On facebook, someone named Rene Johnson posted an album of historical photos of breastfeeding, along with the following text:
When people say that openly nursing in public without a cover is a new thing. Uh no, no it is not, I promise. 😊 It wasn’t until the 20th century that breastfeeding started to be seen in a negative light.
“Nursing in public seemed to be a non-issue in colonial America. Our foremothers were expected to maintain a busy household, which included feeding the baby, and breastfeeding in the market or other public areas was not a cause for uproar. At that time, breastfeeding was the only way to feed a baby, either by the natural mother or a wet-nurse. The Puritans believed breasts were created for the nourishment of children and strongly encouraged women to nurse their own babies. 1 Breastfeeding in public was commonplace for colonial women because they lived in a society that supported breastfeeding.”
There are plenty of reasons a mom may not cover while breastfeeding. The baby could not allow it, and repeatedly remove the cover, or cry. It could be too hot, and a mother doesn’t want her child to get too hot and sweaty. It is also really hard to cover while learning to nurse a new baby, and babies benifit from eye contact while breastfeeding. Believe it or not, covers actually draw more attention. Sometimes the mother simply doesn’t wish to cover, and they legally don’t have to.
“At the federal government level, Public Law 106-58, Section 647 states: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location.”6 Laws vary by state and most states have have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location.”
You can view the whole gallery here. This, and the recent news that finally, in 2018, it is now finally legal to publicly breastfeed in all 50 states got me thinking about how we got from there to here. I don’t think it’s exactly an accident that this massive change in attitudes towards the act of feeding a child happened right alongside the rise of the nuclear family as the ideal. All of this has a lot to do with whose bodies and movement we want to control (that would be, everyone who isn’t a cisgender white man, for the most part) and it also has a lot to do with what can be monetized. Before I get into it, there are a couple of things that I have to clarify, because it’s going to come up.
1. I like formula. I think formula is a great invention that has saved a lot of lives, and we should celebrate it every single day. In a world with formula, babies who would otherwise die instead get a chance to live and thrive. In a world with formula, parents who can’t or just plain don’t want to breastfeed or chestfeed have real viable options. Formula itself is good news, and you will never hear me wish for a magical world before formula existed, just as you will never hear me with for a world without c-sections.
2. Formula was also created in a capitalist society and has been distributed via capitalism. That means that formula companies want to make as much money as possible, and that means selling as much formula as possible. The marketing of formula, particularly to (and also by) doctors and hospitals has been problematic to say the least. But…
3. The thing being marketed badly does not mean that the thing itself is bad. I don’t think you’re bad if you used formula. Ok? Ok.
So how did public breastfeeding become such a big issue? How did we get so squeamish about it? Well, it took having about two generations for which it wasn’t a normal part of life. Intense and misleading formula marketing created a culture where not only was public nursing not the norm, nursing wasn’t the norm at all anymore. My grandmother was told by a doctor not to bother with breastfeeding her babies, because formula was better and easier, and meant she could “eat whatever she wanted” (the implication being that nursing a baby required a specific and controlled diet). My own mother did try to breastfeed in the 80s (I was breastfed for five months, if you want to know) but it wasn’t exactly a cultural norm. In my own life, I was around a ton of babies, but I never saw one breastfed until I was nineteen. Mothers in my life either used formula exclusively, or switched to formula while they were out, or went to another room to feed their babies.
All of this creates a culture where we are not used to seeing “female” breasts in this context (don’t get me started on the female connotation, lots to unpack there, not today satan, etc). That means that when we see it, it takes us by surprise, it just plan feels weird. Since we still live in a culture that intensely sexualizes female breasts, it’s easy for us to think of them only in their sexual context, as though that were their only function. A friend of mine in junior high literally bragged to me that, as an infant, she never properly latched. She said “even as a baby, I knew that was nasty.” Cisgender men routinely accuse women who publicly breastfeed of doing it “for the thrill” or “just to rub their noses in it.” One comment I remember reading on a breastfeeding photo (years ago, I can’t find it) said “I understand that it’s their right and everything to breastfeed in public… what I don’t understand is why someone would actively prefer it.” This is hilarious to anyone who has ever breastfed or chestfed a child.
And then there’s the old “I don’t mind if you breastfeed, but if you have to do it in public, at least be decent and use a cover.”
All of this comes from capitalism, and from capitalism’s influence on family life. Capitalism has a preferred family structure, the two parent nuclear family, because they’re the ideal unit for consumption. And capitalism prefers that you buy formula for your baby, because nursing doesn’t lead to economic growth! And incidentally, this to me is the bigger issue when we talk about whether or not breastfeeding is “free.” Many feminists hold that breastfeeding is only free if you believe that the nursing parent’s labor (and potential for income) is worthless. They might be on to something. But that’s just talking about whether or not a particular family unit is losing money feeding the baby. The bigger issue is this: who is making money off of feeding that baby. Breastmilk itself makes no money for the capitalist machine, and thus it is “free,” worthless, a waste.
So my grandmother’s generation was convinced that nursing was dirty, what animals did, and probably not very healthy besides. Formula, on the other hand, had the advantage of being civilized. It’s based on science! And they’ll give you free stuff to get started, right there in the hospital, before your pesky milk even comes in. Feeding babies became big business.
Unfortunately for the formula companies, we’ve now decided that “breast is best.” Research has led us to the totally off the wall conclusion that human milk is actually good for new humans (I mean who saw that coming, amiright?) and doctors have started pestering birthing parents to give breastfeeding the old college try. Mind you, they’ve mostly tried shaming and pressuring new parents, rather than supporting them and trying to make breastfeeding actually work for them. We’re trying to fit breastfeeding into a formula feeding world, and that’s messy.
Enter the breastfeeding cover. The covers are a modern capitalist invention to solve a modern capitalist problem, we all agreed that breasts in public were icky, but now we want people to breastfeed! Capitalism would rather solve this problem by selling you something else. You can get a wide variety of styles of nursing cover, and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen a baby registry that didn’t include at least one.
(Capitalism has found other ways of making money off of breastfeeding, of course, with an endless array of breastfeeding accessories that all claim to make the job of “have boob, add baby” easier.)
Nursing with a cover is awful in every possible way. With a newborn, it’s almost in possible, because they’re floppy and you can’t see what you’re doing and you’re confused and the baby’s confused and it’s just a really bad scene. It’s also… if you’ve never tried it, it’s hard to overstate how hot it actually gets. We’re not talking “is it warm in here, or am I just feeding an infant” hot, we’re talking “oh my god is my baby going to be ok” hot. Once the child is old enough to maneuver nursing with a cover, they’re also old enough to push the cover to the side, or just plan remove it altogether. No matter how you slice it, your boob is gonna be visible at least some.
All of which makes perfect sense, of course, because nursing covers have always been a scam, and never a real solution.
World breastfeeding week is almost upon us again, and you are about to be overwhelmed with breastfeeding information and statistics. There will be inspiring photos! There will be shaming of parents who “give up” after a certain number of weeks. There will be, as there always is, more conversation about how we can get the breastfeeding numbers up, without a conversation about why they’re down in the first place. Similac will probably run ads about using formula for supplementing and how that’s still supporting breastfeeding, right?
But through all of it I want us to remember one thing: It didn’t used to be scary to breastfeed in public. It is now. The capitalist money making machine took that away from us, because they could make more money off of parents who couldn’t feed their kids without buying something first.
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