--Iris Marion Young "Breasted Experience"[*]
According to Kristeva, the infant must substitute speech for its mother’s breast. It takes pleasure in the materiality of speech just as it did in the materiality of its mother’s body… this substitution takes place when child realizes that its mother is a separate being who can leave and does not entirely exist for its own gratification... the move from breast to speech is an organic evolution of the psyche through which speech is ‘literally’ substituted for the breast.
--Kelly Oliver "Nourishing the Subject"[*]
Milk is the one bodily fluid that is clearly symbolic of all that is clean, fresh, and wholesome.
--M. Potts, R. V. Short Ever Since Adam and Eve[*]
What is the nature of the human breast?
Far from a dryly medical, if not slightly erotic, inquiry, inquiry into the nature of the human breast holds the potential to disrupt unquestioned dominant discourses in our society. The subject of this post is not the mammary gland; and if it were, such inquiry would be only skin deep into “the nature” of the human breast. Rather, the “nature’ of human breasts is a cultural one, a “nature” with a history no younger and clean than the history of “civilization.”
The human breast is a battleground. It is a cultural site at which pervasive dominant discourses in western societies demarcate “nature” from culture and politics, “woman” from man, “Man” from “animal,” spirituality from sexuality, and altruism from self-interest. Just as breasts (generally) come in pairs, so do their culturally conscripted “natures.” The powerful emotions that may be evoked by the sight or touch of the breast may not be solely aesthetic; they may also signify deeper subconscious anxieties over our very identities as men, women, humans, animals, straights or queers.
The discourse, cultural currency, of female breasts are various. Within late 20th and early 21st century U.S. America, the female breast has been most popularly depicted as an object for men, after having been re-appropriated by cultural conservatives and corporations. The commodification of the female breast for heterosexual male desire, however, has been critiqued by radical feminists and lactivists, advocates of breastfeeding, beginning in the 1970s.
Many lactivists seek to end not only the manipulative marketing of inferior formula to unwitting mothers around the world, but often also the sexualization of the breast. The female breast, they say, is not “naturally” a sexual object, but rather “naturally” a nutritional object for babies. The sexuality of the breast is culturally contingent and perhaps even immoral because such sexualization had made women either disgusted by the act of breastfeeding itself (a “need” of the child) or dismayed to do so in public, within the realm of the male gaze. While it had become quite culturally appropriate for advertisements in public spaces to contain nearly-bare breasts, it had also become culturally inappropriate for women to expose their breasts during suckling.
However, missing from both of these discourses—breasts as objects for consumption by (heterosexual) men and objects for consumption by babies—is the value of women's embodied experiences. For the greater portion of western history, women’s bodies and sexuality have been abject. Because women’s bodies have been framed as “animalistic,” their sexuality has been linked to animality if ever for their pleasure and not for procreation—which, as some have noted, is a contradiction since humans share procreation in common with all animals, but with very few, sodomy.
As such, the female breast has been the site of national and racial politics in which “Others” are to be subordinated to the public pursuits of white men. Within certain practices of “wet-nursing,” some of which continue today, the bodies of poor, black, and “foreign” women as well as dairy cows have been commodified as resources to nurture a new generation who will inherit a great nation, almost always at the expense of the health of such “Others.” Both conceptually and materially, public life, men, whites, and H. sapiens in general are privileged over private life, women, people of color, and “animals.”
Yet, these linking dualisms which structure our normative perception can be dismantled through the completely “natural” and cultural practices of male breastfeeding and the embodied sexual satisfaction of breasts. Although male lactation was known of hundreds of years ago, such knowledge has been forgotten by the development of an epistemology of ignorance designed to separate man and woman to accord women to the home and men to the public arena. Through male lactation, women are liberated from the walls constructed by the rhetoric of “natural motherhood.” Male lactation opens new possibilities like queer child rearing so breastfeeding may no longer dominantly be stipulated within heterosexual and strictly monogamous relations. Further, by taking pleasure in breastfeeding, breasts can be sites at which motherhood and spirituality are no longer mutually exclusive of sexuality.
