In August we celebrated World Breastfeeding Week (yes, it exists!), which this year aimed to highlight the importance of empowering women globally to combine breastfeeding and work and to make workplaces more breastfeeding-friendly.
For women who breastfeed, this empowerment is certainly important, but there are so many other reasons why breastfeeding is a feminist issue. Nursing mothers face a well-documented history of public discomfort and shaming that leads to discrimination and stigma. Everyone seems to have an opinion: whether you should or shouldn’t breastfeed, how long to do it, where and when is appropriate – advice and opinions on these issues can often be scathing and there’s nothing that says sisterhood or women’s empowerment in that.
Not to mention the double standard of our society gratuitously flaunting breasts in advertising and other media in a bid to sell more stuff, yet deeming a woman breastfeeding her baby as unacceptable to be seen in public. Once the breast’s role is no longer to sexually gratify or to be a source of pleasure, but is instead used and controlled by women to nourish a child, it suddenly becomes something society shouldn’t see. Breastfeeding is an issue that ticks all the feminist boxes – autonomy over our bodies, social and gender ownership of what is an “acceptable” female body.
For immigrant and refugee women too, the stigma, shame and judgement around breastfeeding can be a strong disincentive to make an active and free choice about whether, when and how to breastfeed. Add to the mix cultural identity (both personal and communal), traditional and family practices, as well as social isolation and barriers accessing and understanding the myriad of information and advice, and you start to wonder why we don’t just throw up our hands and reach for the formula.
One recent study found just that: Interviews with first generation immigrant Indian women in Australia, revealed that breastfeeding was inexorably linked to cultural identity and heritage for new mothers, with all participants viewing breastfeeding as an essential part of motherhood. After birth however, all but one of the women began formula feeding before 6 months of age, due to breastfeeding difficulties, return to paid work, conflicting advice from healthcare professionals, and cultural isolation and lack of support.
When not even a supermodel can manage to normalise breast feeding without public backlash we really, as women, need to band together and get behind the movement. The law in Australia prohibits discrimination against breast-feeding women, but like many laws surrounding the discrimination and equality of women, these values are not always reflected in social practice and community attitudes. We need to facilitate women’s free choices about breastfeeding wherever and whenever they choose. It’s time that attitudes to women breastfeeding in public entered the 21st century. It’s up to women to lead this change together.
For our part, we want to celebrate the women who advocate for the right to make free and active breastfeeding choices. Whether you are a woman who flies back in the face of judgement about the length of time she breastfeeds, or you proudly display your choice to continue the long held tradition of breastfeeding children other than your own, or you work to increase the visibility of the diversity of women who breastfeed, we would like to honour you and value your contribution to making women’s mothering easier. Our mothers and babies need you