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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Breastfeeding as Religion

"Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite. This is a very comforting thought-- particularly for people who can never remember where they have left things." - Woody Allen

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The Passion of the Breast: The Religiosity of Breastfeeding

"I will then demonstrate that breastfeeding itself may be read as a religion, and outline why this is a reading which can only be made due to the conditions which exist in our late-modern, post-feminist society...

As women became more autonomous, they began to view their breasts as symbolic of the female - the binary with which to differentiate themselves from the oppressive male. This is linked to a parallel decline in wet-nursing, midwifery and associated increased medicalisation of pregnancy...

While feminists cried ³choice´ in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they really decried thetraditional, and supported instead a ³get out of the home and into the public space´ philosophy...

The last 20 years has seen feminist scholars discuss breastfeeding, but with a biased lens. Inher study of breastfeeding rates Wolf claims that the feminism inspired health movement inthe late 1970s initiated the revival of breastfeeding, however she finds the statistical recessionand surges in US rates of breastfeeding ³inexplicable.´ Additionally, both Wolf and other scholarly focus has been on the discrepancy between racial and class adoption of breastfeeding, and the health promotion and medical attempts to address this discrepancy.This is purely a reflection of the lens through which this feministic discourse is undertakenrather than a sincere attempt to address declining rates of breastfeeding in the US.

Wolf reveals her feminist, neo-liberal bias when she describes white, college-educated women being the only group which has embraced breastfeeding in large numbers since theearly 1970s.´ This positive slant, however, contradicts the facts outlined above. Most USwomen are supplementing their own milk with artificial milk (formula), or have moved toformula completely within just one week of their child¶s birth. With these facts in mind, itcan hardly be said American women are ³embracing breastfeeding in large numbers.´ Thethreat breastfeeding represents to feminism is evident in this treatment...

"Only 17% of momsexclusively breastfeed for six months, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics"...

Feminist scholars are uncomfortable with breasts when any function other than attraction is considered... These writers went to such an extent as to identifyscientific evidence regarding the benefits of breastfeeding over bottle feeding as being male-oriented and reflexive, with a political agenda of keeping the woman in the home...

As Pam Carter recognises, while there are feminist perspectives of childbirth, there are none about breastfeeding - and she compels feminists to get involved due to the greater reality of what this lack of engagement says about women. She sees a different type of political construct at play and asks if breastfeeding has not become a feminist issue then that creates the perception of women being irrational...

If women are still being told by media and society that breastfeeding is not a "polite" thing to do in company, I imagine that images of the Madonna breastfeeding in a traditional Catholic church today would be described as blasphemous. In fact, with today's American women being asked to leave public areas such as shopping malls to breastfeed, to do so in church would be unacceptable

[Ed: Crucifying oneself in a church would also be unacceptable]

... Breastfeeding requires a system of symbols. (Geertz describes symbols as any object,act, event, quality or relation which aids in meaning). There is quite obviously nothing that awoman needs to purchase to signify herself as a breastfeeder...

Secondly, the practice and rhetoric of breastfeeding are designed to produce long-lasting commitment... It is this type of commitment which reflects the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane referred to by Durkheim in his appreciation of religion. Thus in breastfeeding as religion we can see strong positive and almost spiritual values are placed on the experience by practitioners...

For the religious breastfeeder, it is common to hear education and promotionalrhetoric, especially as they tend to use words which are unusual in everyday conversation, inthe reasoning as to why they have chosen to breastfeed...

Geertz quotes Santayana in stating "[Religion's] power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life" (Geertz 1973 p. 87). Breastfeeding's reading as religion meets all of these definitions.

The religiosity of breastfeeding itself is supported by the reverence ascribed to it by practitioners... 85.7% of respondents stated they believed that breastfeeding has a deep meaning... Interestingly, the respondents used the opportunity to not only give further information toclarify their thought, but they commonly used religious language in doing so (belief/believe,taboo) as well as identifying their autonomy in their belief...

When experienced as a religious commitment, women pursue and construct meaning which lasts distinctly longer than the time they practically breastfeed for. This is demonstrated by their personal value adjustment, influence over friends and family in evangelising positive breastfeeding education, and for some,maintaining memberships to legitimating groups such as the La Leche League, in order to promote breastfeeding to the wider community.

Secondly, the practices are reflexive. Breastfeeding is associated with a larger goal of goodmothering which is also promoted and legitimated through the advocates¶ breastfeeding¶s³breast is best´ rhetoric. Religious breastfeeders not only adopt the functional practice of breastfeeding but in fact embrace and celebrate it¶s µdeeper meaning¶. For these women, breastfeeding is more than simply a right or natural, or even rite of passage. They seek andcelebrate an identity of being a good mother by breastfeeding. For these women, breastfeeding is symbolic of their mothering ability and the autonomy of their decision. Their choice to breastfeed instead of bottle-feed provides them with a transcendent meaning-making that in turn validates their choice. It is religious...

In achieving these goals, the value of work done in the home by women has been described as less valuable by both men and women (Mattelart & Reader 1982). The privatesphere holds no attraction for women of the 21st century. It is seen as tired, traditional andoppressive. If women were to return to the home, this would be a backward step in a feministcontext. However, this reading denies the legitimacy of the choice taken by the religious breastefeeder and forces them into a polemical response against the other"
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