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‘Tainted Milk: breastmilk, feminism, and the politics of environmental degradation’ SUNY Press, 2006.

TAINTED MILK: breastmilk, feminisms, and the politics of environmental degradation by Maia Boswell-Penc takes a conscious-raising look at environmental pollution and breastmilk,  and its effect at a national and global level. It examines the politics behind infant nourishment, and looks at why the issue of contamination is repeatedly disregarded by those organizations and groups who would seem to have a vested interest — feminists, mainstream environmentalists, the media, and other sections of society.

Environmental issues have been at the top of the list of socially-conscious discourse in more recent years. This is a result of more avenues of information, where more people’s increased awareness, allows them to feel they have a level of control of environmental substances they are exposed to. Many people are again growing their own food at an increasing rate, buying organic and natural products, and the heightened awareness through academic and non-academic discourse makes these environmental issues a growing trend.

Feminist ideas on breastfeeding have also shared the stage, since discourse surrounding infant nourishment has been both a topic where recent studies continuously show that human milk as a health imperative is the most nourishing form of infant feeding, and where debates and disagreements on breastmilk have erupted, questioning  the practice, progressiveness, and effectiveness to women’s position in society and how it relates to these ideas.

These topics are often discussed, usually in different areas of concern, but in here are both at the center.  Maia Boswell-Penc clearly states her advocacy of breastfeeding, and the importance of breastmilk as infant nourishment is weaved throughout this text, of course. However, TAINTED MILK: breastmilk, feminisms, and the politics of environmental degradation is not a book of extreme breastfeeding advocacy. This means that while the overarching message strongly supports breastmilk as the preferred source of infant nutrition, and tells us in order to believe we are able to help eradicate the issues we must believe in its significance, it does not aim at convincing readers to strictly breastfeed. Instead, it takes each reader on a critical journey, where each can see the framework and foundation of these issues and our place among them, as it acknowledges the most important — everyone should have the option to breastfeed, and to do so safely.

Whereas other studies point to environmental contaminants as strictly an environmental factor, Maia Boswell-Penc, an academic, feminist scholar, and mother of two children who were breastfed while researching and writing this material, leaves no stone unturned, examining this breastfeeding caste, framing environmental contamination, and the effects of environmentally contaminated breastmilk and its relation to social stratification and structural oppression. Clear explanations of environmental factors and feminist ideas shows that these issues are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact are closely intertwined with each other, as well as many other areas of society. Through a mostly non-esoteric tone, she delves deep to the source and clearly identifies that which has been strategic in favoring those who society has deemed most worthy. She provided an aerial view, critiquing supremacist and racist agendas by providing historic examples that allow us to clearly see the structure which leads us to more contemporary times, and shows us that breastfeeding is seen not as a right, but a privilege experienced mostly by white, middle-class women.

This vivid picture is both compelling and convicting, sending a message about the burgeoning environmental pollutants — breastmilk contains environmental contaminants — these come from pesticides and plastics and many other areas and are being ingested and are being fed to our children and to their children, and to their children’s children, and to all subsequent generations, and many are being exposed to serious illnesses and dying as a result. But the issue is constantly ignored.

To begin her argument, she uses an example; — “the easiest way to measure [environmental] contaminants is through breastmilk”,  and fortifies this, suggesting that breastmilk is like a social marker that can indicate social rank based on the  amount of contaminants. Meaning, society’s most valued members experience less pollutants overall, and if we were to blindly measure breastmilk, the amount of pollutants can indicate social statuses, since the highest concentration of pollutants would be found in those society has deemed less worthy.

Her initial discourse explains the strategic methods and ways positive and negative sentiments towards breastmilk have changed, and what has contributed to this. Her analysis of the role prejudice has played then and now in  fearing the other and stigmatizing immigrant Women Of Color, who often were wet nurses, illuminated how these ideas initially began to erupt, as the reader begins to see how this is connected to other social issues. She also explains that the issues surrounding breastfeeding and reproductive decisions and lack of have been and are still blamed on Women Of Color, women in developing countries, and the stigma of ‘tainted milk’, regarding drug use and HIV transmission, has rested with those who have occupied a marginalized space; in other words, we continue blaming the victims.