Last but not least, in recognizing the value in the embodied experiences of breasts, we should also promote mother cows' positive embodied experiences as mothers and lactaters which presently are utterly ignored within industrial and even some traditional farm practices which alienate mothers from their labor.
SECTION I: Got Milk?: The Nature of Women or the Culture of Men
1. Breast for Men (commodification)
Desmond Morris famously hypothesised in his book The Naked Ape (1967) that evolution has favored large breasts in humans because they analogous to the buttocks which stimulate male sexual desire through sexual signaling. Because humans are bipedal, breasts have supposedly largely substituted the sexually signalling rump for the visually titlating breasts as they are much more congenial for human sight. Yet, in contrast to Western and especially late 20th century American culture, most cultures find little eroticism in female breasts. As lactivist Katherine Dettwyler notes in her book Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives (1995), Ford and Beach (1952) had found that only 13 of the 190 cultures they studied assigned any sexuality to the female breasts.[2a] To this day, the sexual “nature” of female breasts continues to be a cultural presupposition.
In a review of Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Breast (1997), Benjamin Roberts paraphrases the book in a seven words: “behind every great bosom stands a man.” In a similar but more critical review, Natalie Angier summarizes that “Throughout Western history, breasts have symbolized anything and everything to men… very little in the [historical] record to indicate how women have felt about their breasts: whether they took pleasure in them, the extent to which they chose to display their breasts or if they had any say in the debate over wet-nursing.”
According to Yalom, the discourse, representation, and normativity of female breasts have adapted to the political goals of each era in Western societies. The preference for large breasts is thus no mere historical accident. Roberts’ paraphrases Yalom again, writing that “during troublesome times in history the biological differences between men and women tend to become more emphasized,” something that in part explains the proliferation of figures like Marilyn Monroe and other big buxum beauties during the McCarthy era. Likewise, in her book Breasts (1998), Carolyn Latteier writes that “The longing for security and a return to normalcy spurred a nostalgia in women’s dress… Large breasts offered security value and also stood as emblems of plenty during the era of greatly expanding prosperity.” The emphasis on the breast over the past half century, in other words, may have served as a protective barrier, offering security to distinguish male from female bodies in an era in which natioanl and political identity were existentially challenged.
However, as Latteier states, large breasts also represented the economic fecundity of the post-war swelling economy. Breasts, or rather “bombshells,” were first used in advertisments to “sell” the war effort in the 1940’s, only afterwards to be used as props to sell commercial products. Just as the shift in the male gaze in the early modern period from belly to bosom symbolically served the “needs” of the seveenteenth century—eroticism and productivity—female breasts serve similar “needs” in the present century whereby the the erotic and commerically productive are frequently one and the same.
Far from “natural,” societal preferences and evaluation of female breasts are the product of the times, and within modern capitalism, constructed through visual culture and media. Indeed, the intersections of 20th century American capitalism, technology, and pornography are much more intimate than is commonly understood. Within an androcentric capitalist visual culture, breasts have become mere things, toys for men to handle--knockers and knobs--, more decorative than functional. In a presentation at the 2007 Feminist Anti-Pornography Conference, Gail Dines discusses how the success of Playboy over Penthouse and Hustler was contingent upon its popularity among advertisers. Further, the men’s magazine did wonders for the American economy by creating a new male identity, the playboy, in which men could have unlimited sexual access to women. Breasts, formerly symbols of the sacred nourishing life forces of the planet, have now become so mundane from their incessant use for selling merchandise, they have become commodified in and of themselves, even to the point of becoming a mere gimmik signifying male fascination with the feminine Otherness.[*]
Yet, worse, female breasts also have become the loci of women's value, a value to be measured in juxtaposition to other women's breasts.[21a] Large female breasts had become popularly constructed as accessories to mark one’s own femininity and eventually a requirement to achieve an ideal feminine body. The preference for larger breasts and smaller bellies has created nearly-unachievable beauty standards; nearly, because one can sometimes achieve them if one has the financial resources to pay for surgical intervention. In 1983, the American Society for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons deployed a (pseudo) medical discourse to advocate on the behalf of breast augmentation as a treatment for some women’s “disease” (i.e. small breasts) to cure their low self-esteem in women. In 2006, breast augmentation was the most popular cosmetic procedure on women, being performed on over 380,000 women. The over-representation of “perfect” breasts in visual mediums becomes reproduced as large, firm breasts become increasingly common among a public with augmented breasts. Over the previous ten years, this elective surgery is now almost four times as popular as it once was. Even after losing their breasts to cancer, women's losses are rendered invisble by expectations that they accept a prosthetic replacement "like a man," despite breasts being "the home of her being... her energy."[21b]
The female breast has become so commodified as a sexually charged object to titillate the male gaze that its biological function as a source of nourishment for newborns has become marginalized to the point that images of suckling babies has become obscene. In 2007, one blogger who sells breastfeeding promotional t-shirts on her website, including one that parodied the National Pork Board’s slogan “The Other White Meat,” “The Other White Milk,” initiated a threat of a lawsuit against the site because it “tanishes the good reputation” of an organization that mass slaughters millions of pigs a year.
