Wednesday, February 22, 2006

My biology is not my destiny

(Cross-posted at What If No One's Watching?)

I don't know if you are seeing this billboard in your city, but it is all over mine.

And it pisses me right off.

At first, I thought it just pissed me off because it was ass-backwards, and that if it said something like, "Breasts were made for feeding babies," I'd be OK with it. After all, of all the things a person is "born" to do, is being breastfed really at the top of the list? It just seemed...trite.

But thinking more about it, the other way would piss me off just as much, if not more. Because yes, breasts are used to feed babies. I understand the biology there. But as a feminist, I take issue with what I choose to do with my body taking back seat to the biology of what my body can do (or what I assume it can, I mean, I don't know that I could breastfeed, and some women who would like to can't, so that's another problem). Men, this city, this state, this country...they already own my body to a degree that I am uncomfortable with--the last thing I need is billboards to dictate to me what my body parts are for. The capacity to bear and nourish a child is not and should be conflated with the decision to do so.

Given the anti-breastfeeding factions in this country, as well as the massive miseducation about breastfeeding, I understand the need for pro-breastfeeding campaigns, and campaigns that focus on how breastfeeding is a natural, healthy thing and not something that should cause women shame. I support public breastfeeding for women who choose to do so. I'm all for it. But that does not change my dislike for being told what to do with my own body, whether it is by some dude or the media or the La Leche League. At the end of the day, my breasts, just like my uterus and every other part of me, are for whatever I say they are for. We may be mammals, but we are not beasts. We can and have in many arenas moved beyond our biology and made decisions based on other criteria, and there is no reason childbearing and nourishment should not be one of those arenas. Just because my body (again, assumedly) can bear a child does not mean I have a responsibility to do so, and just because my breasts have the capacity to nourish does not mean that I am under any obligation to choose to use them that way. My biology is not my destiny.


Blogger skylanda said...

I totally agree - I'm all for breastfeeding, but not really at all enamored with these billboards.

I think there's another twist to it too, which is that there are lots and lots of women who can't breatfeed their babies for reasons that are not anyone's business but their own. Women with HIV, women on strong meds that babies shouldn't ingest second-hand, all that stuff. And I really hate the idea that those women might be made to feel lesser, inadequate, or unnatural for not breastfeeding. For most, it's a great choice if not the best choice. But it's no one's business when that's not the case.

Though these billboards are meant to counter some really unhealthy attitudes toward breastfeeding (eg. that it shouldn't be done in public), I think they create a whole new set of problems on their own. Isn't there some way we could support women's space to breastfeed without acting all daddy-knows-best about it?

1:00 PM  
Blogger Gyratory Circus said...

Skylanda - less than 5% of women are medically unable to breastfeed. Most of the rest just get shitty information, like if your milk hasn't come in within 12 hours of giving birth your baby is going to starve to death, so they think that they "can't" breastfeed. (ftr,it usually takes 3-4 days, but before that the baby gets colostrum, which is full of extremely important antibodies)

As a woman who breastfed her child for 2 years, I LOVE these billboards. The only person that was 100% supportive of me breastfeeding was my husband. Everyone else - my mother, mother-in-law,grandmothers, boss (who was female, and a mother herself), my daughter's pediatricians, my own doctors, many of my friends - was indifferent, if not downright hostile, to my choice to breastfeed. Because I'm a stubborn bitch, I didn't let them sway me, but I saw friends of mine take ridiculous steps to try to appease everyone (such as walk the length of the shopping mall to go hide in the fancy "mother's lounge" in Nordstrom, tryinng to calm a screaming, hungry baby on the 10 minute walk, rather than sitting on the bench that was *right there* because she was afraid somebody might give her a dirty look. She stopped nursing at 5 months, even though she was SAHM because she was afraid to nurse in public.)

Until our society can get past the idea that breasts are for men's amusement, or that breastfeeding is a huge pain in the ass (which it is absolutely not, once you get past the first month), or is on par with publicly taking a dump, then I fully support any medium that reminds women that babies were meant to drink milk their mother's milk, and that breasts are more than sex toys.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Grace said...

