Controlling women by controlling their breasts

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Are you one of those who think that Nature gave a woman breasts, not that she might feed her children, but as pretty little hillocks to give her bust a pleasing contour? Many, indeed, of our present-day ladies do try to dry up and repress that sacred fount of the body, the nourisher of the human race, … lest it should take off from the charm of their beauty.

It may be a bit flowery, but the quote accurately expresses the anxiety of contemporary lactivists over the sexualization of breasts leading women to ignore their most important function, providing milk for newborns.

Therefore, you may be surprised to learn that the quote comes from Rome in AD 150.

The lactivist project is dystopian in its efforts to indocrinate, regulate and measure the behavior of women.

How about this quote bemoaning the fact that rich mothers refuse to breastfeed while poor mothers do so eagerly?

Most mothers of any condition either cannot or will not undertake the troublesome task of suckling their own child… The Mother who has only a few Rags to cover her Child loosely, and little more than her own Breast to feed it, sees it healthy and strong, and very soon able to shift for itself; while the puny Insect, the Heir and Hope of a rich Family lies languishing.

That’s William Cadogan writing in 1750.

Or this quote about indigenous women, closer to nature, and therefore better able to nurture their infants.

The ideal nursing mothers are the cow among animals and the peasant mother among our own kind, who do not think about it all, but get on with the job, and in this matter an ounce of faith is worth a ton or more of science and book-lore.

Lindsey W Batten writing in 1838.

Indeed, as Pam Carter notes in her chapter Breast Feeding and the Social Construction of Heterosexuality, or ‘What Breasts are Really for’ from the book Sex, Sensibility and the Gendered Body the purported conflict between the sexualization of breasts and the proper use of breasts has been going on for at least two millennia and probably far longer:

While some attribute this conflict to ‘Hollywood’ or ‘modern civilisation’ it is clear that it has earlier manifestations within Western culture.

It has little to do with what benefits babies. The anxiety about breastfeeding reflects the anxiety about the role of women within society.

Concern about breast feeding constitutes concern about women’s behaviour… At the heart of the breast feeding ‘problem’ is a preoccupation with the failure of women to use their breasts in ways which are deemed natural…

Sound familiar? It should; I’ve been writing the same thing for years.

How dare I (or anyone) question the benefits of breastfeeding? According to lactivists, anyone who questions breastfeeding must hate breastfeeding.

But as Carter suggests:

Perhaps the fact that raising questions about such a taken-for-granted good thing looks like a hostile act should alert us to an arena which warrants further scrutiny.

Breastfeeding is a proxy for attitudes about women’s emancipation from stay at home motherhood.

…Despite the preoccupation in the breast-feeding literature with the inadequate behaviour of women, there is almost no recognition that breast feeding is constructed within gendered social relations. Women are always present within discussions about breast feeding but are presented as unproblematic natural beings. In that respect women are strangely invisible…

There is an assumption that breast feeding is always in women’s interests, that in itself it is a form of resistance to patriarchy. But there is little attempt to look at breast feeding from the point of view of women themselves nor at the impact of the powerful linkages which are made between good mothering and breast feeding. There are limited opportunities for women to articulate a different perspective…

One sentence from the chapter struck me forcefully:

So the naturalness of breast feeding is endorsed by science and controlled by medicine through various surveillance techniques.

What is the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative if not an attempt to control women’s behavior through various surveillance techniques? The contemporary lactivist project is dystopian in its efforts to indocrinate, regulate and measure the behavior of women.

It is dystopian in its use of public shaming — mandatory visits of lactation consultants, formula consent forms, and public condemnation of bottle feeding.

It is also dystopian in that it flagrantly ignores — indeed denies the existence of — the harms to babies physical health and women’s mental health from equating breastfeeding with good mothering.

We are encouraged to imagine — with no evidence whatsoever — that a society in which every woman breastfeeds is a better society but the key question is never asked, let alone addressed. Better for whom?

Controlling women by controlling their breasts is not better for babies and it’s not better for mothers. It is only better for those who want to keep women in their traditional, biologically determined, misogynistic place.

  • Should women be able to breastfeed in public? Sure. Are breasts sexual? Yes, or at least that’s the current evolutionary perspective on the matter.

