Human Rights versus Hegemony

28 11 2007

This is an archive post, of writing of mine previously posted in other areas on the internet.

This post was in response to a mother with a terribly sick toddler, who was staying at a Ronald McDonald family hospice unit, being asked not to breastfeed her child in public areas in the hopsice. Despite it being illegal to prevent breastfeeding in Texas.

Human rights versus Hegemony

Those of us working hard to improve the world by support breastfeeding and breastfeeding mothers, can often be disheartened by the ongoing list of nursing mothers splashed across the media for being asked to remove themselves and their hungry infants from planes, parks, swimming pools and restaurants. Women such as Emily Gillette and Jessica Swimely find themselves in tense and humiliating experiences, whilst the rest of us find ourselves debating once more in the usual burst of comments, both pro and anti, on the curious concept of “nursing in public”. Such media hiccups are a two edged sword for all of us. On one hand, they do raise awareness of the problems nursing mothers face in a hostile culture, on the other hand, it makes more mothers fearful that they will be personally approached and censored when nursing their own infants. Equally, we have an opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse with others, as well as within our own ranks, but at the same time can find ourselves in a cycle of repeated view and counter view that is both worn and apparently inescapable.

The Swimely case in particular, has raised much of this depressing circular discussion, as the details of the ‘requests’ RMH made to the family, have facilitated a great deal of discussion within breastfeeding support communities and in general debate. The fact that it was an ongoing situation, with a family in immense need of long term support, has allowed us to see inside people’s thinking a great deal more than in a ‘one off’ situation such as a hungry infant removed from a plane or a restaurant. Sustained discourse has occurred, as each solution and counter solution was analyzed and comments passed on the various aspects of the struggle that Tobin was having in getting human milk, and human nurture, as he recovered from his brain operation. Many of the comments, from within our own community, have been about how difficult it is to balance everyone’s viewpoint in this debate. That the other adults and children in the common room required care and concern also. Many have stated that whilst Jessica and Tobin had a right to nurse in the common room, the agreement that Jessica and her family should alert others to it first, and give them time to leave the common room if they wished to, is both sensible and sensitive.

These comments reflect a view, often expressed in such discussions, that in a culture of different personal standards and tastes, acting to protect the other parties involved when contemplating nursing in public, is a sensitive and laudable act. That others need to be considered in the equation and it is a small thing to ask, for them to be warned in advance. Some have even pointed out that as Jessica was nursing twin toddlers, the reactive stance of ‘offended’ onlookers was more understandable. Every comment has usually started with “I agree that Jessica had a right to nurse but….” The ‘but’ goes on to explain that there all sorts of reason why people might be offended by an older infant being nursed, an infant being nursed in front of other children, and infant being nursed in front of a… the usual collections of reasons. The comment usually then ends with a plea for us to understand that progress can only be made if we try and ‘rub along together’ as opposed to end up in seeming combative situations such as calling in lawyers and the press.

This view, seemingly common sense and humane, suggests that all parties have equal rights in the matter and progress will be made if the rights of the ‘onlooker’ are also respected. In this case, that Tobin’s need to be nurtured is of equal status as the rights of the onlooker.

This is complete nonsense. There is only one right here: Tobin’s right to nurse. That’s why there was a law stating so, no matter how ineffective it turned out to be.

Tobin has an inalienable human right here that is being denied. The right of a human child to human milk, to nurture and nourish when its psychobiology requires it.

The offended onlooker does not have any rights to be protected. The offended onlooker has a personal issue, a feeling of discomfort and unease, that requires handling. A cultural dissonance, that needs acknowledged, responded to, engaged with and hopefully smoothed away. The nursing dyad has no such personal issue in this paradigm. The nursing dyad is not operating out of a cultural context. The nursing dyad has supreme importance and protection in this scenario.

There is a simple truth here, that is so awesome and complete in its simplicity, that it is in danger of being overlooked: breastfeeding an infant is not a lifestyle choice. It is not a cultural convention. It is not a personal statement. It is a biological imperative. It is our essential nature. It is an essential element of our species, and the continuation of it. It is a biological norm.

We do not choose to breastfeed. We can choose not to. Likewise, we do not choose to breastfeed in public. We can choose not to. Breastfeeding is not a cultural construct. Not breastfeeding, is. Nursing an infant when the infant needs it, is a biological norm. Deciding that this needs to be done in a certain place, at a certain time, or in a certain way, is a cultural value.

