I was recently harassed on the street. A few weeks ago, some French cities tried to impose a ban on burkinis. My sister shared her annoyance about feeling judged for having stopped breastfeeding after 2 months. These events are completely unrelated, yet all three are symptomatic – and demonstrate the omnipresence – of an important patriarchal characteristic of Western societies: the entitlement to exert control over women’s bodies.
Policing motherhood – pregnant bodies as public goods
“Fertility is a common good” Poster produced by the Italian Health Ministry released on the occasion of Fertility Day.
As the Italian Ministry of Health reminded us with its uncalled-for fertility campaign, women’s fertile bodies are often, albeit not always consciously, considered a public good. Society thus tends to feel comfortable to comment on it, criticise, give advice, congratulate and what not. Several studies and testimonies stress the feeling of pregnant women being constantly judged, some also reported having received unsolicited lectures and critiques by strangers (Meneses-Sheets, 2013 ; Longhurst, 2005). How is it that everyone seems to have an opinion on what a pregnant woman should and should not do?
You eat raw vegetables? That is irresponsible!
You don’t eat raw vegetables? Aren’t you a little paranoid?
Why does society feel entitled to shame a pregnant woman for having a glass of alcohol or smoking cigarettes? Don’t get me wrong – I am not denying the risks of alcohol and tobacco consumption during pregnancy. Information, prevention, advice and help from a gynaecologist or other relevant (para-)medical staff is crucial, it’s often welcome and sought by the women themselves.
What I find disturbing is this widely accepted notion that anyone, including random acquaintances or complete strangers, can feel free to advise and judge pregnant women. As if a healthy pregnant body was “everyone’s responsibility”. This strikes me as odd, particularly in a Western cultural context which usually emphasises individual responsibility.
As Longhurst (2005) explains, pregnancy is a phenomenon conceptualised within a socio-economic, cultural, political and sexual paradigm. In that sense, it is much more than the mere biological process and relates to practices, social norms, believes, emotions, rules, laws and so on. In the Western context, it seems like society is placing itself in a supervising position over the pregnant women and expects to have agency over their body. Pregnant women can sometimes experience the feeling of being under surveillance, or even being objectified as a vessel for a foetus (Longhurst, 2005).
Besides the bulk of unsolicited advice and opinions, a striking example of how pregnant bodies are considered “public” is the classic touching of the belly. Many pregnant women experience people touching their bellies, which is of course not always a problem. However, people that have a relationship with the woman in which physical contact is normally not included (for example: Lecturer/student, Employee/boss or shopkeeper/customer) sometimes still take the liberty to touch the pregnant abdomen without the woman’s permission (Longhurst, 2005).
And after pregnancy, comes infant feeding. Breastfeeding is a case of culture and public health clash, as well as a complex ideological dilemma. With breasts being over-sexualised, breastfeeding in public is sometimes strongly stigmatised, from people insulting the mothers to others ridiculing them for trying to pump milk at work (Feministe, 2012). There is thus a very strong case for promoting breastfeeding, from a health as well as from a feminist perspective.
But this can be a double-edged sword. Nowadays breastfeeding promotion has become very powerful… with the unfortunate consequence of bottle-feeder shaming.
“Oh, so Mummy couldn’t be bothered to continue breastfeeding?” [comment to my sister]
A simplistic but dangerous dichotomy has crystallised from an initially well-intentioned public health message:
- Breast is best, so breastfeeding mothers are good mothers
- Formula feeding is “poison”, so non-breastfeeding mothers are bad mothers. (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)
Of course medical professionals such as gynaecologists, who have a nuanced and comprehensive knowledge on the topic do not usually think in terms of such binaries, but very often society at large does. In turn, women who do not breastfeed tend to feel judged, stigmatised, ashamed of being seen as “a bad mother” (William, Kutz, Summers et al, 2012)
The female body ends up being subjectified as a battlefield for societal issues: Public health promotion, the fight against over-sexualisation of breasts, the de-stigmatisation of breastfeeding in public, the fight against “profit-driven pharma industries” …
I do not doubt the evidence that breast milk has many advantages over formula milk, and providing support for women who want to breastfeed, transforming the public sphere into a safe space for breastfeeding is paramount. However, good quality formula feeding with clean water is not poison, nor does it “merely keep the baby alive”; it is actually healthy, too. The advantages of breast milk are real, but they are given proportionally too much weight compared to the importance of mother’s mental and physical wellbeing (British Pregnancy Advisory Service, 2015).
The combination of stigmatising breastfeeding in public and condemning formula feeding as a moral failure implies that women should not expect to enjoy the same access to the public sphere as men. People expect a woman to breastfeed, but it goes without saying that this should be hidden. It is a patriarchal reminder that at least some parts of a woman’s life are socially expected to be confined in the private sphere, at home.
It is unfair of Western society to turn deaf ear to all the reasons why a woman might choose not to breastfeed, and to make any normative judgments on her choice (Dailey, 2012). Society is prompt to declaim its lectures on the benefits of breastfeeding, but few people, other than healthcare professionals and mothers themselves, are much aware of the prevalence and symptoms of plugged ducts, breast engorgement, mastitis, fungal infections, soar or inverted nipples, low milk supply, oversupply of milk, or breastfeeding-induced pain more generally. There are a variety of valid reasons to choose not to breastfeed (work-related, health and pain related, negative lived experience…) (Schmied and Lupton, 2001).
But most importantly, women shouldn’t have to give an account of their reasons to society at large.
Longhurst R (2005) Pregnant Bodies, Public Scrutiny. In: Embodied Geographies – spaces, bodies and rites of passage. (2005 Edition) Edited by: Kenworthy Teather E. Routeledge Taylor and Francis Group. London
British Pregnancy Advisory Service (2015). Breastfeeding and formula feeding. Retrieved from: https://www.bpas.org/get-involved/advocacy/briefings/breastfeeding-and-formula-feeding/
Feministe Blog, Guest “Blue Milk” (2012) Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue. Retrieved from: http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/08/26/why-breastfeeding-is-a-feminist-issue/
Dailey K (2012) Formula v breastfeeding: Should the state step in? BBC News Magazine, Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19054045
Meneses-Sheets M (2013) Pregnancy, Politics and the Policing of Women’s Bodies. Truthout Op-Ed Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/16243-pregnancy-politics-and-the-policing-of-womens-bodies
Schmied V, Lupton D (2001) Blurring the boundaries: Breastfeeding and maternal subjectivity. Sociology of Health and Illness Vol. 23 p.234 – 250
Williams K, Kutz T, Summers M et al (2012) Discursive constructions of infant feeding: The dilemma of mothers’ ‘guilt’. Feminism & Psychology 0(0) 1–20
Thank you to my sister for sharing her experiences and allowing me to mention her.