by Lisa Creagh, First published at http://www.lisacreagh.com, July 2018
The theme of this years’ Photography festival Recontres d’Arles was Geopolitics, Transhumanism, Revolts, Utopias, all without mentioning infertility, parenthood, childhood, childrearing or birth. Unsurprisingly, 80% of the exhibitions were by men. Women were there, yes (as 20% of the exhibitors) but most often talking about men (space travel, soldiers, fashion designers). When women weren’t talking about men, men were talking about men: men who thought they were Jesus, men who wanted to become robots, men who were fighting wars, starting wars, being killed by other men for opposing war. Some of these exhibitions were astounding, many were moving. It was an impressive gathering of forces. All along I kept remembering the time a (male) friend once jokingly said to me in conversation,
“But I’ve talked enough about myself, why don’t you talk about me for a bit?”
So much Dark Matter.
This got me thinking about CERN and the sheer scale of scientific endeavour to discover in physics the answers to the universe. Yet when it comes to our bodies, women’s bodies, we have this blind spot. We simply do not (cannot) look. Despite hundreds of years of advancement, we are still in the Dark Ages when it comes to anything connected to that ultimate mystery: birth. It is so infuriating that this experiment was conducted by a group of women who came together from across the country to get it started (although the Parenting Science Gang is an awesome example of people taking the reins in science and deciding themselves what to investigate, so hooray for PSG!), that we are all volunteers. The importance and relevance of this work has implications for global health yet there are just a handful of scientist working on it globally.
Now that I am sensitive to this, I notice it everywhere: breastfeeding is left off every agenda. In issues related to the environment, public health, global poverty, breastfeeding is not mentioned. The Government have a new policy for preventing childhood obesity : no mention. Strategies for reducing plastic waste in drinks : no mention. These are all Big Budget affairs, billions are being spent on prevention in both areas but breastfeeding isn’t mentioned: this free, direct from source, nutritionally individualised, globally available preventative medicine is unmentioned.
One explanation for the (male) bias could be the close ties photography shares with journalism: in itself inexorably tangled with the processes of the news cycle that favours sensationalism over the boring hum drum of daily oppression. As the writers of (my favourite book) Half a Sky put it: “”When we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear proliferation….Back then, the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for…”
The issues that are specific to women and girls are often everyday, banal, accepted realities that seem never to be shaken because nobody bothers to address them. They are not exciting, don’t involve big weapons or posturing politicians, just the day to day sorrows that we silently swallow.
The day after I returned from Arles I went to an announcement of the results of an experiment by the Parenting Science Gang (http://parentingsciencegang.org.uk) into the contents of breast milk. The scientist, Simon who conducted the results was this lovely single man in his thirties, surrounded by women, babies, boobs. It was excellent! Simon explained to us that in any experiment there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. He showed us graphs and maps of the mind-boggling variety of content, the extent to which it is individualised to each child, and the questions it raises for more research.
Simon was able to tell us that there are 6,900 compounds. We don’t know what they are yet. These compounds are present at all age of child but the content can be seen to vary widely per sample. We don’t know what brings about the change. A longitudinal study, following children from birth, perhaps taking samples every hour to see when, how and why the milk changes is needed. This requires funding, lots of it. But most funding for research into breast milk comes from Formula companies. When Simon used the same analysis to test a brand of Infant Formula the results were a big surprise. On one side we saw 6900 compounds of breastmilk, spread out across a map like an unchartered landcscape, a celestial sphere, a complex mystery. On the other side (Infant Formula) we saw a small collection of dots. It was symphony and a nursery rhyme, a novel and a verse. The complexity of breast milk and the range of complexity, varying inexplicably with each sample (not, as was previously thought, with age) was the biggest take-away discovery.
There are still so many unknown unknowns, Simon said.
Of course it is mentioned to women within the context of having a baby. Everyone in the medical profession agrees that women ‘should’ breastfeed. But their attempts to reinforce this message to new mothers only in this one area, without any significant cultural shift in terms of the visibility of breastfeeding, or the wider context of breastfeeding being shared, means that women are left feeling impossibly pressured from every side. Those women who do breastfeed report feeling isolated, judged. Women who don’t breastfeed, for a variety of reasons, report feeling judged, isolated. The women who do breastfeed and continue beyond the recommended length (set by WHO at at least two years but typically reduced down to six months by everyone and his aunty) are recast as weird, “Are you Still breastfeeding?’ is the typical incredulous question they face from GPs, friends, family, people on the bus….So the PSG decided to answer this question: what is actually in breastmilk we produce for toddlers? is it true it is just comfort? On Tuesday we heard the answer from Simon and it is resoundingly NO.
The implications of this answer are relevant to the whole world as Infant Formula is a huge global industry. China alone turned over £27 billion in 2014. George Kent from the International Breastfeeding Journal, looking at the Global need for regulation of the industry quotes a typical family in developing countries to spending half of their monthly income on infant formula. With a poverty of scientific evidence to prove the contrary, (evidence that could, for example be provided by a follow on study by Simon) families conclude that if a mother is to work, she must switch to formula from breastfeeding so that her child can go to day-care.
