A judge, Matthew Myers, in Australia banned a mother from breastfeeding her 11 month old child due to concerns about her possibly contracting HIV or another blood born virus after getting a tattoo. Thankfully, the ban was overturned by an emergency Appeals Court decision, but the implications of such a decision on women’s bodily autonomy are incalculable.
The risks of transmission of HIV or other blood born viruses from a tattoo at a licensed tattoo parlour are minute. Women are far more likely to contract these viruses from a partner who has sex with other women whilst she is pregnant or breastfeeding. There will never be a call banning men from having sex (or raping) their pregnant or breastfeeding partners in case they pass on a blood born virus. Frankly, the biggest danger to a foetus or a breastfeeding infant is domestic violence perpetrated by the father. The criminal justice system consistently underestimates, minimises and ignores this evidence-based risk to infant and mother health.
Interestingly, all the media coverage I read on this judgment focused on the issue of breastfeeding but there is a much bigger problem than a judge who bans a mother from breastfeeding based on a tattoo. The reason behind the ban was the fact that the mother had been diagnosed with postnatal depression and the judge felt this negated her ability to mother. The judge was looking for an excuse to interfere with mothering. Myers made the suggestion of a ban during a custody hearing. He couldn’t use the mother’s mental health to ban breastfeeding so he used the tattoo instead.
This was a considered attack on a woman’ ability to mother her child using every excuse possible to break the bond with the child. It’s pretty clear this judge believes fathers’ ‘rights’ to own their children supersedes the rights of the child and the mother. A judge who goes out of his way to research the minute risks of breastfeeding to prevent a mother from feeding her child is not someone who should be allowed to proceed over custodial agreements. This judgment had nothing to do with the child’s health and everything to do with the judge’s prejudiced beliefs about mothers with postnatal depression.
There are no such thing as breastfeeding Nazis. At no point in history has there ever been women who breastfeed joining fascist parties for the sole purpose of committing the mass genocide of women who do not breastfeed. Using the term “Nazi” to refer to anything but the actual Nazi government of Germany or any far-right fascist group makes you sound like an ahistorical buckethead with no understanding of genocide.
Comparing women who are pro-breastfeeding (regardless of whether or not they are rude) is disgraceful. It makes a mockery of the murder of millions of innocent people. It’s an asinine hyperbole.
Am I pro-breasfeeding? Yup.
Do I have a problem with the government’s latest attempt to increase breastfeeding rates by offering new mothers up to £200 in shopping vouchers? Absolutely.
It’s a ridiculous policy which does nothing to target the real reasons why women “fail” or chose not to breastfeed. It doesn’t target the phenomenal number of myths about breastfeeding peddled by formula manufacturers. It ignores the very practical realities which result in women choosing not to breastfeed [or the emotionally, abusive behaviour of partners which has resulted in a not insignificant number of women being unable to breastfeed]. It ignores the physiological reasons why women cannot breastfeed.
It ignores the chronic underfunding of NHS maternity services which have resulted in inadequate numbers of midwives available to support women. It ignores the lack of training midwives receive to support breastfeeding. It ignores the lack of qualified support workers to help women once they have left the hospital. It ignores the failure to diagnose tongue-tie which results in women being able to breastfeed.
It ignores the myths propagated by the media that women’s breasts are only for sex and that breastfeeding ruins your body. Hell, it ignores media doctors like Christian Jessen who seem to actually believe that breastfeeding ruins your breast [here’s a hint: rapid weight gain in pregnancy fundamentally changes your body. It doesn’t “ruin” your body. It just changes your body].
This policy ignores the amount of advertising from formula manufacturers who are big fans of the “most women can’t breastfeed” myths because it increases their revenues.
Increasing breastfeeding rates in this country requires the following:
- a complete ban on formula advertising
- more investment in midwives
- more investment in breastfeeding support workers
- prosecuting and fining formula companies for their aggressive [and frequently misleading] formula advertisements
- it requires a fundamental cultural shift wherein breasts are no longer viewed as sex objects
- it requires a culture which understands the reasons why women chose not to or cannot breastfeed.
And, it requires women showing other women some kindness. We are all judged for the choices we make. It doesn’t matter if we breastfeed or formula feed, there will always be someone who judges us negatively for them. We need to learn to be more confident with the decisions we make.