  • BeatriceC

    OT Goofy Update: He’s still not eating on his own. We still have no clue what’s wrong. Absolutely everything is coming back perfectly normal. We even sent all his images from the regular xrays and the barium study to a board certified avian radiologist (who knew there was such a narrow sub-specialist!), and he couldn’t find anything significant. We appear to have a perfectly healthy 34 year old (middle aged) yellow nape amazon, who just won’t eat. We retested for Avian Bornavirus yesterday and paid for rush handling, so we should have results by this afternoon. That particular test has a high false negative rate, and we had him tested originally in March of 2017, but yesterday there were some changes in his dropping that made retesting appropriate. If it’s negative again, our vet recommended a particular vet to reach out to for a second opinion, on the hope that a third vet (my regular vet and his office partner are vets number one and two), can see something we’ve missed. And from a purely nerd point of view, MrC and I are going to make some slides of his droppings this afternoon when he gets home. MrC has a mini lab at home, so we have everything we need for basic slide making and viewing. Enjoy this picture of him in super derp mode after a formula feeding Wednesday morning.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c2a94f94e3bb53266df709f9031ca7ddc16a749833fc8c38b7ec3f278590b020.jpg

    • namaste

      Get well soon, goofy!

    • rational thinker

      Hope he gets better he is obviously very well cared for. Do you think he could be depressed at all? Ive heard that animals will not eat a lot if they are depressed. They get mental stuff just like us, my kitty has ocd and separation anxiety.

      • BeatriceC

        We’ve talked about the idea of depression. But there are literally no other behavioral issues beyond not eating and letting me handle him more than usual (he’s MrC’s bird and normally barely tolerates me). And depressed birds can usually be convinced to eat their favorite treats. He’s also still alert and curious as to what’s going on around him. We have offered him everything under the sun, and nothing. Our vet recommended another vet up in the north part of the county for a second (third) opinion. His appointment is Monday afternoon. If the ABV test comes back positive, we can cancel it.

        • DothethingZhuLi

          My blue and gold macaw stopped eating when I went away to college. We put her on anti-depressants and she started eating again. She also started plucking, which the meds helped as well. After a couple months, we weaned her off them and she was fine.

  • yentavegan

    Off Topic…But I need HELP! I was neck deep into the woo 3 decades ago when I was starting my family…I need recommendations for good books for a newly pregnant family….No woo—essential oils—–birthing in a tub of water placenta eating crap…What book ought I buy for a relative?

    • MelJor

      There are not a lot of good ones. Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better” was my favorite—written by an economist and gets into the statistics about how dangerous things like sushi or changing a litter box actually are. Goes into the pros and cons of genetic testing, and why doctors recommend various screenings. She makes an argument that she chose to pursue an unmediated birth due to the reduced risks of 4th degree tears, but she by no means moralizes the choice for pain relief. I thought her take on alcohol was too lenient though, but I am not a big drinker and it was easy to give up (almost all) alcohol for me. “From the Hips” was also not bad—a little bit of the super common woo like “breastmilk offers x,y,z benefit” or and lists home/freestanding birth centers as an option for low risk women, but it is nonjudgmental overall. It also does a good job defining terms, explaining different parts of pregnancy and labor, etc. There is also stuff on aftercare, which I think some women don’t know much about. I remember reading a section on post partum pain relief and it said something to the effect of “if you are in too much pain to easily take care of your baby, you are in too much pain. Your provider will give you pain meds that are safe for breastfeeding, so ask for them” which was a good reminder.

  • Knittingbiddy

    OT but any Canadian docs or midwives running into CPMs in Canada? We have had one in our area and her knowledge and skills are far below the 4 year Canadian trained RMs. There are a few bridging programs for CPMs to gain their RM status and licensure in Canada. Dr Amy, you might want to nuance your endorsement of Canadian midwives to only 4 year, Canadian trained midwives. Canadians, watch out, CPMs are coming north.

  • namaste

    I think daring to question the benefits of breastfeeding is code for “How dare you experience breastfeeding as less than the bestest, beautifulest, most fulfillingest thing ever? Youu monster!”

  • demodocus

    In other words, “Kids these days are so rude”

  • space_upstairs

    It seems to be common to blame economic and social problems on old-school liberal feminism (to distinguish it from the essentialist feminism embraced by the “natural” mothering movement), but there’s a good case that it’s the other way around, i.e., liberal feminism arose as an attempt to deal with such problems like, say, the wages of all but the richest men stagnating. It’s very similar to how today’s illnesses are blamed on the food and medicine developed to alleviate yesterday’s illnesses, and so not surprising that many people hold both attitudes. It’s like, after a generation or two, people confuse cause and effect and forget why trade-offs might have been made.

  • MaineJen

    “The ideal nursing mothers are the cow among animals…” For some reason this sentence in particular makes me shiver. Yes, by all means, let us compare human mothers with beasts of burden, bred specially for their ability to produce vast quantities of milk! How…feminist?