An open letter to Stephanie Fairyington (or, breastfeeding and feminism)

1 Sep

Dear Ms. Fairyington,

Before we start, can I just say that you have an awesome last name? Your last name is totally rad. It has the word fairy in it! I bet you hear that a lot. Anyway, just wanted to get that out before we move on to the more serious stuff.

So. This article that you wrote for the New York Observer, Time for Feminists to Stop Arguing About Breastfeeding and Fight for Better Formula – I just read it, and now I feel like I have a few things that I want to say to you.

First of all, I should probably give you some idea of where I’m coming from: I am a breastfeeding advocate, who is still nursing her 19 month old son, and I am a feminist. Oh, and I also run a yoga studio, which, as you pointed out in your article, would totally be a pumping-friendly environment if I was pumping. Which I’m not.

Second of all, I want to tell you how wholeheartedly I agree with the first part of your title. It is time for feminists to stop arguing about breastfeeding. Boy is it ever.

I’ll be totally honest with you – I do truly believe that breast milk is superior to formula. I would be thrilled if every woman chose to breastfeed, and was physically able to do so. I think breastfeeding is the best start in life that you can give a kid (well, that and a killer wardrobe), and I really wish that there was more in the way of education and resources dedicated to breastfeeding.

But I realize that some women are physically incapable of breastfeeding. Some women aren’t able to pump at work. Some women find the act of breastfeeding triggering due to past sexual assault. Sometimes formula is actually better for the baby’s health, in cases with severe health issues or allergies. And sometimes women just plain don’t want to.

As a feminist, I respect any choice that you make with regards to your body. If you want to terminate a pregnancy, I respect that. If you want to earn money as a sex worker, I respect that. If you don’t want to breastfeed, I respect that. Know why? Because I believe in bodily autonomy.

Which means that you should extend the same courtesy to me.

Which brings me to my second point, namely the fact that you believe that breastfeeding “stymies the progress of feminism“.

The first thing you mention in conjunction with this idea are some concerns you have with regards to the Latch On NYC initiative.

You begin by saying that,

Under the new rules, about two dozen hospitals will discourage new moms from formula-feeding by educating them on the benefits of breast milk … ”

This actually isn’t a new rule. According to this, it has been New York State law for the past three years that new mothers must be provided with accurate information regarding breastfeeding. So that actually has nothing to do with Latch On NYC, or Mayor Bloomberg.

You then go on to say,

” … [hospitals] will not provide formula unless medically indicated on the infant’s chart or requested by the mother. The rules will also prohibit formula freebies and ads in hospitals.”

I honestly fail to see how anyone could think this is a bad thing. Formula won’t be provided unless the mother asks for it – meaning that the staff can’t give the baby formula without the mother’s consent. Which does happen, believe it or not.

Furthermore, formula companies have no place advertising in hospitals or offering mothers free samples. Do you think that they do this out of the goodness of their heart, so that babies don’t starve? No, they’re looking for customers. I would think that you, as a future buyer of formula, would actually be happy that they will no longer be spending money on advertisements and freebies. Those “freebies” aren’t really free – they’re paid for by the company’s revenue, which comes from consumers like you.

Next, you say that,

The notion that “breast is best” simply because it’s natural sounds ringingly similar to the arguments made by pro-lifers and even contraception opponents, all of which begin with the same basic premise: women should be shackled to their corporeal destinies.”

There are many scientific studies proving that breast milk is nutritionally superior to and more biologically advantageous than formula. But that’s not the whole reason I decided to breastfeed.

I also decided to breastfeed because I’m cheap and lazy.

Breast milk is free and, living in Canada, I had a full year of maternity leave and thus was spared the cost of a breast pump. That being said, even a one-time investment in a breast pump is less expensive than buying can after can of formula.

And as much as I hate getting up in the middle of the night to nurse my son, I would hate even more having to get up and make him a bottle. Plus, I don’t have to do any of the sterilizing and cleaning of feeding supplies.

So please don’t think that all the pro-breastfeeding arguments boil down to “but it’s natural!”, because there’s so much more to it than that.

