I am not an extreme breastfeeding advocate or a fundamentalist. What I mean by this is, even though I support breastfeeding as part of the natural reproductive cycle directly after pregnancy and would love if all babies were breastfed, that thought is idealistic at best. I won’t ever accuse someone of not wanting the best for a baby if they do not breastfeed — remind you of a recent post on Why Black Women Who Bottlefeed Matter.
Not too long ago, I got into a conversation with a friend about breastfeeding. It was actually a conversation through email, when I first told her I had decided to become a Lactation Consultant in order to play a part in encouraging more Black women to breastfeed, and told her about our numbers and how they are the lowest of any group. Her response was that Black women, whether breastfeeding or not, should do whichever makes her feel empowered.
Last week, The Crunk Feminist Collective posted an article on choice, using the new breastfeeding doll to introduce the subject. The article, Tough Titty: On Feminist Mothering and the Breastfeeding Doll, raised some very important points from a feminist perspective, and raised some other topics that had me scratching my head (such as breastfeeding as uncompensated body labor, but I won’t go into that right now). It also asked a few questions at the end that really had me thinking. The last two are the ones that really stood out, and I was reminded of the conversation with my friend on empowerment, and thought these two were related. Here is a chance for me to expand a bit on how I feel about this especially among those of us who are considered to be out of the mainstream and in the margins.
- What are your thoughts on breastfeeding?
- Would you give your daughter this doll?
- Can you be a good mother and admit you may not want to breastfeed?
- And more to the point, though I never thought I’d have to ask this question, can you be a good feminist and admit you may not want to breastfeed?
Even with my very limited knowledge and research of infant feeding thus far, if there’s one thing I’ve learned is this: infant feeding is not simply infant feeding. Instead, infant feeding is a highly charged ritual that is infused with politics and debate, where various and extreme points of view can be found inside and out. It is also an area that is reflective of so many other areas of society, which is part of the reasons I felt so strongly about the article from the Crunk Feminist Collective. Information on breastfeeding and access to information on infant feeding, are most often skewed, and who you are and where you are, usually determines your outlook, how you practice infant feeding, and inevitably how you feed your baby — you know, your choice. When feminist ideas intersect with these it is necessary to look at what other factors play a part in this — complicating the situation.
Mainstream society and mainstream feminist ideas continue to play a large role in the way it portrays feminism and breastfeeding ideas, where poor, Women, and People Of Color are continuously excluded. Feminist Barbara Smith says that the ‘invisibility of Black women [in society and in the feminist world] has meant our ways for creative expression are infinite’ — meaning our ways of defining ourselves are varied. For example, I once did a presentation titled What Is Black Feminism, where my point was to not only show my audience why Black feminism erupted (from exclusion from white women, and Black men), but to also show those creative ways Black women practiced feminism in a society where ignoring us was the norm, and where resistance was often met with death. One of my examples was Angela Davis’ story of enslaved mothers who would fake her illness in order to avoid being separated from her children during human selling and trading. Other women who call themselves feminists may not breastfeed or may not want to breastfeed because it is not part of their culture. The possibilities are endless.
Other areas deal with access — to education, to information that is able to empower and provide information where someone can make a informed decision on whether to breastfeed or not. Formula companies strategically target our communities through unethical marketing practices, and in many areas access to education is low, which means lower literacy rates that play a tremendous role in the way we obtain and process information and how we try to integrate into society, to opportunities in our employment or lack of, and the way our culture views breasts, and breastfeeding. I have a hard time believing when someone doesn’t want to breastfeed it is simply because they don’t want to breastfeed.
Questions like those from the Crunk Feminist Collective assume everyone has experienced the same kind of ideas on mothering, on breastfeeding, on feminism. It also paints a picture that our society is one where equality looms large, and everyone has access to the same resources, and neither racism, capitalism, sexism, or any other isms or systems of inequality play a part in shaping our outlook. This is not the case. Infant feeding and feminist ideas are complex, which is why we need to go below the surface in order to understand the ideas and the debates surrounding breastmilk, breastfeeding and infant formula, and how they are infused with implications, complications, and politics that determine who does and does not breastfeed and why.
So my friend and the ladies at the CFC are right when it comes to having a choice on how a woman feeds her baby, being empowered, and feminism. Black women, and all women should do whatever makes her feel empowered, of course! The only catch is, truly being empowered means having access to information, access to education, equality, employment and ability where every women can breastfeed if she wanted to, which leads to the ability to make truly informed decisions — not ones based on misinformation — that is just too rampant in our society. Also, instead of believing that all feminist ideas are linear, perhaps we need to remind ourselves “why feminism?” And replace the questions with a good starter — maybe one such as “What does a feminist look like?”