The lactivist community is up in arms over an editorial by Kathryn Blundell that appeared in the UK magazine Mother and Baby. The editorial, called I formula-fed. SO WHAT? is a personal rant by a woman who chose not to breastfeed. When I read it, it immediately made me think of two other articles that I've read. The first is Katrina Onstad's article Breastfeeding Sucks in the Canadian women's magazine Chatelaine. The other one is Hanna Rosin's infamous article The Case Against Breastfeeding that was published in the US magazine The Atlantic (which I responded to here and here).
What all three of these articles have in common is that they describe the societal pressure to breastfeed and include a woman's explanation of why she didn't want to breastfeed. They all focus on bullies (real or imagined) that make women feel bad for formula feeding. Where they differ is that while Katrina Onstad managed to talk about the horrors of her breastfeeding experience and candidly discuss implications of bad breastfeeding advice and sometimes insensitive mother-blaming forms of lactivism, she never comes to the conclusion (as the other two do), that breastfeeding doesn't really matter.
When looked at objectively, breastfeeding does matter. The health outcomes of breastfed children and breastfeeding mothers are better. There is no doubt about that. When looked at subjectively, within the lens of any individual mother's decision about how to feed her child, breastfeeding may not win out. While I think each mother has the right to decide how to feed her child, I do think that there are way too many societal barriers to breastfeeding and those barriers are what keeps breastfeeding rates much lower than they should be.
One of my beefs with Kathryn's editorial is that it was peppered with breastfeeding myths. If women believe the things that she believes, it is no wonder that so many of them choose not to breastfeed. She said that she "also wanted to give my boobs at least a chance to stay on my chest rather than dangling around on my stomach", perpetuating the myth that breastfeeding makes your breasts sag (not true at all). She also questions whether some women who didn't breastfeed did it because they "felt like getting tipsy once in awhile." If a breastfeeding mom really wants to get drunk once in a while, she should get a babysitter (because caring for your kids when you are tipsy is not a good idea whether you are breastfeeding or formula feeding) and pump and dump until the alcohol is out of her system (to maintain supply and avoid plugged ducts - pumping and dumping doesn't remove the alcohol, only time does). Or if she just wants a drink or two here and there, she can do that safely while breastfeeding. A fact checker, even for editorials, is pretty important in my opinion (as I previously told Margaret Wente and the Globe and Mail).
But the biggest problem I had with the article was her characterization of breastfeeding as creepy. One of the biggest societal barriers to breastfeeding is the attitude among much of the public that breastfeeding is creepy. This is why women are constantly told to go nurse in the bathroom or to cover up. It is why women are embarrassed to feed their babies in public and feel like they need to hide at home or in their car or take a bottle with them when they go out. Our society doesn't see breastfeeding as something that is natural and normal. Our society sees sexualized breasts as natural and normal. So attitudes like this one expressed by Kathryn Blundell in her editorial are not surprising:
They’re part of my sexuality, too – not just breasts, but fun bags.
And when you have that attitude (and I admit I made no attempt to change it), seeing your teeny, tiny, innocent baby latching on where only a lover has been before feels, well, a little creepy.
What if Kathryn had seen just as many breasts feeding babies as she had seen in sexualized imagery in her lifetime? Would she feel the same way? I don't blame Kathryn for thinking that breastfeeding is creepy. I blame society. But as an editor of a major publication she has, in my opinion, a greater responsibility than simply sharing her story. I think she has the responsibility to try to change how breasts are perceived. I think that her personal account, within a larger story about why the way breasts are perceived in society needs to change, would have been appropriate. But I think that her personal account, in an editorial about why formula feeding is fine, is damaging because it perpetuates and legitimizes the perspective that breastfeeding is creepy.
Breastfeeding may not be for everyone. But breastfeeding is not creepy. Our society is creepy for thinking that breastfeeding is creepy.
Image credit: scariepants on flickr