I don't disagree with any of that, but none of it addresses my actual problem with these boards. It's not about breasts being men's playthings, or about breastfeeding in public being frowned up on and discriminated against, it's about having someone tell me one more fucking time what my body is for, as if that is their decision and not mine.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Gyratory Circus said...

I understand your frustration, but the way that I look at it is this: YOU are well-educated enough to know that lactation is a what breasts or for. There are LOT of women who that thought *never occurs to* because of the reasons I mentioned before. They honestly don't know that women actually breastfeed in this day and age, because they have it ingrained in them that formula is just is good and is convenient (neither of which are true).

That billboard is not advocating mandatory lactation for all women, it's simply reminding women of what their bodies are capable of.

11:09 AM  
Blogger skylanda said...

I disagree, GC - I think that this kind of approach decrees what is natural, and if you don't fit into that some reason, it implies an inadequacy. I think the turn of the phrase itself bothers me to: babies are not just born to breastfeed. They are born to feed (breast or not), burp, poo, make gurgling noises, learn to sit up/talk/walk, and eventually grow into bigger versions of the little people they are. I don't like the way bf'ing is held up as the definition of good babyhood.

Is it really that hard to come up with a pro-bf'ing message that doesn't try to prescribe women's behavior?? I'd love to hear what people can come up with...

11:24 AM  
Blogger Grace said...

Agreed. I have heard enough women make enough good arguments about breastfeeding to know that breastfeeding advocates can do better that this judgemental and prescriptive shit. There are actual REASONS to breastfeed, so why not talk about those, rather than focus on what babies or breasts are "made" for?

12:09 PM  
Blogger skylanda said...

Or how about frame it as an issue of rights - you have a RIGHT to breastfeed, you have a RIGHT to bf in public without harassment, you have a RIGHT to feed your kid without getting any guff from anyone.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Sofiya said...

Oooh, I'd love to see a billboard that said that.

12:34 AM  
Blogger frog said...

See, I think this billboard campaing is effective. It's catchy, it inspires discussion, and it gets its point across.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Grace said...

Those things are all true, but it's also insulting and patronizing.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Krupskaya said...

Patronizing, perhaps, if you already know it.

8:22 AM  
Blogger skylanda said...

Hmm...somthing else just occurred to me...

Maybe I'm way out in left field (heh, yeah, I know, that wouldn't be a first), but something about the tone of these billboards reminds of the anti-abortion rhetoric. I'm not sure what it is. Maybe is the focus on baby, baby, baby, nevermind the mother. Maybe is the naturalization of women as automatic mothers, mothers who do particular things for their babies if they are going to be good mothers, even if it might not be the best thing for them. Maybe it's just that this billboard and pro-life rhetoric have the unfortunately commonality that they both seem to want to tell women what is right for them, in a moralistic and self-superior sense.

Or maybe the crack I smoked this morning is going to my head.

I'd still love to hear what we could come up with that could express the same message without quite so much of the patronizing bit that at least a couple of us get when we read it...

8:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"That billboard is not advocating mandatory lactation for all women, it's simply reminding women of what their bodies are capable of."

Well, except that it's not reminding women of anything. It is telling everyone, men included, that breasts and babies exist without women. It neatly separates women from their bodies and thier babies. Or more precisely, it makes breasts an independent entity with a role in life that they only fulfill when the baby that is born "for" them is suckling.


11:05 AM  
Blogger thistle said...

I have the billboards. Because what a gross idea of what a baby is for--to breastfeed! Not to live and grow and turn into a happy healthy little person. Just to feed at your breasts. It makes the baby sound like a parasite, and I say that as someone who *plans* to breastfeed and is not at all usually bothered by the thought of it. I think the message that the billboards *should* send is that breastfeeding is an important thing to do because it's the best way to help your child grow and be happy and healthy, but I really don't think that's the message that they *are* sending. If anything, if I were someone who was already hesitant about breastfeeding, this would make me far less enthusiastic. It's great to see public advocacy of breastfeeding, but I don't think that we have to accept it all unquestioningly if the message could be framed to be more effective.

