Is it up to Jamie Oliver to say how women should breastfeed?

When men make statements about breastfeeding, they are making assumptions about where and to whom a woman should direct her energies, with no consideration of the personal cost.

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Imagine if feeding your newborn baby were no more complex than following a Jamie Oliver recipe. Right, this one’s dead simple, all natural ingredients, you can rustle it up in a jiffy. Take one lactating tit – can be engorged, bleeding, mastitis-ridden, you name it – give it a bit of a squeeze then just whack it in your hungry tot’s mouth. Quick as you like, takes zero prep, how’s that for instant infant tucker?

Unfortunately, just as fighting poverty involves more than encouraging the poor to get rid of their “massive fucking TVs”, breastfeeding requires more than having a celebrity chef tell you it’s “easy” and grant you permission to do it “anywhere [you] want”. It’s all very well to say “we have the worst breastfeeding in the world” when the “we” means something very different depending on whether one is a lactating mother or not. 

In fairness to Jamie Oliver, he has since clarified recent comments he made to LBC Radio, saying that rather than launch his own breastfeeding campaign, he was merely trying to “support women who do want to breastfeed and make it easier for them to do so.” This may be true and obviously it’s better than him saying we and our babies should be banished to the toilets. Yet even if Oliver wants to help us to do the right thing, is it his place to specify what the right thing should be?

A common argument against pressuring women to breastfeed is that some women simply can’t do it. Personally, I don’t think that should even matter. Just as I object to the idea that there are “good” and “bad” reasons for having an abortion, I object to the idea that one must prove oneself physically unable to breastfeed in order to be released from lactation duty. I’ve breastfed all three of my children and have not found the mechanics of it particularly tricky. My problem is that I get sick of it and while I might decide to carry on regardless, this will be my judgment to make.

I’ve been breastfeeding my youngest for almost seven months now. Throughout all this time I’ve been functioning as the Magic Porridge Pot, unable to stop producing and producing, regardless of whether or not there is any immediate demand for my wares. If my baby happens to have a full night’s sleep, or my partner uses expressed milk to give me a night off, or I just want to go out with friends for a few hours, I cannot switch off my breasts. They carry on getting full, and sore, and leaky, and sticky, and engorged, and frankly, there are times when I hate it and just want my own body back.

Even if Oliver were the world’s expert on the nutritional benefits of breast milk compared to formula, that wouldn’t put him in a position to say whether breast is truly best. Breastfeeding is a form of reproductive labour. It is gendered work that women are expected to carry out for free. When men such as Oliver seek to encourage it, they are necessarily making assumptions about where and to whom a woman should direct her energies. There is no consideration of the personal cost to her. She is supported only insofar as this support will make it easier to harvest a specific resource.

There is only one class of people who gestates, gives birth and is able to breastfeed. In another world, men might appreciate the wonder of such work. In this world, men take female reproductive labour for granted. It’s natural for female bodies to be used and damaged in the creation and nurture of others and we’re not meant to question what’s natural, at least not where women are concerned. Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding create scenarios in which a woman is supposed to sacrifice her own sense of autonomy and wellbeing for even the most marginal potential benefit to someone else. But what if she doesn’t want to? What if, being privileged enough to have access to sterilising equipment and a clean water supply, she’d like to make use of formula milk in much the same way she might make use of antibiotics or mobile technology? What if the principle that something beneficial to you doesn’t have to be optimal for everyone around you – just minimally harmful – applied to maternal bodies, too?

We might tell ourselves that pregnancy and breastfeeding are unique in that we are forced to consider another individual apart from ourselves. I don’t think that’s true. There are plenty of situations in which we prioritise personal freedom over potential harm to others (the setting of speed limits, for instance, or the choice not to donate organs or give blood). The difference with pregnancy and breastfeeding is that the personal only affects female people. Patriarchy has earmarked female bodies as potentially at the disposal of others and it has done so precisely because male bodies can only ever appropriate control over life and death in a similar way.

Just imagine what the world would be like if we made the same rational, evidence-based demands of male bodies that we make of female ones. Here’s a suggestion: instead of telling pregnant women to avoid all alcohol, despite the lack of evidence to suggest this is necessary, let’s tell all men to do so. The vast majority of violent crime is committed by males, and almost half of that is thought to be alcohol-related. Stop drinking, men. It’s just not worth the risk.

Sure, you, personally, are not likely to be involved in a violent, alcohol-fuelled altercation. Similarly, I am not likely to find myself with a baby suffering from gastroenteritis, asthma or diabetes. But here I am, day in, day out, sitting with sore, engorged, oversized breasts, in an enormous tent of a bra that I am tired of wearing, and there you are, just going about your business, not for a second thinking that your idea of fun has potentially fatal consequences. How about we launch a campaign, fronted by Delia Smith or Mary Berry, that’s all about making it more acceptable for men to be sober in public? I’m not judging you, you understand; to paraphrase Oliver, I just want to support you and make it easier for you to not be such an obvious threat to public health.

I would like to think that Jamie Oliver’s heart is in the right place. But whereas his heart beats within a “normal” (male) human chest, mine beats beneath an oversized “favoured” breast (my baby has not taken to the right side, so Right Boob has shrivelled due to under-use and shame). Oliver thinks he has the right to influence what a lactating woman’s body is for. He does not. He is welcome to appreciate all that female bodies, regardless of whether they gestate or lactate, are able to do. But if the health of the nation is his priority, I suggest he look to the things that really do harm. A woman feeding her baby, whichever way she does it, is doing something good. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.