The breastapo, gobby women, and freaks of nature: breastfeeding as a feminist issue

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

It's National Breastfeeding Awareness Week and the debates it was supposed to ignite are in full swing. New research has shown that fewer women are initiating breastfeeding, and that in 2012-13, 327,048 mothers were not breastfeeding at all by the time their babies were six to eight weeks old. The Royal College of Midwives has voiced concerns over the lack of government support for what is undoubtedly a public health issue, highlighting the national shortage of midwives, cuts to breastfeeding support services, and England's lack of a national feeding strategy.

"Areas with high breastfeeding initiation and continuation rates tend to have strong Sure Start Centres, breastfeeding drop-in clinics, good peer support and community midwifery networks, where the midwife is the first point of contact for the mother and where there are good role models.

Research has shown that other factors, such as the availability and expert knowledge from midwives, especially community midwives and health visitors, who play integral roles in helping and guiding women about breastfeeding, are important," said Louise Silverton, writing for the Observer.

One particular area of concern is the regional variations in breastfeeding statistics that are indicative not only of varying levels of support offered, but also of links to affluence and class.

"In areas with high levels of social deprivation – such as Knowsley, Hartlepool and North East Lincolnshire – four in five mothers are not breastfeeding at all some six to eight weeks after their child's birth. By contrast, in Kensington, west London, 87% of mothers said they were partially or totally breastfeeding at the same stage," we were told in another story appearing in Sunday's Observer.

Here we go, you're probably thinking. She's talking about motherhood again. She who had no intention of becoming a Mummy Blogger. Next she's going to start talking about her personal experience of breastfeeding.

Here's the thing: breastfeeding is, absolutely, a feminist issue. It's guaranteed to bring out both the misogynists and talk of sisterhood. It's one of the issues that is guaranteed to get women talking. Four out of five women will at some point give birth and have to deal with conflicting information being thrown at them from all sides as well as prejudices and judgmental attitudes about every action they take during their pregnancy and while giving birth. They will see that you can't go out in public without seeing breasts in advertising, in newspapers and magazines as an important part of what being a woman is all about. And then they'll hear that women get asked to leave cafes because they've breastfed in public, that people deem it "unpleasant" and "gross", sneering asides that women who breastfeed around others are "just doing it to prove a point".

They will discover that breastfeeding is difficult, that it is a learned skill, and that most women really do need support to master it in the early days. They will discover that those early days and weeks involve near-constant attachment to a newborn, that it is time-consuming and can be physically draining. They'll hear about mastitis and blocked ducts and cracked nipples. That exclusively breastfeeding involves getting used to expressing when you need to spend time away from your baby and that this is also a learned skill that can be frustrating and stressful.

They will hear about the health benefits for themselves and their baby, about how rewarding it can be, about how amazing breastmilk is, about how it has ensured the continuation of civilisation through the centuries. It's likely that they'll want to breastfeed, but when the overriding message is how hard it is and little support is on offer, things might not go to plan. And if things do go to plan (as they did for me, thanks to good information and support), they'll still get people presenting formula as the solution to many a problem (Sleepless nights? That baby needs a bottle. Baby feeding a lot? Your milk might not be enough - try formula!) and expressing horror once they find out they're "still" breastfeeding their older baby (especially once said older baby gets teeth).

Depending on where you look, the big problem when it comes to attitudes about breastfeeding is the "breastapo", the militant lactivists who bully mothers into feeling guilty for giving up breastfeeding (or not starting it in the first place), or else the "gobby" anti-breastfeeding brigade who supposedly prize freedom, consumerism, and personal choice over breastmilk. I truly believe that the breastfeeding debate is the most toxic of all the "Mummy Wars", ticking all the boxes of playing on women's insecurities about their bodies' natural processes, their appearance, social class, their baby's intelligence, and the fear that somewhere, someone might be judging their parenting abilities and devotion to their children.

In reality, as is usually the case, members of these two camps are less common than the papers would have you believe. It's true that I deleted myself from a "breastfeeding support" community on Facebook because of the unpleasant direction the discussions started to take. Women don't need to be told in a patronising manner that breastfeeding probably would have worked out for them if they'd "just been more informed about the facts". They don't need to be told that formula is "poison". The final straw was the responses to a woman who wanted tips on expressing because she was going to be spending a day away from her four-month-old for the first time. "Why do you feel the need to give the baby a bottle?" - "Four months is much too young for a bottle! It will cause nipple confusion!" - "Don't do it!".

It's also true that on any given day you can search Twitter and find scores of people getting extremely disgusted by the fact they've spotted a woman breastfeeding in their vicinity. "No offence but does she need to do that in full view of everyone?" - "AWKWARD" - "No-one wants to see you feeding your baby!" Images of women breastfeeding are constantly deleted from Facebook and Instagram as they're deemed to be violating policy, while pages dedicated to grim misogyny abound. It was suggested in the Daily Telegraph this week that we "need" the Duchess of Cambridge to breastfeed and go public about it so she can be a role model for other young mothers. In the event of such a thing happening you can guarantee the buzz online would be more about the state of the royal tits - and Kate's desirability as a result - than anything else.

In light of all this, you can understand why it all gets too much. Lack of a national feeding strategy and recognition of breastfeeding as a health issue, with adequate support for new mothers and local networks providing advice and friendship will only mean that the misinformation, the judgmental attitudes, and the manufactured "cat fights" discourage more and more women from achieving their breastfeeding goals. It will continue to pit them against each other and encourage suspicion and shame. And who needs that when they've just gone through the rigours of pregnancy and birth?

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