Some main points used to show that the lack of attention from environmental advocates, feminist communities, and inattention from other social establishments show that these come from similar stances, where fear or anxiety encompass each. One side fears  breastfeeding backlash and losing important feminist strides, such as being relegated back to the dreaded role of housekeeper, or not seeing breastmilk as significant as violence, for example, while the other fears reprimand from society for appearing to support artificial formula.  She does all of this while critiquing the mainstream feminist movement and other sectors that ignore the consequences of disregarding these important areas, not looking at the overall outcome, historical facts, or how this perpetuates social division and continued health disparities, showing that this type of exclusion, essentialist, and supremacist thinking continue to work against the most vulnerable members of society.

Finally, she also explained the disregard from mainstream environmental movements and environmental advocacy groups that do not take into account marginalized groups who are continuously subjected to physical and cultural genocide through mainstream practices, and whose short-sighted agendas wreak havoc on those populations whose voices are continuously silenced. These attitudes and injustices are directed especially in Native American and increasing Latino communities.

Even given the standpoint of this material, one area of concern is that there are several words in quotes, which may be potentially confusing for some readers. An example of this can be seen with the use of the terms “race” and “white,” which, when presented this way usually indicates an esoteric view of scientific and social research that has deemed these not an actual fact, but a social construct; something that is made up — a view many will not agree with, since society has made many races very real, and whiteness, white dominance, and white privilege are real, and are clearly real even in the context of this text. Other examples of this can be seen throughout. However in relation to the entire text, this is a very small amount, and this well-researched material is accessible and readable to a wide pool of those in various academic and social backgrounds.

The relations between so many social issues surrounding environmental contamination and infant feeding is remarkable, and is delivered in a thought-provoking and convincing tone that cannot be ignored. Maia Boswell-Penc delivers this message with a sense of urgency that calls on all of us to take a look at the ways we have and the ways we continue supporting environmental contamination and breastmilk toxicity — through our complacency, through our silence, and to help make the changes we so desperately need.

I’m not sure how this author defines herself as far as her racial and ethnic identity, but judging from the tone of this text I’m thinking she defines herself as a white woman. I have to be honest when I say as a Black feminist (and not just a Black woman who is a feminist), it is extremely rare that I find feminist scholarship from white women as representative and inclusive. It is mostly very idyllic and does not address the unique experiences and circumstances of Communities Of Color, and almost never looks at historical aspects exposing  the way privilege has and continues to play a role in dominating and excluding Women Of Color and issues concerning our communities. I also find it looks at oppression, social issues, and ways to change through a single-trajectory, and privileged lens — meaning, what I think should work in my world, should work in everyone’s world. However, I believe Maia Boswell-Penc’s radical ‘in your face’ tone, providing historical facts with contemporary examples was instrumental in conveying the message that the history of breastfeeding issues and the continued effects of environmental contaminants and breastfeeding rights are weighted heavily against poor, women, and Communities Of Color, and is systematic and strategic, with white privilege, supremacist ideas and capitalism at the backdrop. I worry that many will ignore this conversation to continue averting this truth.

I have also read quite a bit about breastfeeding lately, and even though [at this point] breastmilk is still found to be superior to infant formula in producing healthier generations, it never occurred to me that breastmilk itself would contain contaminants. When it came to the environment, I have only ever thought of breastmilk as a shield from pollution. It also didn’t occur to me the extent infant feeding is reflective of many other social issues.

I took from this text the message that our attention to breastfeeding, contaminants, and their politics is a strong indicator of our actual overall social progress, and the progress we feel, as far as being a society that is physically healthier, has more women with autonomy, one that is more socially conscious and globally aware, can only be counted as a veneer  if we continue ignoring the urgency of tainted milk and all of the issues surrounding it. And without paying attention to the causes and effects of contamination and degradation, making critical interventions, we end up at a worse point than before — because instead of making a decision on how we choose to feed our babies, contamination leaves us choiceless. And that will affect all of us in all areas, everywhere. I am thrilled to have read this book.

Author: Maia Boswell-Penc
Publisher: SUNY Press. Albany, NY

Year: 2006
Paperback: 31.95
Genre: Environmental/Women’s Studies
Pages: 212
ISBN: 978-0-7914-6720-6

Thank you, SUNY Press, for providing a copy of TAINTED MILK:  breastmilk, feminisms, and the politics of environmental degradation for this review, and I have an additional copy for giveaway. At this time, this giveaway is open only to participants in the United States due to shipping issues.  Leave a comment on this post by next Tuesday and it will count as your entry. All names will be entered with a winner selected at random via random.org, and announced in next week’s blog post. Winner please respond within three days or another will be selected.

Note: All opinions are my own and honest, and I am not compensated by the publisher!

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