I know what you're thinking. Everyone is talking about breastfeeding. It's insane how much it clogs up your newsfeed. There's even an entire month devoted to it and every other week a poll gets tossed up on a media outlet asking what you think.
But we're not talking about it correctly. We're not talking about it from the narrative we should be. And that's why we're in a constant state of either griping about the pros and cons of celebrity advocacy or thinking we have to defend how we are feeding our babies or bitching about seeing another image pop up on a social media link. And that's wrong.
Because breastfeeding is a reproductive rights discussion. Always. It's not about parenting, infant feeding or choices between what is best or healthiest for babies. Before you send the hate mail and prepare your fingers for a keyboard war, hear me out.
All throughout pregnancy and well into our parenting, we are balancing what is best for ourselves and our offspring. We are sometimes meticulously measuring risk and other times simply winging it. If you want to stand on the argument that you are always making the absolute healthiest choice for your children, I will tell you that you aren't. How do I know that? Your caffeine intake during pregnancy likely exceeded recommendations from ACOG. You probably don't get enough fish in your diet. By the first year of your child's life, they've consumed 600 jars of processed foods. By the time they are 6, 90% of children are getting too much sodium. And if that's not evidence enough that "healthiest options" is not the argument, how about the fact that even life saving precautions isn't a priority for the majority of parents.
It's a little intellectually dishonest to frame the decision to breastfeed as wanting only the very best for your baby. Even if it is for your family, even if it could be, even if evidence shows human milk for human babies obviously trumps artificial manufactured feeding using the milk of another species. Because the biological norm holds no burden to prove anything. So, touting the benefits of breastfeeding or challenging the outcomes as not being researched effectively is irrelevant.
Because nutrition for our children isn't really the argument. Reproductive freedom is.
Quite simply: Breastfeeding might very well be a decision women are making for a variety of reasons (nutrition notwithstanding), but lactating is not a choice. It is a biological process based on the anatomy of the reproductive system. Whether you deliver the child full term or not, pregnancy includes the production of milk in a woman's body*. That milk is going to make its way to the mammary glands in the breast and if steps are not taken to stop the production or express the milk, engorgement, plugged ducts or mastitis are inevitable. A woman cannot will the production of milk away anymore than she could tell her body to go into labor at a certain time and place. Reproduction doesn't work that way. And since lactating is triggered through the reproductive process, then every aspect of the discussion must be built upon the rights of women.
The rights of women to learn about lactation in education programs.
The CDC HealthStyles survey of 2001, showed only 33% of adults believe education on breastfeeding is necessary in curriculum. That means the majority of adults in the general population don't believe children should receive information about the reproductive systems of women.
And even when adults do agree with teaching about breastfeeding? It's surrounded by qualifiers instead of basic biology. That's a problem. Because you shouldn't have to tout the benefits of a reproductive process in order to get curriculum included about it.
The fact that sex education in the public school system is controversial to begin with is pretty outlandish. You'd think we'd want our tax dollars to be spent informing our children instead of censoring facts and evidence. Alas. The horror of this neglect in lactation education is magnified when you consider Moses gets a place in text books while mammary glands become something cared for on field trips to a zoo.
The rights of women to have adequate health care options.
It's no secret women's health remains fodder for pundits and politicians. The egregious attitudes that still entertain legislation over the bodies of women permeate our culture with sexist laws and court rulings that disenfranchise millions of women. All the progress of the feminist movement gets wiped away as soon as an election year rolls around, and while we celebrate historic representation in Congress, it's hard to applaud when many of those women got there on platforms that don't represent women at all.
From contraception to abortion, the rights for women to make healthcare decisions over their own bodies are fought regularly. Is it any surprise lactation wouldn't take priority?
And if the sexism wasn't bad enough in regards to healthcare, the privilege will make your head spin. Evidence shows that socio-economics plays a huge role in the quality of care women receive and the documented integrated bias in our system has hit black women the hardest.
While the ACA has taken great strides to ensure the reproductive decisions of women to breastfeed their children are supported, health coverage for support might be moot if medical personnel aren't getting the training they need.
