The Ecology of Breastfeeding

by Lucila Newell, May 2nd 2018

Breastfeeding is food. It is part of the wider network of food production and relations. The food of love, as it has been called. And it is. Breastfeeding provides sustenance and nourishment and love in one swift gesture.

That breastfeeding is food is a fact that it is often forgotten in debates about breastfeeding in public, for instance, where breastfeeding is likened to going to the toilet or to having sex in public. This is because breastfeeding touches on a number of taboos. As breasts have become hyper sexualised, the taboo of showing a breast in public is related to sex, and thus indecency, and this is the reason the people who complain about breastfeeding in public and ask for discretion are all about. The other taboo is that of human secretions in public. The taboo of natural human waste products: urine, poo, even sweat, long held in many societies, which are not meant to be seen in public, has somehow been collated with breastmilk. The act of breastfeeding, with many times leaking breasts, and the act of transposing a liquid form one being to another in public seems taboo.

Kate Boyer, a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Cardiff, explores the meanings of breastmilk as a secret substance in an article where she examines the emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public (2018)*. She follows philosophers Deleuze and Guattari, in their analysis of secrets and links it to secretions: both leaking and oozing, fluid and out of control; secrets and secretions are not meant to be seen, but escape their confines. In the UK, as Boyer (2018) states, human milk is a secretion that feels like it is meant to be secret. Breastfeeding in public is something that feels like it is meant to be hidden, and when it is brought out in the open, it can thus produce discomfort and embarrassment, for strangers and mothers. Boyer (2009*) also shows how this taboo flares up in work places, as for instance, controversies arose in the US about storing breastmilk in the shared office fridge. The breastmilk produced disgust, while cow’s milk was not considered offensive. And it is curious how one one liquid can be more offensive than another. And this is related to the comfort that formula feeding can give women.

I am not interested here in analysing the political economy of formula milk. The history of how formula milk companies have expanded their markets has been well documented (see for instance Palmer, 1988, new edition 2009; Baumslag and Michels 1995; Grayson 2016; Seals Allers 2017*). This ground work is still being done in developing countries, such as China and the Philippines, as we saw in recent news coverage. What I am interested in is how bottle feeding has become part of the culture, of women’s daily practice, and how it works. To continue railing against bottle feeding without an understanding of bottle feeding culture and pressuring more and more info on mothers to breastfeed without the support to make this happen has only alienated women, and made them feel ashamed: shame if you do it, shame if you don’t.

My purpose here is to see what are the infrastructures in place that make bottle feeding part of our culture. And this takes me to the way we are used to consuming in this society. There is often a distance between our food and its provenance. We are used to buying food from supermarkets, which most of the times comes clean, packaged and with a price. The process of food production is hidden, its provenance, more often than not, obscure. Formula feeding in a way works with these other practices of food consumption. Many people don’t realise that formula milk is altered cow’s milk, for instance. The use of the term ‘formula’ make it seem more scientific, and hides its contents.

Part of the comfort of using formula is that it conforms with our cultural expectations of how we feed ourselves, and it ties in with our everyday practices of consumption. Formula milk, comes packaged, powdered and with a price tag. It is bought in supermarkets or other retail centres, where we buy our food. It is accompanied by a marketing strategy and media adverts, like other food products we consume. It is mediated by plastic bottles and teats, and prepared using technologies, like microwaves and sterilising equipment. All of which require energy to produce and to dispose of. These rely on certain infrastructures, such as potable running water, electricity, and transport, which ties in with other practices in our everyday lives.

We are also used to having distance between our consumption and our waste. Waste is nothing more than a gesture of displacement, putting things where they will be taken away, where we cannot see them, smell them, feel their impact. For a moment, let’s shrink the distance. The waste of formula feeding, as much other waste in our everyday food consumption, is problematic. The process of manufacturing creates waste; the plastic bottles and teats, oil products themselves, produce waste. Most of which takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and even as it does, it contaminates and creates other problems for wildlife and soil. Not forgetting the the packaging, marketing material and transport, which also produce waste.

Breastfeeding, on the other hand, is different from this cultural norm. It cannot be more close to the source. And, as I already stated above, this is part of the discomfort too. Cause it comes straight from breasts, which, are considered sexual objects, and not one part of the body that can be many things, as the mouth can eat and kiss. And if we add its place in food production and consumption, breastfeeding is the ultimate local, renewable, food source. You cannot get more local than this. There is no transport required. No labs. It changes with the seasons, with the needs of the child. It changes depending on the need to quench thirst, fight illness, enable growth. It is also sustainable, and zero waste. It does not require extra resources. But this creates a feeling of discomfort too. There is less control. The baby demands what it needs, the body produces what is needed. And its immediacy makes this process invisible. But we find this hard to trust. To trust this process would mean to trust women’s bodies, and to trust babies and children, and this is countercultural too.

I recently watched a documentary by Bruce Parry, called Tawai: a voice from the forestTawai, as the documentary explains, is the word the nomadic hunter gatherers of Borneo use to describe their inner feeling of connection to nature. In it, Parry asks the nomadic hunter gatherers of Borneo what the forests means for them, and one of them answers in this way: ’that is why I feel Tawai about the forest; because it will provide for me like a mother breastfeeding her child […] When you first go to the old forest during the fruit season, it’s like when I’m with my mother, I know I can rely on her to breastfeed me.’ This struck me. Not only because of the parallels between mothers and mother nature, but also because the message is clear: as humans, the mother by breastfeeding, provides all the baby needs. It is food, it is love, it is feeling safe, nourished, provided for. There is no need for anything else. No packaging, no money, no transactions, no transport, no waste. In many ways, breastfeeding is as old and traditional, as it is radical.

And this feeling is one that I have felt, and have heard many women try to articulate: the miracle that our bodies have created a baby, and fed it, made it grow, just with our own bodies, without much volition, just letting it be. The work is more on getting others, and often our own cultural expectations, out of the way; the discomfort of others out of the way. In a recent workshop on breastfeeding in publicwe discussed how sometimes the internal battle, the struggle to make space for yourself and your baby, the battle with others, is much more tiring than the practise itself. In those moments it might be perhaps useful to remember, to tune into this old and radical way of being in the world, and try to let go of the weight of the outside voices and the world.

* References

Baumslag, N., and Michels, D.L., 1995, Money, Milk and Madness: The culture and politics of breastfeeding, London: Praeger

Boyer, K., 2018, The emotional resonances of breastfeeding in public: The role of strangers in breastfeeding practice, Emotion, Space and Society, 26: 33-40,

Boyer, K. (2009) ‘Of care and commodities: breast milk and the new politics of mobile biosubstances’, Progress in Human Geography, 34(1): 5–20.
Palmer, G., 2009, The politics of breastfeeding: when breasts are bad for business, London: Pinter and Martin.

Grayson, J., 2016, Unlatched, The evolution of breastfeeding and the making of a controversy, New York: Harper.

Seals Allers, K., 2017, The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Photo credit: Photo from Public Breastfeeding Awareness Project, 2014, Ashley Marston Birth Photography

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