More indicative of this development, was the reader response to a 2006 issue of Babytalk that featured a full cover picture of a child suckling on his mother’s breast. Readers were so incited that the editors received a flood of critical letters. Readers reported turning over the magazine cover, even ripping it off, so that their sons and husbands would not see. According to a couple readers, "A breast is a breast—it's a sexual thing," "Men are very visual… When they see a woman's breast, they see a breast—regardless of what it's being used for.” Linda Blum notes the paradox that the most common place we now see breastfeednig is in ads for infant formula.[*] Accordingly, female breasts are supposed to remain private and covered from the public.
However, lactivists have pointed out the irony that while mothers must conceal their breasts and use filthy bathrooms to feed their children, women are welcomed and even encouraged to display cleavage at popular restaurants such as Hooters as well as in public advertisements. So it is the maternal breast that has become private and profane while the pornographic breast has become largely public and sacred (as it is worshipped by fans of female pop stars). The sexual objectification of breasts in the public sphere, as found by one study, suggests that it is one influential factor in discouraging women from breastfeeding their children. Indeed, as Young notes, because women’s sexuality must be shut off during feeding to maintain the purity of all-giving maternal love, husbands may sometimes feel that they are competing with their children. This jealousy in combination with the potential disgust factor of milky breasts and the taboo of mixing sexuality and maternity result in shorter commitment to breastfeeding so that women’s bodies can again return to pleasing their husbands [21c] To this extent, the sexual objectification of breasts as it exists in American culture today is not only harmful to women but potentially also their children.
Ironically, the very lactivists that are critical of breasts being perceived solely as sexual objects deploy similar tactics to “sell” their message to the public through the highly valued discursive currency of sex and pop culture. For instance, the one blogger who was threatened by the NPB sold shirts such as "Dairy Diva" and "Nursing, Nature's Own Breast Enhancement.” The sexualization of maternal breasts was purpotedly promoting breastmilk “beyond merely for infant consumption.”
Although historical cross-cultural studies have confirmed the contingency of the sexual nature of the female breast, especially as an object for men to visually and economically consume, the dominant discourse of breasts for men has remained fairly stable. On the other hand, as Angier notes in her review of Yalom, over the last half of century women have contributed alternative stories and discourses on their breasts such as taking pleasure in the act of breastfeeding, dispensing with their bras, and producing breast art. From all these studies, we can determine that neither the “nature” of the female breast nor the dominately preffered shape and size are apolitical.
2. Breasts for Babies: (objectification)
While capitalism and corporations may be the drivers behind the present American obsession with female breasts, the counter arguments for breasts for babies can be just as culturally conservative, reaffirming the patriarchal order of women’s confinement to the private/domestic sphere oriented toward selflessness and prudeness. The breasts for babies position, thus, does not ensure women’s breasts are liberated anymore than they have been while breasts have been for men.