Next, you bring up the idea that breastfeeding is anti-feminist because,

A bottle positions men and women equally over the care of infants, while breastfeeding cements the notion that women are central to the process of nurturing children. Wasn’t feminism all about de-emphasizing our corporeality by arguing that our bodies should not define or limit our rights and responsibilities?”

No, my husband doesn’t breastfeed our son, but we do try to share our parenting duties equally. Yes, earlier on I was doing more work – all of the feedings were my responsibility of course (although we did decide that all of the diaper changes that happened when my husband was at home were his job). All of the gestating was also my job – shitty deal!

But, as my son grew older, my husband was able to take over more and more parenting duties. For example, he takes care of our entire nighttime routine – he’s usually the one to feed our son dinner, since I’m often working in the evening, and is always the one to give him his bath and put him to bed. It’s true that our roles in our son’s life remain somewhat different, but then “equal” does not mean “exactly the same”.

And, I’m sorry, but I thought that feminism was all about giving women choices – the choice to have children, or not to have children, the choice to breastfeed or formula feed, the choice to manage a yoga studio or be a children’s therapist who sees an exhausting number of clients. The point of feminism is that we work together to achieve equality, instead of tearing each other down over every little thing.

Finally, you complain that breastfeeding is holding women back because it reinforces women’s “parental centrality” and “undervalues fathers”. You say that this is holding women back in the work force. You also mention how difficult breastfeeding is because many workplaces aren’t equipped to deal with women who need to pump.

Wouldn’t a better idea be to work to change how society views motherhood, and to fight for better regulations regarding pumping at work? How is limiting women’s choices in any way, shape or form a feminist idea?

You write as if formula is somehow under attack when, in fact, it’s still the status quo. By 6 months of age, 52.8% of all infants are formula-fed. Trust me, you’re not a dying breed.

You write as if formula feeding doesn’t, in many ways, reinforce the patriarchy – for example, the idea that women shouldn’t expose themselves while feeding their child in public. Or how about the idea that a woman’s milk simply isn’t good enough or sufficient for a growing baby? In spite of the evidence to the contrary, this myth still persists. Or, my favourite, the fact that so many women and their partners want their breasts to remain exclusively sexual. If that’s not patriarchal conditioning, I don’t know what is.

And finally, I do agree with you that we should continue to work to improve formula, to try to make it more like breast milk. But I also think that we should continue to educate and encourage women when it comes to breastfeeding. Because, unlike you, many women go into parenthood wanting to breastfeed, and we should be offering them the support and resources they need to do that. I would hate to see a woman be forced to wean her child just because she lacked knowledge or support for her breastfeeding.

Anyway, I’m sure you’ll dismiss this whole letter as “nostalgia and conservative orthodoxy”, and that’s okay too. You can certainly believe whatever you want, just as you can do whatever you want with your own body. Just as I can do whatever I want with my body.

And that, Ms. Fairyington, is feminism.




19 Responses to “An open letter to Stephanie Fairyington (or, breastfeeding and feminism)”

  1. theyellowblanket September 1, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Wow, you and I *really* share a lot in common. This letter pretty much hits the nail on the head about how I feel about bfing vs. formula feeding.

    • bellejarblog September 2, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

      I feel the same way whenever I read your journal! I mean, the part about us sharing a lot in common.

  2. Sara Hanna September 2, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    This is a well written, thoughtful, and articulate letter. I like how you reference her post as though writing a paper for school. 🙂 You and I differ on a lot of things when it comes to breastfeeding vs formula, and I like that you can advocate what you believe without tearing down what I believe.

    We were going to breastfeed also because of it being free (and suposedly easier?!). It wasn’t easy and for me, it wasn’t free. And I don’t think I truly understood my terror, fear, and revulsion at the feeling of my child sucking on my nipples until I read the one sentence you wrote: “Some women find the act of breastfeeding triggering due to past sexual assault.”

    A light just went on in my head, and a whole lotta shit just started making a whole lotta sense. So thank you. I never realized how secretly guilty I felt for NOT breastfeeding my son until now. And I always felt like I had to justify it to people. But he’s healthy and happy and I feel like I didn’t do anything wrong by using formula. My sincere thanks, Anne. Your posts always make me feel … not so alone.