And when it comes to the wean, we've gone to polar extremes. A generation ago, women weren't given a choice as high risk medications were administered immediately after birth. Today, most women are left to go it alone with little more than anecdotes.
The rights of women to be protected from discrimination.
Pregnancy discrimination is illegal in the United States. It is defined as treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. While it ought to be a no brainer that lactation is included under "medical condition related to pregnancy", because of the way we've framed the discussion on breastfeeding as an infant feeding choice, too many employers and judges are able to dismiss legitimate violations of this law based on nothing short of ignorance about lactation*.
Case in point: Angela Ames was told by her employer on her first day back from maternity leave that it was probably best she get back home with her babies when she requested and was denied access to a lactation room to extract the milk from her breasts. The court sided with the employer, dismissing Ames's grievances.
In 2011, The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Colorado challenged the Rocky Mountain Academy of Evergreen for allegedly terminating Heather Burgbacher over her pumping schedule when she refused to wean from breastfeeding and switch to formula.
And in 2012, U.S. District Judge Lynn D. Hughes ruled against Donnicia Venter, stating in his ruling: "Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination." Hughes was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court on appeal. The case went back to district court and was subsequently settled without admission of wrong doing by the employer.
These cases are not the exception either. Lactation discrimination in the workplace happens all across the nation.*
Unfortunately, the public doesn't really seem to care that much that women's employment rights are being violated. Go figure. In a society that condones inadequate paternity leave, won't acknowledge wage disparity and still thinks gender roles ought to be the priority, it shouldn't be surprising that discrimination in the workplace is still a valued norm.
Only half agree that employers should provide private rooms for nursing mothers to express milk. A third don't even hold an opinion at all and over 10% disagree completely. The good news is that attitudes are changing. The bad news is that they are changing slowly.
The rights of women to be protected from harassment.
- January 2014. Austin, Texas. Ashley Clawson. Told to feed her child in an alley outside a Victoria's Secret.
- April 2014. Long Island, New York. Andrea Zeledon-Mussio. Told by local law enforcement to cover her breast while feeding her child in her SUV.
- July 2014. Greenville, South Carolina. Shawnee Colabella. Harassed at a local Wal-Mart by several employees and management.
- August 2014. Beverly Hills, California. Ingrid Wiese-Hessman. The manager of Anthropologie escorted a mother to a restroom toilet to feed her child.
- August 2014. Aventura, Florida. Kristie Quinones. Harassed at Aventura Mall by security guard.
- September 2014. Chesapeake, Virginia. Crystal McCullough. The management at Big Woody's asked a nursing mother to leave because patrons were uncomfortable with liquor present.
- October 2014. Phoenix, Arizona. Katie Champ. Asked by TSA to lift her shirt during a public pat down for carrying pumped breast milk.
- October 2014. Chesapeake, Virginia. Samatha Copeland. A manager at iHop tossed a dish towel on a child's head as he was breastfeeding.
- October 2014. Lubbock, Texas. Erin Peña. Had appointment for her child cancelled and asked to leave her pediatrician's office for nursing her child in the waiting room.
Yes. You read that last one correctly. That was a medical facility. These are just a small sampling of the cases that hit the press this year. In every one of these cases and countless others, the law is being violated against the mother. As recently as November 2014, a woman was barred from a Florida elementary school for standing up for her right to breastfeed.
The rights of women to flaunt their bodies.
The biggest hurdle in the reproductive decision to breastfeed a child is the cultural norm of the society where the child is raised. Every piece of data we have regarding successful nursing duration and empowerment towards a woman's own breastfeeding goals points to exposure and observation of nursing being normal human behavior. Among the top concerns given by nursing mothers is the thought of feeding their child from their breast in public. Even women who have and do nurse, qualify nursing in public with a variety of prerequisites. Most notorious is the call for discretion or modesty.