The problem with many of the arguments that occur when this debate rises again and again, arguments about tolerance, offence, understanding that other parents are going to be askance at nursing toddlers… is that these arguments place nursing within a cultural paradigm. It positions the debate in one of opinion, feelings and cultural mores. In doing this, it assigns equal right to all participants, not to have their feelings etc ‘offended’ and that they all have equal standing in the debate: no one position is more valued or ‘protected’ than the other. Different cultures often do things so differently from each other, that problems and tensions arise when people of the differing cultures meet are best met with discussion, sharing views etc. All laudable comments on such problems as they arise in a multi-cultural society.

However, breastfeeding is not a cultural activity. Therefore it does not belong in the cultural difference paradigm. As a biological normative behavior, it exists in a complete different paradigm: that of human rights.

Quite often, when this sort nursing argument is raging, someone will say “Would you ask a black person to go eat in their room if someone else was offended?” and a huge debate will fall open about whether or not that was an appropriate thing to say. One side will scream its not appropriate to reference colour, the other will say “Why not?” and off the merry go round will go.

Well, raising colour is an appropriate comparison to make, and I present it to you now, as an example of what I mean by the basic difference between arguing about a cultural convention and a biological norm.

Being black is a biological norm. In fact, it is the biological norm. Being white is actually the absence of being black. To discriminate against someone on the basis of colour, is to discriminate on their essential biology. It is to discriminate against their right to exist: it impinges on their human rights. There is no logic, rhyme or reason to such discrimination. It is a cultural construct imposing lunacy on the essential nature of humans. No one decides to be black. It is not a cultural concept. It is not a lifestyle choice. It is an essential artifact of human biology. It is.

As is breastfeeding.

Remembering that we do not choose to breastfeed… we can only choose not to. All babies are born to breastfeed. It is not a cultural concept. It is not a cultural artifact. They are not making a lifestyle choice. They are following their biological, and psychobiological, imperatives. They are doing what humans do: they are suckling for nurture, for nourishment and for survival. It is.

That is why they need the protection of the human rights paradigm, not the cultural one.

When laws are passed to protect the nursing dyad, these laws are not about protecting cultural difference. It is not about soothing cultural dissonance. It is not about protecting feelings, emotions or opinion. It is about protecting the essential normative biology of a nursing dyad. It is to prevent cultural suppression of an innate human characteristic. Just as being black, is an innate human characteristic.

I reiterate: breastfeeding is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something you choose to do. It is something you can only choose not to do. If you accept that an infant has an inalienable human right to human milk, and to comfort and soothe on the mother’s breast, you must also hold up its right to do so when it needs to – regardless of how offended the ‘onlooker’ in. By all means soothe the onlooker – but don’t make it the responsibility of the mother to do the soothing.

Keeping debates on nursing infants within the cultural paradigm is completely and utterly redundant in our current society. It was once the only place the debate could take place, and we must thank, and support, the previous generations in their struggle in that paradigm. Many nursing mothers here and now, are only here because of the work of previous generations, who in the Great Drought sought to change personal opinion where and when they could. Slowly, gently, and in a ‘let’s all get along nicely’ way. Wonderful women fighting a small, slow battle, inch by inch. Thank you.

However, we are not there anymore. Keeping the debate in the cultural paradigm is not only no longer useful – it is detrimental to progress. Keep it in the cultural battlefield and you do several things, all of them invidious:

For starters, we place all the pressure on the individual mother, and her infant. Jessica Swimely carried the entire pressure of this battle on her head as she sought to both feed and soothe a hungry and distressed infant and somehow appease cultural suppression at the same time. The law designed to protect her, failed. Some of us in the breastfeeding support community also failed her, but suggesting it was entirely reasonable that she clear the common room before nursing. By keeping the cultural paradigm in mind, we make it about the mother making the inroads into culture. We makes statements as a society that breastfeeding is to be protected … but we leave the individual mother to take the flack. She must make the choices daily, on where and when her child’s psychobiological needs are suppressed by the hegemony. She carries the burden.

As does the infant.

In addition, we get all the cultural ‘debates’ that take up the time and energy and prevent progress. The female human breast is ‘sexual’ and it’s understandable that others will be offended. Erm… no! The female human breast is not sexual. It does not carry a biologically determined normative function of ‘sexual attraction’. (Enlarged breasts actually mimic the true sexual attraction – the human bottom. Large breasts are not biologically standard.) Culture dictates whether or not it is a sexualized organ. Keep the debate in cultural mores – keep having endless arguments about seeing sexual body parts. Some laws have even identified this as part of the protective law and stated legally that a nursing breast is not a sexual artifact. When you accept, and promote, the concept that nursing an infant is a cultural debate, you actually end up undermining what you’re trying to protect – by constantly allowing the ever rolling debate on such trivial points as to how much of a breast can be seen before offence is caused. Unless it’s a non-nursing breast, in which case you’re allowed rather a lot of it in advertising cars, underwear and beer!

