer is especially and justifiably critical of artificial milk company policies in the developing world. Here, she looks at the Nestle baby milk scandal. The company gave free samples in hospitals, using salespeople dressed as nurses on maternity wards, disrupting the appetite of the baby for breastmilk, and then – with a baby dependent on formula – began to charge for the product. Not only did this get mothers to introduce a pointless and expensive substitute, it caused infant death and disease since the immunising effect of breastmilk was lost. Read the powerful 1975 pamphlet The Baby Killer.

So, is this all of historical interest only? Since 2003, when the World Health Organisation and UNICEF published The Global Strategy For Infant And Young Child Feeding (‘the code’), all national governments have been compelled to promote breastfeeding, and this includes protecting it from aggressive unethical marketing by artificial baby food companies. However, it hasn’t stemmed marketing of breastmilk substitutes; Palmer now looks at the subtler strategies of today, both in the developed and developing world. These comply with the letter of the code, while violating its spirit. Tactics include retaining the name ‘formula’ – conferring a scientific and medical aura to the product – to the creation of ‘follow-on milk’ and its association with very happy and healthy babies. She convincingly argues that the powerful images created by adverts such as this one, below, work to undermine medical advice for exclusive breastfeeding.

A less successful argument for me was when Palmer tackled how women see their own bodies.

Her [a woman’s] perception of her own breasts may be as sexual objects. She may value them herself in this way and feel some anxiety that breastfeeding may take away their sexiness. For many women, displaying the allure of their bodies might be the one time they feel powerful.

Damn right they’re sexual objects! It’s not my perception; Palmer implies in this section that a woman who enjoys her breasts in an autoerotic way, or who loves partners exploring them, has somehow internalized a male way of looking at her body.

They [women] have been programmed to perceive suckling as a sexual activity performed by adults.

I haven’t been 'programmed' to perceive anything of the sort. It feels nice to do that.

I believe there is an argument to be made here: that the aggressive sexualised culture we are in means the breast is treated as an erotic plaything, and that breastfeeding is so troubling to some because it highlights the breast’s other (practical) fuction. But if Palmer was driving at this, she fails to express it clearly; and her near-denial of the especial sexual pleasure found in the breast is plain wrong.

I was also angered by her analysis of feminism and breastfeeding.

Some 1970s feminists had ambivalent attitudes to their bodies and reproduction. In the striving for equality, some women came to scorn birth and breastfeeding.

I absolutely disagree with this sweeping statement. Reproductive rights – from abortion to paid maternity leave – were cornerstones of 1970s feminism. The fight for women to control their own bodies encompassed supporting a woman to give birth, and to breastfeed unimpeded if she so chose. But because some women decided not to – for any number of reasons – doesn’t mean they had ‘ambivalent attitudes' to their bodies. I would say these women had a very clear attitude to their bodies. For instance, Palmer brings up Shulamith Firestone who wrote, in 1970's The Dialectic Of Sex, that reproduction and child-rearing should be as artificial as possible.

Now Firestone’s argument for laboratory reproduction is a nuanced one. It is part of her analysis of how the family, and reproduction, oppress women in culture. Creating and raising children outside of women’s bodies and the traditional family unit, Firestone argues, will help eradicate the gender differences used to subjugate. Now this wasn’t (and still isn’t) a mainstream viewpoint, but Palmer dismisses and mocks Firestone without covering her argument properly, and this does her a great disservice.

Palmer’s use of the first person, and her reliance on anecdotes alongside research, generally sat ill with me. It was more conversational than I would have liked, and the overall book structure wasn’t too logical. There were also areas that she didn’t cover that I feel would have enhanced the book: for instance, it would have been interesting to understand more about the link with cancer prevention (and to look at a different image of the breast: as a site of disease and death).

But, I’m glad I read this: I feel more informed about how breastfeeding has become imbued with dozens of meanings over the years, many of which damage women. I suppose, not being a mother, and never having talked to my own mother about this, I look at the issue from a societal point of view over a child right perspective. Seeing the strands of this book that I’ve teased out in this post confirms this.

Kris herself is very eloquent in discussions of pregnancy, birth and parenthood. I don’t always agree with her viewpoints, or she with mine (but that’s the beautiful milk of life). She more than puts her money where her mouth is: Kris works tirelessly to support women in the transition to motherhood, and helps them to experience positive birth and parenting.

I remember my favourite Kris moment. Someone trotted out the line about how people get more conservative as they become parents. Kris fixed her with a steady glance, and said that no, certainly not in her case. On the contrary, Kris said she had become more radical because parenting made her question societal ‘givens’. She thought far more about the world her daughter was now part of.

It’s really hard to stand up to inequality, especially if the first task is to convince that there even is an inequality. Those who are driven and articulate enough to do this are rare. Kris is one of them.