Modesty itself is a pretty loaded request when we're talking about other human beings. The call for modesty of the female body takes its roots in antiquated ideologies of coverture and the notion that women were the property of another. It's a pretty sexist request that places arbitrary subjective standards on the behavior, language and appearance of a woman. You don't hear a lot about modesty in the context of men. That ought to be your first flag.
But modesty in the context of a child eating is just not even a rational thought process. There's nothing lewd or obscene about a child taking milk from the mammary glands of a breast. There's nothing indiscreet about feeding a child. And there's really nothing wrong with being loud and proud in this behavior either. Modesty isn't necessary and the call for it is the height of disconnect in how we are viewing and treating female bodies.
I don't want to spend too much time on the argument that our society has over-sexualized the female breast. Frankly, if a woman wants to use her own body and breasts for sex appeal, we shouldn't have a problem with that. You don't have to like that equality allows for personal exploitation, but you can't really place value judgments on how women choose to empower themselves and still call that feminism.
Most states currently provide exceptions from indecency laws for breastfeeding women. That alone is a counter productive position. It feeds the notion that a woman's breasts are sometimes obscene. It plays its own double standard and makes about as much sense as telling a person they can use that water fountain, but only under certain conditions. It adds confusion in the mind of an already ill informed, ignorant populace that would compare exposing a nipple to flashing genitals. Exceptions to indecency laws don't really help the cause at all.
The simplest, most consistent, most equitable solution is, of course, to also support Topfreedom and #FreeTheNipple. Basically, these movements demand equality in the law for women and men. Both have breasts, therefore, no separate treatment should be given to one class of citizen. Laws requiring women cover their nipples in public are discriminatory and are being challenged across the nation as unconstitutional.
And if your goal is the normalizing of nursing and you aren't in favor of these movements, you might need to ask yourself why you ought to be an exception to a rule. The answer, obviously, is that you aren't. Neither am I. Remember, the fight is for the rights of women. And if you want society to treat your breasts and body appropriately, consistency in the law is your first step towards change in public attitudes and normalizing.
Modesty isn't the only disclaimer women face when breastfeeding their children in public. Comparisons to urinating, defecating and intercourse actually get tossed into the air as some sort of logical analogy. They are absurd of course because while nursing might give some women a huge oxytocin rush, there's really nothing at all orgasmic about having your child feed from your breast. And while it is true that bodily fluids have a couple things in common, you'd think it would matter that some are a biohazard and some aren't. I'll usually tell someone if they can't tell the difference between eating and shitting, they probably shouldn't host dinner parties. Still, you can't really blame the public for their ignorance. People hold aversions to that which is foreign to them.
That's no excuse for treating nursing women and children as second class citizens. Any desire to hide some members of society under cover and out of sight is a blight on humanity. People do not hold a right not to be offended in the public square by what they see. Women do have a right to bare their breasts and children do a have a right to eat.
The rights of women to maintain their bodily autonomy.
Probably one of the most over looked and under appreciated aspects when talking about breastfeeding with others is the concept of autonomy. We don't delve into autonomy too much as a society. Maybe because when we do, we've got a whole lot of historical and current reconciling to do. Humans don't have the greatest track record when it comes to treating others as sovereign over their own bodies. From slavery to death with dignity, we suck at issues of autonomy.
But that's the baseline. It has to be. For every single argument we ever make against injustice in our treatment of others, they all begin with autonomy. They all begin with the presumption that we have the right to control our own bodies. That consent is ours. That violation of our bodies is wrong, in every sense and in every circumstance. No one has a right to mandate you. No one has a right to demand from you. No one has a right to coerce or violate you. No one. Because your body belongs to you.
Breastfeeding is a reproductive rights discussion. It is your reproductive right to continue lactation for as long as you decide to. It is your right to stop the production of milk in your body whenever you want to. It is your right to express the milk from your breast anyway you want to. And you can use it to feed an infant or a toddler or a partner or a stranger. You can donate it or sell it or throw it away. You can dry it up or lactate for over a decade. And no one ought to try to stop you. Because lactation is a part of the reproductive system and that reproductive system belongs to you.