    • shannon September 2, 2012 at 12:44 am #

      Sara–I got goose bumps thinking that maybe some of your guilt you’ve been feeling has been alleviated. It’s such a monster, guilt. Hugs to you!

    • bellejarblog September 2, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

      I also got goosebumps read your comment!

      Don’t feel guilt about not breastfeeding your son. I mean, like I said, I do believe that breast milk is best, but that doesn’t mean that I think that formula is wrong or evil. I’m happy that formula exists, because it means that babies don’t starve to death, among other things.

      I would love to live in a world where there weren’t as many barriers to breastfeeding as there are, and that includes societal barriers, physical barriers and emotional barriers. That being said, you gotta do what you gotta do when it comes to your own kid. And you’re clearly a fantastic mom (and he’s a fantastic, smart, healthy kid).

  3. shannon September 2, 2012 at 12:47 am #

    Once again, a really thoughtful, articulate post. I did not read anything by Ms. Fairyington, but I did read the NYC thingie and had a knee-jerk reaction to it, which was much less thoughtful. I think I was just feeling the pressure on behalf of mothers who are not breastfeeding for whatever reason and imagining added guilt this would add. But everything you said makes so much sense.

    You’re lovely.

    • bellejarblog September 2, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

      Thank you!

      I think that what a lot of people don’t realize that is that formula is literally left in the hospital rooms of new mothers, and nurses do give formula to babies without asking mother’s permission.

      Latch On NYC isn’t about locking up the formula (they actually specifically say on their webpage that the hospitals won’t be keeping formula under lock and key), it’s about actually having the mother choose formula without feeling pressured into it. It’s also about breastfeeding education – the majority of mothers who switch to formula or use it to supplement believe that they are not producing enough milk. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that, especially when your baby is going through a growth spurt and wants to eat every. five. minutes.

      Anyway, enough ranting on my favourite subject! No one should ever, ever feel guilty for formula feeding. Like I said, I think breast milk is better, but I sure as hell am glad that formula exists.

  4. no shrinking viola September 2, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    I absolutely loved your post. So well written and I couldn’t agree more.

  5. Erin September 2, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    You should actually send this to the New York Observer.

  6. Sarah D. September 3, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    Yet again we sit on opposite sides of a reality but agree on the issue of respect – I think the most important thing here is that women – whether they breast- or formula-feed, simply need to be taught how to do either to the best and healthiest of their ability. Both can be healthy, acceptable choices under different circumstances, and whichever choice is made, proper education, help, etc. should be provided (ie – knowing there will always be formula fed babies in the world, I will always advocate for healthier, more nutritive formula; however, I will also always advocate that breastfeeding is something that women should understand and consider before rejecting it wholesale because of some ick-factor or any other barriers. How often do we end up agreeing – moral of the story – ladies, go easy on each other. We might make different choices but really, we’re all in this together.

    • bellejarblog September 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

      I totally agree. Do I wish that more women breastfed? Yes, for sure! Mainly what I wish is for more women to feel more comfortable with their bodies, to be able to overcome the physical, emotional and societal factors that inhibit them. Or rather, for those factors to just magically stop existing.

      That being said, I am so happy that formula exists. Because you know what happened before we had formula? Babies died, plain and simple.

      I mostly just don’t like the formula companies and their weird sneaky tactics :/

  7. empressnasigoreng September 4, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    So with you on all this. I had to return to work when mine were under 1 year old and was so glad to be able to continue breastfeeding until they were around 2 and a half. It was a great way of reconnecting after a long day apart and something only I could do for them. Also cheap, lazy and a feminist! 🙂

    • bellejarblog September 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

      I think “cheap, lazy and feminist” is going to be my new slogan 😀

  8. Melissa September 12, 2012 at 3:00 am #

    Well written and omg straight out of my own brain.

    • bellejarblog September 12, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks! Man, boobs. Who knew they were so controversial?

  9. Stephan J Harper June 17, 2015 at 4:50 am #

    Oh, by the way, anyone who would object to seeing you in the real world so delightfully “multi-tasking” is the kind of humorless oaf/oaf-ess who never ever had fun on a merry-go-round.”

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