Over a month ago, I was checking my twitter-feed when I came across a headline from a well-respected blog that I frequently visit. You can believe me when I say that I wasn’t browsing for a little something to buy my niece or nephew when I clicked the link to “11 Insanely Sexualized Children’s Products”. In all honestly, I didn’t need to see these inevitably absurd products, but a part of me knew that they would be so absurd, that the whole list would be somewhat of a sad joke.
To an extent it was. Weird hot-pink baby slippers with spike heels? Check. A pole dancing doll? Yup, that too. An orange-haired gremlin-looking doll that you can shave? Oh yes, that was true comic genius. But then I happened upon something that at first made me feel a little funny, and then made me feel plain angry.
It was a breast-feeding doll.
I sat perplexed for a minute while I gathered my thoughts. Let’s not be hasty, I thought. What does the author say?
Baby dolls do all kinds of gross stuff like pee and barf, but the all-too-realistic breastfeeding baby takes the cake. Not because of the doll’s own sucking action, but because the doll comes with a halter the child wears, allowing the doll to latch onto little flowers where nipples would be. Huh? Oh, and the sound effects featured on the box—‘chup, chup’—yikes.
Before any lactivists get up in arms, I’m not calling breastfeeding gross. I’m calling 9-year-olds simulating breastfeeding gross. Also, the word ‘lactivist’ is hilarious.
When my eyes first raced over the bit about lactivists getting up in arms I thought, oh good, at least he understands the implications of his statement. But then I realized, wait a second, this is patronizing. The author uses the word lactivists as if it represents some kind of reactionary, overly sensitive group and then he down-right insults the word altogether. Even though the author admits to not believing that breastfeeding is gross, he insists that nine year olds simulating breastfeeding is gross. But I beg to ask, why? What is this discomfort that lingers around the edges of breastfeeding?
Breastfeeding is by far one of the most normal and one of the most phenomenal biological attributes of the human body. In my humble opinion, breastfeeding is a natural wonder.
Let’s begin at the basics. Breastfeeding is fantastic for women for several reasons. According to the World Health Organization, immediate breastfeeding signals the body to slow contractions, reducing the risk of post-labor hemorrhaging and later on, nursing signals the body to readjust to pre-pregnancy weight, which often results in significant weight-loss and a lower risk of obesity. Likewise, when done exclusively, breastfeeding slows menstruation, which acts as a very basic form of birth control. This is a particularly important aspect of breastfeeding for women who do not have access to other forms of birth control and who do not have the means or the interest in serial reproduction. Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of developing both ovarian cancer and breast cancer. Finally, breast-feeding is 100% cost effective because it’s free. And that’s just the beginning.
Breastfeeding is also stellar for babies because breast milk is the best possible nourishment for newborns, infants and young ones. It provides babies with loads of beneficial nutrients and it contains antibodies that keep babies happy and healthy, free from illnesses such as pneumonia and diarrhea. There have also been studies which indicate that the benefits of breast milk extend well into adulthood and regularly result in lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower likelihoods of being overweight, obese or contracting type-2 diabetes. Some studies even conclude that breastfed babies make smarter adults.
Then there is this little thing called oxytocin. Oxytocin is the human hormone responsible for labor contractions and the process of “letting down”, which is the flow of breast milk upon latching. More recently, there have been studies that claim that oxytocin is something like a “love hormone”, often acting as the agent which creates the sacred maternal-infant bond during breastfeeding. In many ways, breastfeeding is not just an act of survival and physical benefit; it helps create an important, mutual relationship between mother and child.
So while breastfeeding has enormous benefits for the mother and her baby on a micro level, perhaps nothing speaks more to the positivity of breastfeeding than the fact that is has the capacity to save lives. As the World Health Organization writes:
Malnutrition is responsible for one-third of the 8.8 million deaths annually among children under five. It can be a direct cause of death but is also the most important single risk factor for disease in young children. Over two thirds of these deaths, which are often associated with inappropriate feeding practices such as bottle-feeding or untimely and inadequate complementary foods, occur during the first months of life.
And how may exclusive breastfeeding change this devastating global statistic and unfortunate truth? According to Dr Elizabeth Mason, Director of WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Development:
If all babies and young children were breastfed exclusively for their first six months of life and then given nutritious complementary food with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age, the lives of an additional 1.5 million children under five would be saved every year.
I will repeat this fact. Due in large part to breastfeeding, 1.5 million children under the age of five could be saved Every Year. That’s 7.5 million lives saved in five years. That is more than the entire population of Tajikistan. That is close to two million more people than the total populations of Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined. Superbreast to the rescue indeed.
Now, I don’t want to undermine the effort it takes to breastfeed. Breastfeeding occurs at regular, sometimes inconvenient intervals throughout the day, and it’s no surprise that women often have to deal with chapped, sore or sensitive nipples, especially when their babies start to teethe. For many women, there is also the considerable question of how to prevent the transmission of HIV to infants during birth and breastfeeding. Breastfeeding takes patience, correct information, unwavering social support, and perseverance. It is for this reason that organizations such as La Leche League International create support groups all over the world to help encourage women to breastfeed, even when it is emotionally, socio-culturally, communally and physically taxing.