We also need to start understanding that analysing the conditions in which women make the “choice” to breastfeed or not is not a personal attack on an individual women but political analysis. A woman who “chooses” a different way isn’t doing so with the express purpose of hurting your feelings.
And, if someone is rude about the “choices” you have made, tell them so. Ask them if they meant to be that rude. Or, walk away. Using the behaviour or language of one person who is being rude to dismiss the “choices” of the entire group of people who made that “choice” is also ridiculous.
£200 worth of shopping vouchers won’t help anyone actually breastfeed. It won’t make up for poor maternity care, lack of support or an abusive partner who thinks breastfeeding is “gross”. We already know what will actually help women who choose to breastfeed to do so successfully without making women who choose not to feel like shit. How about we actually finance those programs?
And, if you do come across someone who is so pro-breastfeeding that they are rude to you, don’t call them the breastfeeding nazis or gestapo or mafia. That’s ahistorical nincompoopery.
In celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, here are some of my favourite images:
This article published in The Australian is currently doing the rounds on Facebook. Basically, a research and advocacy group called sids and kids has added breastfeeding to the list of things which statistically decrease the chances of an infant dying of SIDS. This isn’t new research and the links between SIDS and breastfeeding have been reported here previously. Scientific research has demonstrated time and time again that breast milk is best for babies and the World Health Organisation recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first 6 months and then up to 2 years. I posted a link on my FB wall. The first two comments suggested that the publication of the research was designed specifically to make women feel like shit.
I don’t think anyone can argue with the research but what comes up, time and time again, is the idea that somehow promoting this research is done only to “punish” women who formula feed. Now, I’m usually at the head of the queue at the woman-blaming culture protests and am a firm believer that the Patriarchy deliberately and maliciously sets women up to police other women’s behaviour to the detriment of all women. The Patriarchy punishes women in a million and one ways. I just don’t think the issue of breastfeeding and SIDS is about women-blaming culture or, at least, it shouldn’t be. It should be about what has the best outcomes for infants and mothers. Breastfeeding has health benefits for both the mother and the infant and very few women are physically incapable of breastfeeding. Statistically, the number of women who physically can’t breastfeed is insignificant in the face of the number of women who “can’t” for cultural reasons. The reason many women “can’t” breastfeed is because of structural inequalities in employment and home life, lack of support, and the constant misinformation spouted by so-called professionals like Dr. Christian Jessen and Gina Ford. Ford, at least, has the excuse of not being a medical doctor. Dr. Christian is just a misogynistic tool.
Breast-feeding is normal. This doesn’t mean that women who choose not to or who can’t breast feed are bad mothers. It simply means that breast milk fits the needs of babies in terms of their immune systems and long-term health as a result of millions of years of evolution. What we need to do is separate the emotion from the science. Breast feeding, like putting a baby on their back to sleep, statistically decreases the chance of an infant dying of SIDS. It doesn’t prevent SIDS nor does it mean a mother who loses a child to SIDS and who didn’t breastfeed is responsible for her child dying. That would be women-blaming [not to mention vile, disgusting, evil and utterly lacking in humanity]. It is totally reasonable to kick anyone who said such a despicable thing viciously in the shins.
We need to support women who want to breastfeed better and we need to tackle the misinformation about formula which actively puts babies at risk: like how to prepare formula properly. We also need to challenge the myths of breastfeeding like the fact that breastfeeding doesn’t change the shape of your breasts: pregnancy does that. And, really, who the fuck cares that your breasts have changed shape because of pregnancy? Bodies change. That doesn’t change who you are; nor does it make you less sexual if you do. Frankly, if your partner finds you less sexy because your body has changed shaped after birthing his child, then you need to kick his pathetic, judgemental, whiny-arse to the curb. Because real men don’t think like that.
We need to ensure that every woman has access to real information about breastfeeding and formula feeding in order for each woman to make the best choice for herself and her child. We need to respect the decision of each individual woman whilst exploring the structural inequalities which force women to make “choices” which are not appropriate for them. What we can not do is refuse to publish information that might make some women upset because they did not breastfeed. Preventing all women from accessing real information because a few women might get upset is precisely how the Patriarchy victimises women: by withholding information and pitting women against women.