Some of the discourse Dettwyler deploys suggests such a conservative naturalism, whereby the “Natural” (or perhaps Christian) order is “good,” and “unnatural” deviation from it is “bad.” For instance, a subheading of one of her chapters is “All God’s Mammals Got Breasts.”[2b] In a separate chapter, she uses data from cross-cultural studies, on human molar development, and the troublesome[*] analogy to Chimpanzee weaning to recommend a “natural” range at which humans would be weaned outside of culture:
“acknowledging that humans are primates, and recognizing that lactation and weaning take place according to certain regular patterns in nonhuman primates, then what do these patterns suggest would be the natural age of weaning in modern humans if these behaviors were not modified by culture?”[2c]Dettwyler approximates that in pure “Nature,” humans would be weaned no younger than at 2.5 years of age and no longer than 7 years, even though the cross-cultural mean is between 2 and 4 years old. The implication is not only that this is, but also that this ought to the case. To wean an infant at 6 to 12 months is nothing short of defying the “natural needs” of the child.
But, of course, breastfeeding cannot be separated from culture; humans as we understand them, cannot exist “outside” nature. As anthropologist Tim Ingold discusses in his paper “Becoming Persons,” reducing breastfeeding to pure culture not only denies the biological reality of the mother-child bond, but also the mother-child relationships in other species. Likewise, reducing breastfeeding to a purely natural phenomenon ignores how personhood is “delivered within a context of social relations;” breastfeeding practices are neither nature or culture, but both. Cross-culturally, there is an incredible diversity in how and for how long infants are breastfed. In fact, infants are largely breastfed for such long periods of time by their mothers because doing so is a kind of contraceptive practice whereby the birth of the next child can be postponed for another 2.5 years.[16, 60]
While breastfeeding seems to be a matter of personal choice, a private matter, it is far from it. Lactivists have done nothing less than champion it as a political cause in modern America. As Kitty O’ Callahan writes, “breastfeeding is a private choice, but make no mistake, it's a public issue. Everyone from the security guard at the mall to your Aunt Sadie wants to have a say in when, where, and how long you breastfeed.”
Yet, far from being a private choice, women in modern patriarchal cultures have perhaps been the most pressured by the medical establishment as a matter of biopolitics to breastfeed. In a critical rebuttal of the guilt-inducing lactivists and American medical establishment, Hanna Rosin writes of how she has personally experienced that “[i]n certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it’s a no-exceptions requirement, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting.” Rosin categorizes the mandate to “optimize every dimension of children’s lives” into what Joan Wolf calls the new ethic of “total motherhood.” According to this ethic,
Mothers are held uniquely responsible for predicting and preventing any circumstance that might interfere with their children’s putatively normal development…[breastfeeding is] cast as a trade-off between what babies and children need versus what mothers might like… [which] derive[s] from an ethos which presumes that a moral mother will subjugate herself completely to a culturally defined, all-inclusive notion of the needs of children… Each mother is responsible for adopting behavior that reduces even minuscule or poorly understood risks to her children, regardless of the cost to herself.The ethic of total motherhood leaves Rosin wondering whether breastfeeding has become “this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down.”
Rosin and others have been especially turned off by moralistic and sensational campaigns such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ public service announcements. In one television advertisement, a pregnant woman rides on top of a mechanical bull and gets thrown off. The captions read “You’d never take risks before your baby is born. Why start after?… Babies were born to be breastfed.” The message is that breastfeeding is something that is the default “choice” that you choose not to do, not one choice among many which has its own costs and benefits for each individual woman. It also equates the severe harm that can effect a child’s fundamental physical and psychological development (i.e. falling) to the exagerated health risks that come from not breastfeednig.
Like Rosin, Linda Blum in her book At the Breast (2000) notes that breastfeeding has frequently been “the measurement of a mother” that includes an aassumption that “good mothers ‘naturally’ put their ‘children’s needs’ first and that ‘children’s needs’ are fixed by ‘nature’ and progressively more knowable.”[20a] Blum most poignantly explains how concepts of “good motherhood” are situated in discourses on race and class. “Which women should mother?,” she asks. “Whose babies will be valued?… which mothers ‘deserve’ provisioning?… Which women’s bodies need to be controlled?”[20b]
Mothers with more socially unquestioned respectability—those with a husband, a "legitimate" child, a disposable income, and white—are more likely to enjoy breastfeeding. Working-class women often have difficulty incorporating breastfeeding into their lives and feel the State intrudes too much into their efforts. Working-class black women feel less guilt than white mothers from not breastfeeding, though they breastfed in higher numbers earlier in the 20th century; now they are twice as likely to use formula as whites. Additionally, Black women, in part from the legacy of slavery and continual presence of racism in America are extra conscious of the “animality" of breastfeeding since they are popularly stigmatized for being too animal-like. Further, Black mothers are considered disreputable by medical authorities who cast them as “undeserving” since their children are often born out of wedlock and they have no immediate intention of attaining a husband.[20c] Not surprisingly, the different situations of middle-class white women and working-class black women result in different attitudes toward breastfeeding and medical authorities. The demand that Afro-American women ought to breastfeed despite their discomfort doing so consequentially attacks the survivors of a racist medical institution rather than the racism and calssism that have created the negative attitudes and material provisions that stand as obstacles.
