Consider the lactating breast, and consider that it is only very recently in human history that it has had to be defended—not until the mid-20th century, when doctors and nurses called it primitive and unclean and instructed women to dry out and buy formula. In the 1970s, the women’s movement and La Leche League tried to redeem breastfeeding, and since then the medical establishment has done a 180, and the daughters of the feminist revolution arrive at motherhood presented with an ostensible choice: “Do you plan to breastfeed?” we are asked.
All the expectant women in the new documentary Breastmilk did, for the usual reasons: “It’s healthier,” “It’s more natural,” “It’s better.” What actually happened in the days, weeks, and months following childbirth, and what happens to mothers in general, is not only the subject of the film but also the interest of policymakers; public health advocates; “lactivists;” feminists, most of whom lament America’s low breastfeeding rates—around 16 percent of mothers are breastfeeding exclusively at six months, the minimum recommended by health authorities—and others who say we’re overselling its importance.
Joan Wolf, a professor of gender studies at Texas A&M and author of the provocatively titled 2011 book Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes Motherhood, represents the latter camp. Speaking against a global consensus comparable to that on climate change, Wolf insists “the general message women are getting from experts—including doctors, the government, and La Leche League—is wrong” and calls the science “weak, speculative, and very badly represented.” Hanna Rosin, writing what in retrospect looks like a prequel for The Atlantic in 2009, went one step further and not only repudiated the science but called breastfeeding a “middle class mother’s prison.”
“Do you think men would need scientific evidence to tell them what feels good and what they should be doing with their bodies?”
Epidemiologists have little patience for Wolf and less for Rosin, who they say cherry pick studies among a vast body of research and naively demand proof of causation, which is as unreasonable as climate change deniers demanding unequivocal proof that humans are causing the Earth to cook—there are too many confounding variables, plus the ethics for breastfeeding (you can’t assign women to feed their babies one way or another just to study them, so scientists are limited to observational studies). “While Wolf has indeed found articles that support [her] claim, other far more comprehensive studies have come to a different conclusion,” writes sociologist Jacqueline Wolf (no relation) in a scathing review. “She is wrong.”
In Breastmilk, the science doesn’t come up much, and if mothers feel imprisoned it doesn’t seem to hinge on how they feed their babies. But what comes through clearly is that breastfeeding is important to these women on many levels, and most are understandably frustrated by the mixed messages they’ve received: On the one hand breast is best, and on the other, good luck with that.
One keen social worker suggests that women aren’t really motivated by the science anyway—it’s not the “off chance that your child might not be fat when he gets older,” she says. The film touches down on the real reason women want to do it: because it feels right. One woman says “it’s so nice to feel so close to your child.” Another describes breastfeeding as that “exhale moment, that moment when nothing else matters. It’s a little high.” Even Rosin admitted she breastfed her three kids “because it’s nice.” (Wolf, for her part, won’t say how she fed her two children.)
This point, and an entr’acte of breasts ejaculating in slow motion, make Breastmilk a radical film, and offer a release, if you will, from the issue’s tired framing in terms of health and choice. “I’m not so interested in convincing women to breastfeed,” says director Dana Ben-Ari. “I’m much more interested in seeing why it’s so difficult to achieve those goals.” For her, the science is both a given and beside the point. “I don’t need science to tell me it’s better to eat a fresh piece of fruit than some frozen version made in a lab. Do you think men would need scientific evidence to tell them what feels good and what they should be doing with their bodies?”
While the film holds a certain reverence for biology, it does not look to women to defend their “choices.” Instead, Breastmilk shows how little women’s choices seem to matter—and how much the systems around them do. Several of the women whose babies latch, whose milk comes in, yet who have to return within weeks to jobs where there is no on-site childcare, where they have to plug into a pump behind closed doors, and who after all the effort are told they’re not making enough milk—they’ve been supplementing with formula all along and stop breastfeeding altogether before six months. Pumps, we know, aren’t as stimulating for milk production, or the pursuit of happiness. “I feel like a cow,” says one woman reluctant to pump on camera. “I go moo.”
In this woman-against-machine world, in which we know data don’t drive behavior or policy, maybe Joan Wolf has a point when she says we are overemphasizing the science, “pushing women to breastfeed for all the wrong reasons.” But unlike her, the film sets aside the evidence to interrogate something more fundamental: our values. It seems to ask: Rather than claiming nutritional superiority, might human enjoyment be reason enough to fight for women to have more latch-time with their babies? And might that be the radical shift in framing that feminists need to lead, the same way we fought for orgasms? Fiona Giles, a feminist scholar at the University of Sydney and author of Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts suggests “a kind of biological feminism” where a woman can be “fully in the world and fully in her body.”
What would this look like? In terms of breastfeeding, we’d be fighting to make it easier simply “because it’s what women’s bodies do,” Giles says. Instead, the American feminist conversation is stuck in circles about whether promoting breastfeeding is really worth it (cue the “science is weak” argument) or egalitarian (cue the “it’s essentialist” argument) when the difficulty (because our culture makes it so) makes so many women feel guilty. Scholar and activist Bernice Hausman has a great answer to the latter: “Guilt operates as this rhetoric that forestalls change,” as if “anybody who talks about guilt really cares about mothers,” she says on camera. “And it’s a lie.”
In other words, if we really cared about mothers, we’d make it easier to be one. Which means feminists can’t be politically afraid to admit that women are biologically different and demand support for those differences. “That doesn’t make us inferior,” Giles says. “It just means we have different needs at different times.” And maybe acknowledging that would make us all feel better.