Should a mother switch to formula if she returns to work? In this analysis by the BBC the case is clear: women will do better in their careers if they return to work quickly. And most women who return to work switch to formula – perhaps on the basis of shakey science that has always suggested there is no benefit to breastfeeding after six months. In the latest BLOG post for The Parlour by Sociologist Lucila Newell tackles this thorny issue. It is currently an accepted truth, supported by infant formula advertising that breastmilk changes at the point the infant starts to eat solids. But the initial findings from the PSG experiment suggest that age is not the determining factor in milk change. Infant Formula is marketed based on the age of the child, but Simon also found that Infant Formula also changes very little. Should this finding prove to be true in terms of the content of all Infant Formula brands, then the legal advertising of infant formula would need to be readdressed as the scientific basis for allowing the advertising of formula is questionable.
“The publicly available discussions of the vigorous promotion of infant formula suggest that it is motivated primarily by the high profits that are anticipated. There are no reports from any sources that would suggest that the primary motivation is to improve the health of the infants and their mothers”(1) Infant food is not assessed on the basis of long term benefits, but merely, as with other food safety, on its ability to not immediately make the child sick. “ ….The Coriolis report is candid as it acknowledges, “Infant formula is typically defined as ‘birth to six months’; the product is then renamed for a range of reasons (primarily to avoid regulation and restrictions on advertising) (p. 9)”.
Millions more pounds are needed to provide answers to these urgent questions. All over the world women are making decisions based on advertising and advice supported by existing evidence. According to a study by The Lancet, breastfeeding could prevent up to 800,000 infant deaths per year. (2.) That staggering figure is double the total number of estimated civilian deaths in the Syrian war so far. (3) We know a lot about this war. We see it on the news, in newspapers. In Arles there were fantastic exhibitions on the subject – my favourite being This amazing work by Omar Imam who collaborated with refugees in camps in Jordan. It is wonderful work, exploring all that photography can offer to open our eyes to the terribleness of war.
But I come out wondering, where is this other everyday tragedy? Why don’t we see it? How many PhotoBiennials have covered the subject of war? If suffering and death are not ‘news’ they are ignored. “‘More than a 100 million women are missing’ wrote Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who developed a gauge of gender inequality…. Sen noted in normal circumstances women live longer than men and so there are more females than males in much of the world.yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status they vanish” According to Half a Sky authors, it’s estimated that 130 million women are missing from the planet. (4) Where are they all going? Every year at least two million girls disappear because of gender discrimination: every day decisions such as when to take a sick child to the doctor’s, whether to have a child immunised, how much food to give a child, whether to pay for medication, whether to keep a female foetus.
“It appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine ‘gendercide’ in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.”(5)
Perhaps this is why women of the world are getting impatient with the systems that purport to speak for them. Because they are expected to simply ignore this vast crime against their kind. Take breastmilk, for example. It is the ultimate Dark Matter: a known unknown, left silently on the sidelines of agendas that purport to tackle the big issues of our time: health, waste, water, political freedom, because it is seen as a ‘woman’s issue’ and therefore trivialised.
Everything that is wrong with the world and everything that is right with the world was right there in the room at Imperial College, where the Parenting Science Gang listened to the results of their experiment. .Babies were crawling everywhere and at times we struggled to hear what he had to say above the roars of infants. Women had travelled from all over the country to donate their milk. Some of these women now sat and heard what they had always believed to be true: namely that breast milk is impossible to replicate. It cannot be made in a factory. No industrial process in the world could ever replicate the sheer breath-taking variety and range of the samples. Are the differences we see in these breast milk results to do with genetic modifications, tailored to the child? Are they due to diet or sickness or other individualised needs? And without this food, this potential medicine how do our bodies adapt?
To summarise the importance of the findings, Simon said, it concerns “All people, everywhere, always” which was a nice parallel to the original title I gave to the first attempt at a breastfeeding portrait, made in the same voluntary, low budget fashion as the PSG experiment. Lucilla and I got together with our messy babies and a dear friend attempted to entertain them whilst I took some quick photos. These were later paired with another photo I had taken of Lily’s bricks on her playmat, manipulated into a portrait one afternoon whilst she quietly breastfed at my computer.
Back to the experiment…What I saw in that room was the next wave of Feminism. Women who had achieved education, equality won by the last generation in order to address the next set of questions. Women with babies strapped to them, asking such complicated scientific and data questions that I lost track of them. As an artist I can simply watch and admire these women, look at the pictures and see the fragile potential of new answers. Women are still fighting. It is a fight now for access to the tools, the systems of power that determine the direction of the human race. It is a fight for love, for the environment, for social cohesion, for health, for common sense.
When I was growing up, an Irish Catholic girl in Coventry, I thought that equality meant equal rights to jobs. Now I know it means the power to decide the question that is to be asked. It is a freedom that will never be willingly given, simply because the weight of history is against us and we are pulling against hundreds, if not thousands of years of global history, religion, tradition and accepted truths. Everywhere women struggle to be heard, to be taken seriously when they address issues outside of the ‘Grand Narratives’ that determine relevancy, validity, seriousness. Blindingly obvious questions are not being asked, important answers are not being heard because either it has not occurred to us to ask them, or because we have not yet found a language in which to communicate them. How do we ‘see’ this vast unseeable inequality that perpetuates the poverty, death and destruction that is global gender inequality?
Until the ‘liberated’ women of the world can take hold of the purse strings of government, the decisions of law, the agendas of education, the mouthpiece of Culture, the staggering cost of global gender inequality will grow. This next wave of feminism is about shining a light on what has been hidden, finding the ways to reveal this Dark Matter and bring it to light.