Professor Joan B. Wolf, of Texas A & M University, is giving a lecture entitled 'Is Breast Really Best? Breastfeeding, Motherhood, and the Politics of Careʼ at the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS) at the University of Kent, where she is a Visiting Fellow, on 13 February. Several articles have been published on the subject: Viv Groskop in the Guardian outlined Wolf's academic position, as an 'American critic of research into the health benefits of breastfeeding', characterising her as 'a leading figure in a backlash against breastfeeding'. Prof Wolf herself has an opinion piece in the Independent. New Statesman published this piece by Glosswitch with the heated headline 'Our regressive, insensitive and cultish attitude to breastfeeding'.
Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood was published in 2011; her lecture, according to the literature from the CPCS, reviews the central arguments of the book and discusses the book's reception, which has been, according to Groskop's article, 'mostly negative'. Other bloggers have already taken both Prof Wolf and the writers of these articles to task, including mummyisagadgetgeek, Michelle Atkin, and the Analytical Armadillo (who didn't have to write a new post; she'd said it all already). You might well wonder whether I've got anything left to add.
I've come across the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent before - last year, when I was blogging about media reaction to UNICEF's report about the cost-effectiveness of implementing programmes of breastfeeding support. Two members of the CPCS, Dr Charlotte Faircloth and Dr Ellie Lee, were drafted in to comment on the 'other side' when the Unicef report was discussed on television, taking up positions similar to Wolf's, which rests on three main points (or, as Wolf describes them):
'fundamentally false beliefs: that every time scientific research finds a relationship between two phenomena, one necessarily causes the other; that people who behave responsibly and are willing to make difficult choices can prevent virtually all risk, including health risks; and that breastfeeding is free.'
It may not be apparent to readers or viewers in general that part of what is happening here is academic position-taking. Those engaged in research - in all disciplines - explore ideas by taking a stance on a question and investigating it further: doing research, writing it up, presenting it to colleagues, publishing it in academic journals. And in academia, as elsewhere, there are careers and names to be made and research funding to be secured, books to be commissioned and TV appearances to be lined up. So I'm not really surprised to find some academics taking a stance against breastfeeding; they've found themselves a niche. And I'm not offended by the academic debate about breastfeeding in itself - particularly in how it relates to questions of feminism and economics - although I find it hard to find any common ground at all with Wolf's view and disagree strongly with all three of her points above.
I do, however, have a problem with the language that is being used - by both Wolf herself and those reporting her work. This article by Diane Wiessinger, IBCLC - from 1996! - deals comprehensively with how, in terms of breastfeeding, elevating it to something 'special', with 'benefits', actually undermines it. Breastfeeding is normal. This idea has become mainstream in breastfeeding support (it's specifically covered in peer supporter training, for example), and it should be becoming rare now to hear someone involved in breastfeeding talking about the 'benefits'. Yet the headlines of all three articles mentioned above, and the title of Wolf's book, deliberately use the outdated phrase 'Breast is best' or its inverse, 'Breast isn't always best'. You might think I'm attaching too much significance to this; I think that the newspapers, and Wolf herself, have no interest in the realities of breastfeeding culture and support and every interest in creating a media storm where the debate is artificially polarised.
I also find it surprising, as someone who's on the front line of breastfeeding support, that Viv Groskop can say in her article, after reporting figures that show that by six weeks more than half of parents have introduced formula 'This is contrary to the cultural messages we receive about breastfeeding: that we should be doing it and we should feel bad if we don't.' What cultural messages do we really receive about breastfeeding? It seems to me the total opposite - with the exception of the NHS and a relatively small community of pro-breastfeeding individuals, our prevailing culture is downright hostile to breastfeeding and breastfeeding supporters. Breasts are sexualised, mothers are harrassed for feeding in public, the bottle is the universal symbol for infant feeding, formula and baby feeding companies flout the WHO marketing code left, right and centre (as a topical example, check out this blog about Mothercare's current Innosense ad campaign). The women I see who are struggling with breastfeeding don't, in general, want to carry on because they feel they should - they want to carry on in spite of pressure to the contrary because it's important to them (for any number of valid reasons: they don't agree with Wolf's view of the scientific research, they feel instinctively that it's right for them, their own mother breastfed them).
There's clearly a discord between academic (political, social, economic) discussion of breastfeeding and the reality of it for new mothers. Where this is most problematic is where theory and practice intersect; that's one reason why we value research into breastfeeding to give us a clearer picture, why different types of report (such as the UNICEF one mentioned above, and the Infant Feeding Survey) are important, and why the NHS and other bodies have clear policies about breastfeeding. It's the more abstract dialogue about breastfeeding that muddies the waters and turns the interested parties against each other - often unnecessarily, because questioning and debate are important (although dogmatic position-taking and scoring cheap points aren't) and in the end, that's the problem I have with the latest reports of Wolf's work.