16 August 2006

adventures in the boob tube

I’ve been seething since learning of the public health campaign working to change the rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding to focus on risk rather than benefit. In case you haven’t heard, the Office on Women's Health at the Department of Health and Human Services is now advising mothers that feeding their infants formula rather than breast milk puts children at risk for a host of future ills, including ear infections, leukemia, asthma, and obesity. A much-discussed component of this campaign is an ad featuring a pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull at a bar that intones, ''You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born. Why start after?'' Wow, choosing not to breastfeed is akin to subjecting your body to a bull ride in a smoky bar while pregnant. Wow. I'm all for breastfeeding, but we need to support it in another way.

Breastfeeding surely does provide lots of benefits to both infants and the mothers who can avoid the tiresome and repetitive task of mixing formula and washing endless cycles of bottles. And, women should be provided with information explaining the benefits of breastfeeding. But, this campaign completely ignores the trials and tribulations of suckling that baby, and even worse, it works to make mothers who cannot breastfeed feel guilty. Though frequently hyped as a “natural” process, lots of kiddos leave the womb without an inkling as to how to latch on to the breast. They just don’t get it, and many mothers end up feeling like failures as they beg and plead with their little cutie pies to work that sucking reflex. One solution to this problem? Breast feed all the time. We’re not talking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Ha! According to La Leche League, babies in the early weeks breastfeed 8-12 times a day.

There’s lots of barriers to such frequent nursing, one of which is that breastfeeding can hurt terribly and another of which is that it’s totally exhausting. Babies, unfortunately, don’t stick to nicely timed schedules that align with the demands of a capitalist society. Another barrier? Plastic surgeries, whether undertaken to augment breasts and make them “sexier” or to relieve sore backs incapable of carrying triple-D size girls, frequently make women physically incapable of producing enough milk. Other women, for myriad reasons, do not produce breastmilk. Bring on the guilt train.

But beyond being tiring, painful, and sometimes impossible, breastfeeding, it seems, is also disgusting.
BabyTalk magazine was recently inundated with a barrage of letters scolding them for their “gross” cover shot of a blue-eyed, chubby-cheeked, white babycakes nursing while, gazing into the mother’s eyes. We only see the side of the woman’s breast, but this, apparently, was just going too far. One concerned mother explained that her 13-year-old son just shouldn’t be exposed to such gratuitous skin: "A breast is a breast,” she said. “It's a sexual thing. He didn't need to see that." Beyond the obvious retort that her 13-year-old has surely seen more during MTV’s Spring Break programming – or even more on E!’s Girl’s Next Door, where mere pasties seem to keep censors happy – the reification of the breast as first-and-foremost a sexual object and the reduction of boys and men to drooling slaves to heterosexual hormones is simply offensive.

The thing is, the responses to BabyTalk’s critics aren’t much better. The first reaction is: breastfeeding is natural, and therefore not gross. Even more, breastfeeding is natural, womanly, and therefore sexy. As one enlightened husband posted on an
MSNBC board: “I'm 53 and my wife breasted both of our daughters. That is like major sexy...in a natural way of course. If you view this in any other way, your [sic] simply perverted.” Okay, nothing wrong with finding your wife sexy - or even with finding breastfeeding sexy. It’s the suggestion that matters of the woman’s body can be viewed in one of two ways: a.) gross; b.) natural/sexy. It’s as if we must imagine breastfeeding women with a halo over their heads, gazing lovingly at their infants as they tug and bite on their mommies' breasts day after day. Some women do feel a particular sense of peace or intimacy while breastfeeding. That's a great experience for those women, and they're lucky to have it. But it’s not all the time, and it shouldn’t be a requirement for the acceptance of breastfeeding. This response also smacks of snickering teen boys’ declarations of particular women as “Hot Moms” and “MILFs.” Cool, let’s stop suggesting that women lose their sexuality as soon as they give birth. But who gets to be called a hot mom? What are the requirements for entrance into the MILF club? And to whose sexuality does MILF really refer?

The second type of response, unfortunately, simply blames American women’s puritanical streak. As womenshealthnews.blogspot.com bemoans, “women really are each other's own worst enemies.” Really? Shouldn’t we consider the contradictory, patriarchal culture to which these women are responding?

This brings me to my final point. Amy Spangler, head of the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee and key player in the above-mentioned campaign-to-make-not-breastfeeding-risky, told CBS’s The Early Show that the point of the campaign is to agitate for more institutional support for breastfeeding women who also work outside the home and well, want to get out of the house at all. The campaign, she said, showed that workplaces and other public places, such as shopping centers, should have clean, quiet rooms where women can breastfeed. Awesome. But if that’s the point of the campaign, why does it work so hard to make individual women feel bad? Why isn't it targeting the institutions that can provide such amenities?

Women need to hear that breastfeeding has many benefits, and they also need to hear that it can totally, well, suck. More importantly, they need to have loads of institutional support for making it work. Canada gives its new mothers a full year off of work. So does Norway. Not everyone wants that much time away from work, but it sure would be nice if it were an option. Within that more flexible space, this culture, frankly, needs to shape up and regard both breastfeeding and formula-feeding mothers with the respect, empathy, and support they deserve.