You also create space for the debate to include when and why weaning should occur and further undermine normal nursing practices from establishing. It is relevant that many of the high profile cases lately have been about nursing toddlers. Every single time a breastfeeding supporter has comment on the RHM situation about how it is understandable that people have reacted badly to nursing twin toddlers, a dagger has been struck in the heart of many of us. Two extremely pernicious concepts have bobbed to the surface here in the to-ing and fro-ing debates.

One is the myth of the ‘indiscreet’ women, making it harder for laws to be passed, as she ‘whips it out’ and alienates people. The irresponsible and insensitive mother who fails us all by being brazen with her breasts.

The other is the notion that those of us nursing toddlers in public are making it harder for acceptance, as we are acting so far out of the cultural norm. The mothers who need to understand that nursing older infants needs to be done privately to prevent more outcry.

Shame! Shame on you! How can you possibly justify discussing a woman’s body, and her biological imperative to nurture her infant in such negative and unjust terms? How can you stand up and say you support breastfeeding, but you can see that those nursing toddlers are better advised to hide more than the others? How can you undermine the very women fighting longest and hardest to establish normative nursing patterns.? How can you justify suggesting that women nursing in public hinders breastfeeding awareness?

Yet you do all of these things, when you argue about breastfeeding as a cultural issue. Because the very nature of cultural debate is to state that all sides have some points to make, and must be accommodated.

Breastfeeding is not a cultural artifact. Breastfeeding is a biological norm. The ability of the infant to access their mother’s milk when and where it chooses, is a human rights issue. The right of the human infant to nourish and comfort itself at the mother’s breast when it requires to, is an inalienable human right. A woman having control of her own body, in order to nourish her infant regardless of cultural suppression, is her inalienable human right.

These are human rights, not cultural debates. We can act in order to get along nicely where possible, but the right of the human child to breastfeeding is paramount.

And lest we forget…. the cost of the lack of nursing, is death for many human babies. In the USA, 2 babies per thousand die for being on formula. The figures are probably similar for most western nations. Many many more get ill, and in the UK, the cost to the National Health Service of treating formula fed infants with resulting infections runs into millions every year. This cost is long before we start totting up the treatment for the long terms risks of heart disease, diabetes etc – or the misery and pain that blights many lives when diagnosis of the most serious illnesses are made.

In the wider world, 3 500 babies a day die for lack of breastfeeding. In the time it’s taken me to write this – over 7 000 babies have died. And in the global village we live in, the lack of nursing in the West, feeds into that statistic. Women in the West feeding their infants in closed rooms, are not seen by their own communities and by the expectant mothers around them… but they are also not seen by the mothers of the Third World, desperate to give their babies ‘the best’. These women only see white, affluent and incredibly healthy babies and mothers… on the sides of cans of expensive formula. By keeping our nursing mothers bundled in the corner, or locked in bedrooms with their toddlers, or asking the common room to clear before feeding them… we contribute to the problem. But that’s okay, because the father over there, feeding his sick baby formula, is appeased.

Women choose not to nurse because they live in a culture that disapproves of it. We cannot change this, by working within the culture to ‘smooth it all out’. We cannot dump the responsibility on the individual nursing mother to prevent offence. We must act to protect her rights to nurse, and her child’s right to nurse. Their human rights. Full stop. Period. End of. Working in terms of the sensibilities of the onlooker to nursing, was once useful. Yesterday. Or even the day before yesterday. We can acknowledge how useful it was, and how much was achieved, as we move on to tomorrow.

The right of the human infant to receive sustained nurture and nutrition when it needs it, is a human birth right that must be protected. The right of a mother to share her essential biology with her infant must be protected. We must take it upon ourselves to uphold that essential, primal right, and empower all mothers to protect their own dyad at all costs. Let us have no more hungry infants removed from our view. Let us have no more mothers pressured into ignoring their infant’s hunger from fear. Let us stop pretending that the act of feeding a child via a bottle, is even a pale comparison of the real thing: a warm, responsive and loving human breast, adjusting its own output and content to perfectly match the psychobiological needs of the infant and the mother! Cultural values that suppress this union, be they medical, social, or family based, need to be challenged and refuted at every opportunity. We must support the dyad and protect their rights. Right?

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The Sin of Omission

8 11 2007

YouTube – All About Breastfeeding…the Nestle Way….