11:10 AM  
Blogger thistle said...

Whoops--so I meant that I "hate" the billboards, not that I "have them." Obviously.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

I am very much in agreement, Thistle. As someone who is hesitant about breastfeeding, this campaign completely turns me off.

And I think what Q said was really interesting, re: seperating women from their bodies. I hadn't thought of it in quite that way, but I think she's on the money, and that she actually identified part of what bothers me about these billboards, which I hadn't put my finger on myself.

3:11 PM  
Blogger skylanda said...

Well, here's an interesting experiment. Go to (that site that makes and sells people's custom t-shirts) and search on the phrase "breast feeding". There's a couple hundred t-shirts with breast feeding mottos - some of which are great, some of which are, uh, icky to say the least. But here's some I could get behind:

"Offended by breastfeeding? Then don't look."

"If nursing in public offends you, please feel free to put a blanket over your head."

"Normalize breast feeding - nurse in public."

"Mary breastfed in church."

OK, I like some of those better than other (and I can't vouch for the veracity of the last one!), but it seems to me that there are ways to bring up the topic without making prescriptive snarks at women's choices.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Grace said...

Gah, talk about prescriptive.

"ALL Babies Were Born to be Breastfed! Homegrown and Adopted!"

"The Bond of Breastfeeding Belongs to All Babies."

There are also the tandem nursing ones that say "owner of the right side" or "owner of the left side." Owner? Ouch.

However, I do enjoy "I Make Milk! What is your super power?"

10:48 AM  
Blogger skylanda said...

Yeah, I totally dug that last one too!

Of course, I also think I might have to order myself one of those t-shirts that has a picture of a blue-footed booby over each breast and says underneath: "boobies." But that's because I'm a big marine biology geek.

2:28 PM  
Blogger sybil said...

A couple years ago Toronto bus shelters were postered with a beautiful large graphic reading, "Every baby deserves breast milk", with approximately a dozen illustrations of babies of different ethnicities. I loved them, wish I'd scored one.

That might offend you, too. But the culture, as you've noted, has made breast-feeding optional or taboo. More and more research suggests that 6 months breast-feeding sets a child up for life. That includes immunities, optimal nutrition for developing digestive systems, to say nothing of bonding, touch, trust, etc.

I was not breastfed, and I had no babies.(This is not to imply that no breast-feeding leads to no babies. However, I do have a messed up immune system and such a poor relationship with my mother that I knew I wasn't equipped to cope with kids any better than she did.)

It seems to me that if we could, not like this billboard, educate women to what a huge boost in life breast-feeding offers baby, then those women for whom it's possible could plan for this, to know that 6 months is vastly superior to less time, in terms of the babe's development, and more than 6 months is an optional extra.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

6 months of breastfeeding..."sets a child up for life"...? I don't mean to be disrespectful--but--are you kidding? If that was all it took, I think the world would be a far simpler place. The list of factors, all far more major than human milk, includes education, a loving home, supportive family, etc etc etc etc. It's exactly this rhetoric of ultimatums (ie, "set up for life") that sacrifices women as independent thinkers and agents. Before anyone makes sweeping generalizations about breastmilk-as-solid-gold, please read this valuable article in _Slate_, which does much to underscore the real value of breastfeeding, without caving in to the hype:

In fact, the privilege of living in a place with clean drinking water and various resources is that women can, in fact, make choices about how they feed their babies. These choices should be about what works best for the woman, the baby, her partner. Often there are numerous factors, and plenty of times the decision is a complicated one. But the fact remains that choice has always been at the core of feminist ideology. We are fortunate to live in communities where such choices are possible. And we have a feminist responsibility to support other women--other mothers--in their efforts to exercise such choice. I fully agree that babies are born for lots of things--eating seems to me merely a necessary blip along the way to changing the world. The battle to reclaim one's breasts--to make choices about how to use them--should not be lost when one chooses to be a mother. Good mothers, it turns out, come in many forms, too, just like food.

7:23 PM  

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