Still, women all around the world accept breastfeeding as the best option for themselves and their babies. Women in Burkina Faso breastfeed without shame. Women in Jordan breastfeed without batting an eyelash. In Argentina, where I studied abroad and worked within a public health center, the midwife gave important talks on the severe importance of breastfeeding. A seventeen year old that I spoke with one day, unabashedly breastfed her four month old while conversing with me. My last day at the center, the midwife gave me a picture of her during a moment when her son, who was nursing, “popped off” leaving her breast exposed. On the back she wrote a heartfelt and sentimental good-bye note. This token exemplifies how normal breastfeeding is in the country. You can give someone a picture of yourself breastfeeding without feeling like there is something inappropriate about the exchange.
While breastfeeding is widely accepted and encouraged across the globe, in my experience it appears that breasts in the US are so overly sexualized within popular spheres, that it creates this extreme discomfort surrounding the non-sexual act of breastfeeding. Kim Kardashian (ever the role model) thinks public breastfeeding is disgusting. Facebook flagged and removed photos of mothers breastfeeding because it was considered obscene. And there was public outrage when supermodel Miranda Kerr chose an image of herself breastfeeding to be the public’s first glimpse of her new addition.
However the picture I was given, pictures posted online, and public breastfeeding are not disgusting, obscene, gross or shameful because aside from the fact that breastfeeding is obviously amazing, it is not sexual in the least. This is exactly what the blogger in question was explicitly NOT suggesting. The author is claiming the opposite, that a breastfeeding doll is sexual, which still makes no sense to me.
In large part, I’ve included so much information on breastfeeding in this post because I expect and hope that the more anyone knows and understands about the act, the more they realize that it is an incredibly natural, loving, and exceptionally healthy part of being a mother and an infant. Once a person grasps all the amazing benefits of nursing, it becomes close to impossible to justify any benefits of not breastfeeding. Yet, the problem lies in that even if a person recognizes the importance of breastfeeding, there is still some issue surrounding the act as a public display. Somehow, the involvement of a breast indicates that breastfeeding is sexy and intimate and needs to be done in private. In actuality, while certain aspects of breastfeeding are intimate and personal (such as whatever emotional experience is shared between a mother and her child) it is in no way intimate in the way that a lover kissing your breasts is intimate. Why? Because obviously, these serve two entirely different purposes. The context is utterly different.
A lot of us from the time we are young witness the breast at its supposed sexiest. We watch them be highlighted and adorned in lingerie commercials, on fashion runways, in movies and music videos basically to the point of perversion: we watch in disgust, rapture and intrigue as plastic surgeons on television explicitly demonstrate the cutting and jabbing and stuffing of an implant into a woman’s chest. We can withstand this, but we cannot fathom why a woman would want to take pride in nourishing her child.
I sense that due to the prevalence of these images, it becomes difficult to remember the primary evolutionary and physical purpose of the female breasts: to develop nutrient rich milk to feed our young. Every mammal has this ability and we are no different. Breasts may be sexy too, but they exist for a very distinct and specific biological, maternal, unparalleled process that should never be undermined, ignored or disregarded simply because they can double as sexually attractive and arousing. When you think that a woman breastfeeding is gross, think about why it is important for her to breastfeed, and think again about why her breast contains milk to begin with. It’s certainly not so she can become Playboy’s playmate of the month.
Finally, getting back to the question at hand, why is it gross for a nine year old to simulate breastfeeding? Well I do not, even for a millisecond, think it is. Primarily, my reasoning stems from the fact that breastfeeding is not sexual. It’s not a secret that girls are bombarded with ways to emulate being sexy, from wearing “juicy” across the seat of their pants to dancing provocatively to not-so-empowering music, but believe me, breastfeeding isn’t one of those things. Secondly, it’s insanely tough to find a place where comprehensive sexual education including the process of anatomical maturation is taught. Thus, there is this enormous and grave conflict preventing us from helping girls understand the functions, wonders and beauty of their bodies before some kind of unhealthy medium intervenes. And it’s not just the media or culture, 15% of children who experience sexual abuse in the U.S. are under the age of 12; 29% are between the ages of 12-17 and this brand of violence frequently leads to various physical and emotional issues regarding an individual’s relationship to their body.
So when an impressionable girl decides to explore her body without discomfort, fear or pain—without shame or embarrassment, and she positively realizes that one day she will have the incredible capacity to feed her children from what will become her breasts, and she decides to imitate this behavior I don’t blanch at the thought. I don’t turn my head and roll my eyes in disgust because she is healthily, confidently engaging her body. No, what I say is, good for you. You go and you explore and you figure things out for yourself. You be proud of who you are and what your body can do. There is undoubtedly enough happening around you claiming that you need to be this or look like that, but you figure out how you want to represent and believe in your body. It’s your own and no part of it is gross; it is awesomely, superbly, naturally amazing.