The Sin of Omission

What a masterly example of the misleading art of formula promotion we have here! When they are handing out awards to the media experts who sit and construct moving image to bewitch, bother and bewilder… this promotional video will win several awards hands down. The amount of care that’s been taken in this info-mercial on behalf of Nestle formula manufacturers is quite breathtaking. It leads audiences along with cosy images and hinted at expertise that completely belies the truth that it has really been constructed to send one message: that breastfeeding is some super human (superwoman) endeavour and really, don’t bother – just reach for their product instead.

So seamlessly has the real message behind this info-mercial been hidden, so heavily has the sugar been piled upon the poisonous pill lurking in the depths, it’s worth brushing off some of that sugar coating to examine more closely how the poison is being peddled. To expose how are they managing to present such a cosy view of breastfeeding whilst at the same time ruthlessly sending the message that most women aren’t up to it, and here, have this formula bottle to help you out of your inadequacy. It’s quite a complex unweaving… so if you are sitting comfortably, I’ll begin….

Warning bells should begin ringing for the alert viewer, in the opening titles. Apart from the nice soft focussed image of that baby feeding, in standard colours to suggest clinical cleanliness – blue and white – there is that title: All About Breastfeeding. And that’s all there is. It’s what’s missing, that should set the bells ringing.

Who made this video? Name me one reputable health information video, commercial video… fictional drama even, that doesn’t list the company who made it? This video tells us nothing about who made it, when it was made, who is in it, or where the funding came from? For all its professional quality, and a seeming message of ‘support’ in the area of health education, this video is orphaned, and has no credentials. Where is the list of sponsors/supporters/experts? When do you discover it’s made by Nestle? Answer… when you follow the link to their website.

Well, perhaps we don’t need to know this sort of stuff – after all, who cares who made it and what it’s for? We’ll move right on, straight onto a nice smiling expert to talk to us. There, a lovely doctor, a paediatrician, telling us what we need to know to breastfeed successfully! How nice. How photogenic… don’t you think that nice doctor lady is suspiciously photogenic? I wonder what her name is, and where she practises…?

Oh dear. More missing details. No name, no statement she is a doctor, just dressed like one, and in a doctor’s office with those nice kid’s drawings on the wall! Look at the huge range of files this actress has with her on set! My, they really got the detail down pat, didn’t they? I bet no one has even noticed that she has no name, no credentials and no ‘expertise’.. although if I squint, does that say M.D on her top? Wonder if she lists this gig on her CV back at the agents… or, no… you don’t think she’s actually a real doctor at Nestle do you? After all, she does go on to then introduced Laurie, ‘their’ Nurse Practioner? Okay, so Laurie is a nurse and works for Nestle. Interesting that Laurie isn’t a lactation professional ‘tho, isn’t it? Or a midwife… or a… oh dear, you can go on for a quite a while, listing everything that’s missing here, can’t you. Get used to it ‘though, for the list of what’s not in this video gets quite long – references to any evidence based research, or even guidelines, being just one the many omissions.

You have to hand it to actress/doctor however, she has a very comforting manner when direct addressing you via the camera. A picture of reassurance and competency, which is extremely important, as it’s her caring soft tones that are taking you past the sub-text in her words – a sub-text made more potent by her ‘medical’ expertise. Let’s have a closer look at what’s she’s saying, and how that pans out in the Nestle formula world:

“breast milk offers a perfect nutritional balance including protein, carbohydrates fat and other nutrients.”

You know, that almost sounds like how a can of formula reads, that list… she wouldn’t be putting it like that in order to make clear that what’s in the milk, is in the can too? Gosh, how cynical of me…

“When you first begin breastfeeding, it’s a new skill for both Mom and baby”

Yeah, I know – it’s a skill to be learned.. but no, wait, the baby comes hard wired with it, doesn’t it? Oh Noes! You mean we both won’t know how to do it?

“Successful breastfeeding is the result of patience, practice and proper positioning…”

It is? Oh dear. I’m not very good at patience. Will the baby suffer while I ‘practise’, and how can I get help on this ‘proper positioning? This sounds really hard work.

“but once you learn the basics, it can become an easy and natural activity that you’ll both look forward to..”

Oh good, I was getting discouraged… how long exactly will it be hard, unnatural and something I dread? How long does it take to master ‘the basics’? I have tender nipples and… gulp. And, another thing, if that’s the basics, how much more stuff do I have to learn after that? You know, I’m so pleased you’re explaining all this to me… I had thought this stuff was much easier than it is! I’m pleased to know it _can_ be rewarding for some.

“Before you begin breastfeeding please remember that whatever you eat can affect your baby.”