In January of 2014, The United Arab Emirates passed a law requiring that mothers breastfeed their children for a minimum of two years. A law that strips reproductive freedom from women under the guise of healthy children. But don't be confused. Healthy children isn't a concern of a society that would deny these same children the right to have a mother free from the bondage of legislative slavery. Mandating that women use their bodies the way society believes they should is an affront to human rights.
In the United States, even a Zombie Apocalypse wouldn't get us near such an egregious violation of reproductive freedom. But are our attitudes really that different? When our Supreme Court allows corporations to discriminate against women. When our legislators draft bills that invade the privacy of rape victims. When we have to pass exceptions to laws deciding when a breast is lewd and when it isn't. That isn't equality or freedom for women.
Until we frame breastfeeding correctly, we will continue to be fighting a contradictory battle that tip toes around the fundamental reason women are not getting the support they need in reproductive decisions. Until we are brave enough to say that a woman has a right to every single part of her anatomy and that includes every single aspect of her reproductive health and decision making, we will never reach the place we need to be.
Until we address the absolute rights of women, we will always struggle with the desires of women.
The desires of women to not be represented in society disproportionately.
As of 2013, close to 80% of adults could not recall seeing, hearing or reading about breastfeeding at all. That's 80% of the adult population not being exposed to breastfeeding. Not in magazines, not in mass media, not online, not in advertising. Nothing. And yet, we know that 79% of infants are starting on the breast and that most mothers have stated they want to attempt to breastfeed.
The desires of women to not be mocked on the small screen.
A little over a decade ago, less than a third of adults believed that breastfeeding should be shown on television. Notable episodes from the '70s and '80s include Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, but today's narrative of nursing on television tells a very different story. Sitcoms and reality shows either misrepresent facts about lactation completely or perpetuate sexist attitudes about a woman's breasts and body.
The desires of women to share images of their moments with their babies.
We live in an age where TMI is the norm. We post pictures of our pets, our food, our shoes and yes, we share images of our families too. But when women share photographs of the moments they share nursing their children, scorn rips defiant calling women exhibitionist. It shouldn't matter what motive a woman has, but if we needed a reason, there are plenty of them. Primarily the fact that primates require observation and exposure when it comes to figuring out nursing. The images are empowering to many who are looking. They normalize breastfeeding as just another memorable moment a parent is having. And they encourage those who don't understand why critics didn't just keep scrolling.
The desires of women to not be exploited by sexist and racist media ledes.
Mass media has a long history of sexist tropes when it comes to women. Ratings and revenue drive decisions and if women can be exploited as juvenile, catty, sanctimonious bitches, so be it. You don't see a lot of "Daddy War" headlines. But when it comes to breastfeeding, you can be sure an us/them narrative makes it into the piece. And our choices in telling two different stories regardless of the massive similarities isn't boding well either in a call for unity.
So united let's be. Let's change the narrative together and keep breastfeeding framed as the reproductive rights discussion it should be. So that every conversation can rest on the ultimate premise that it is a woman's right to use her reproductive system anyway she deems necessary.
Including, if she wants, feeding her baby.
*Lactation can be induced in women (and men) regardless of a prior or current pregnancy.
*Court rulings disregarding reproductive rights are not exclusive to discrimination in the workplace or in the public square. In November of 2013, Judge Stephen Baratta addressed criticism that circulated surrounding a custody case he presided over. When the attorney for the mother requested testimony from a lactation consultant, Baratta declined, stating: "I don't see how that's relevant." At issue was compliance of a visitation schedule that would have required the 10 month old infant to be away from her mother Jessica Moser for two days. Moser cited being unable to express an adequate supply of milk and the child's reluctance to take a bottle among the reasons for challenging the visitation schedule.
*In an earlier version of this piece, I made an unfortunate and regrettable error through omission of students' rights. Title IX may cover some, but certainly not all, of the reproductive health rights students face. In 2012, The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of Sophie Currier when she sued the NBME over break time accommodations while she was lactating. The case was a victory for many women, but there are still long strides to make to ensure lactating students are protected under the law.