Through an ethic of total motherhood, a disproportionate responsibility is placed upon the female parent in a male-female couple. While the husband can largely attain his full autonomy as an actor who may still share some house chores and child care, he is free of six to twenty-four months of “babysitting” late into the night, the guilt of not feeding enough, and the dilemma of managing a job and feeding the child. “When your husband heads out the door,” Callahan empathizes, “your spitup-encrusted nursing chair can feel as if it's equipped with leather straps holding you down.” While Callahan still emphasized the potential beauty of breastfeeding, Rosin had lost all “maternal nirvana” by her third child, jealous of everyone who seemed to have more freedom.
Further, Blum explains that the exclusive motherhood as promoted by middle-class lactivists is brimming with white and single partner privilege. “This singular mother…was and continues to be a white, status- and class-enhancing project. Exclusive motherhood had its origins in the idealized female domesticity of the eighteenth-century European middle-classes.”[20d] The singlular mother more often than not relies upon a working husband or dispensable wealth to spend on a servant or wetnurse just as it also is instrumental to patriarchy in which to create a legitimate heir to the family.[20e] Of course, the absence of maternity leave in the USA is also responsible for a lower frequency of working-class breastfeeding since these families often do not have the financial resources to afford only a single parent working.
Though many countries in the global North give at least 12 weeks of maternity leave at 80-100% pay, in the USA pregnant and nursing women are only entitled amaximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Up to 40% of women are unable to even take unpaid leave for six months. Much of this is because unions gave little priority to women work rights after the men returned to work and were seeking employment again. Naomi Baumslag, D. Michels, and R. Jolly write
In a country that continues ot view the female labor force participation as voluntary, rather than necessary, it is not surprising maternity entitlements and child-care provisions are severely lacking in the United States…In spite of its view of itself as a world leader and champion of human rights and feminine equality, the United States was the last industrialized nation in not mandating family leave.Inconsistently, the US government promotes the "breast is best" philosophy but does little support that idea through its policy. The USA has decidedly prioritized corporate efficiency by not mandating paid maternity leave, instead, leaving mothers to choose between their career and their children (unless they are able/willing to pump themselves or bring their children to work). Far from being purely breast for baby, much of lactivism is also situated still in the breasts for men orientation whereby patriarchy relies upon the unpaid domestic work of women to raise a generation of new sons and whereby men have greater access to jobs within a society where maternity leave is severely lacking.
We have only remember the revolutionary era in France when the popular advocacy of exclusive breastfeeding corresponded with "political realignments undermining women’s public power and attaching a new value to women’s domestic roles" whereby "the scientific fascination with the female breast helped to buttress the sexual division of labor in European society by emphasizing how natural it was for females—both human and nonhuman—to suckle and rear their own children.”[51g]The supposed progressive advocacy of many lactivist organizations may be "wolves in sheep's clothing" for coercing women out of work and back into the home if the promotion of breastfeeding is not accompanied by larger political-economic changes whereby women may recover from their pregnancies and nurture their children without being financially penatalized.
But what if women were not the only partners who could breastfeed the children? How different would the world be if male parents could participate in this form of childcare? Might there be greater maternity/paternity leave benefits like there are in Sweden? And how would male breastfeeding challenge the ethic of total motherhood? Would fathers be incorporated into this ethic, or would the ethic be dismantled as men would think it too severe? Perhaps we’ll discover the consequences soon, because, despite popular belief, men can breastfeed!
Continue to part 2 (Male Lactation and Queer Families)