It can? I can harm my baby with foods? Oh dear, I hadn’t thought of that… do you have a list of things I can eat and things I can’t?

“You will want to limit how much caffeine and alcohol you drink”

I will? Uhm, you mean you know how much of both I take in, and so you know I need to limit it? Oh dear… no coffee? Do you have any recommendations for me, so I know how much I can take?

“and you may want to avoid the foods that make you feel gassy.”

This is starting to look like a raw deal…. is KFC okay? I did eat a lot of that during the pregnancy, and I’m wondering if I can damage my baby by eating it now…. gassy… isn’t that what makes babies cry? Oh dear, I’m going to make the baby cry if I eat the wrong stuff? Please tell me you have a list of what the wrong stuff is!

“Please talk with your health care provider about any prescription or over the counter medications you are taking”

Arggh! I hadn’t thought of that, I have allergies and I’m going to harm the baby if I take my meds? You are so right, I need to get my doctor’s permission to see if I’m safe to breastfeed.

I could go on, but realistically, it’d take several pages to properly breakdown all the messages that are being sent out here.

Couple of things I can’t let pass by though – notice how often ‘Laurie’ talks about tugging at nipples, nipple damage and mothers giving up because of it. She understands that you are scared of nipple pain, and she is telling you up front that it does happen, and it does turn women off breastfeeding… but she can help stop that from happening. She also, completely outrageously, tells you that you are going to have to wake up every three hours during the night to wake the baby up to feed it! This is when the lack of reference to any actual guidelines or facts about newborns and their sleeping behaviour, becomes actual mis-information. But it plays so beautifully on mother’s fears that they will never sleep again, and they will never manage to hack it in the breastfeeding stakes…

And that brings me to the most objectionable part of this info-mercial – Laurie and her ministrations. For whilst she’s all soft spoken and ‘meeting the mother where she’s at’. notice a couple of things about Laurie. To begin with, the mother is incapable of actually managing to latch the baby without Laurie’s hand on the back of the baby’s head. Laurie is the boss – the do-er, the person making it happen. The mother is unskilled, unconfident and worried. Laurie eases these worries by being the one that does the work for the mother. Good job she’s there – for the message is that without Laurie, no mother could latch her baby on without this ‘tugging at nipples’ that is going to cause ‘damage’. A lovely nice kind and calm nurse to get her over the lack of her own skill – pity the poor mothers who won’t have Laurie there. Oops – that’s most of us. Dang.

Worse however, and this is quite sickening, we never see the baby latch properly. Whenever Laurie is explaining how to, the camera is either on her face, or the anxious mother’s: it is not on the baby achieving latch. She talks about the baby’s mouth opening wide, but the shot is of a closed mouth. She talks about how the baby will root and latch on – we never see it. The camera pulls away from the mother’s attempts to latch an uninterested and avoiding the nipple baby, and suddenly Laurie’s hand is there forcing the baby onto the breast. Examine the editing and these shots are inter-cut out of sequence (Laurie has had to change position to get her hand behind the baby’s head in that manner) and do not reflect the rooting sequence Laurie describes. The second latch is even worse – they don’t even pretend to show a latching baby, there is more footage of Laurie’s face describing a latch, and then a jump cut into a fully latched baby.

Any mother using this video as a tool to latching, is going to be sorely disappointed: it doesn’t show one. Another omission.

Why it doesn’t show it, of course, is probably the same reason why it just fades out, into nothingness, after its set up a huge anxiety about not knowing how you know if the baby has enough, or how to gauge it’s weight gain. (Or at least I hope that’s the reason… I’d hate to think there’s more of this drivel out there.) It doesn’t show a latch, and it fades out without an ending, to make the mother think she’s missed the ‘best bit’ and to go to the Nestle website to find the rest of it.

Not that she knows it’s a Nestle web site until she gets there.

But she does know a lot of things by the time she gets to Nestle: she knows she has to restrict her diet, stop having coffee or alcohol, stop taking medication, find an expert to help her learn the difficult and stressful skill of latching in order to stop her nipples being damaged, lock herself away in a quiet room with no distractions, ignore her other kids, eat and sleep to a three hour schedule (that’s her, not the baby) and not worry too much about not knowing how much ‘cream’ her baby is getting. (Nice touch that, ‘cream’ – connection to dairy.)

Oh yes, and she also knows how hard it is to breastfeed, and that, deep down, she knows she’s not up to it. Good job the link takes her to formula adverts then.. that poor baby is going to starve to death waiting for an exhausted and stressed mother to ‘learn the basics’.

Nestle: every breastfeeding mother’s friend. Honest.