As pilots fight to pump breast milk at work, why is society so ashamed of lactating women?

From the pilots filing claims against Frontier to Adele at the Oscars, we need to stop being shocked that lactating breasts produce milk even without a cute baby around to suckle.

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People do not like to be reminded of the fact that human beings are mammals, members of the class in which females secrete milk for their young. It all sounds so primitive, placing us on a level with the beasts of the field. We’ve risen above it, haven’t we? All of us, that is, apart from those who still lactate.

Take the four female pilots who recently filed claims aimed at forcing their airline, Frontier, to make it easier for new mothers to pump breast milk at work. 12-hour workdays and five-hour flights are not, it turns out, convenient for the average lactator. One of the women had already received a written reprimand for pumping in an plane toilet. Apparently this “raised safety issues” – but why wasn’t it thought of before?

Because nobody likes to think about the practicalities of breastfeeding, that’s why. We may live in a world in which every new mother is put under an inordinate amount of pressure to do it, but to consider the logistic and economic problems this raises? Hell, that would mean looking at actual business structures, and that’s difficult. Shaming women, on the other hand, is easy.

Even for those of us who are not pilots, combining breastfeeding with working outside the home is hard. You know your body is not “back to normal” yet others cannot see it. In addition to your work schedule you now have your expressing timetable, carefully devised in order to ensure minimum engorgement but maximum flow upkeep. You are paranoid that every absence will create the impression that you are skiving, not least because you seem to be spending an significant amount of time dismantling, washing and sterilising bits of plastic and rubber. You feel like you are the only woman in the world who does this (apart from those times when you see someone else has left their milk in the fridge, at which point you become strangely competitive over who is producing the most. Or maybe that’s just me).

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson estimates that a tenth of the book’s words were written “hooked up to a hospital-grade breast pump”. I work in an open plan office. While I have not attempted to follow Nelson’s example I am pretty certain I would not get away with it. Breastfeeding is edging its way towards public acceptability. Squint, and all you’ll see is a glorified cuddle. Expressing milk – literally sitting there and syphoning it off – is different, taking a natural process and rendering it sterile and mechanical. Manufacturers try to combat this by giving pumps names such as Closer to Nature and Natural Comfort, but even with a manual one you become a dispensing machine. Invest in an electric one and you’ve upgraded your status to that of factory farm cow.

Last year, the singer Adele revealed that during the 2013 Oscars she spent much of her time “running to the toilet, between awards, to pump and dump”. She added that “loads of people” were doing the same: “All these Hollywood superstars, lined up and breastfeeding in the ladies.” There’s a strange irony that this was also the year the ceremony opened with Seth MacFarlane’s snide, woman-shaming “I saw your boobs,” a montage that featured not a single lactating tit. I suppose it at least gives us the Oscar boob as a synecdoche for patriarchy’s treatment of women: objectify it in public, then in private milk it dry.

On a personal level, part of me regularly wonders what the point of all this pumping is. I live in a country with a clean water supply, so formula milk would not be harmful. I am not producing “liquid gold”, certainly not given the rubbish I eat and drink. I’m really keeping going because my son enjoys breastfeeds and I don’t want to dry up in his absence. The trouble is, I can’t switch my breasts on and off. Business me cannot override lactating me as and when I require it. 

There is the feminism that suggests we overcome the female body and the one that suggests we overcome a society that treats the male body as default. I guess I’m on both sides. I think women should have access to as much technology as makes them comfortable but we should also stop treating the female body as other, however hard a balance this seems to maintain.

It should not come as a shock that lactating breasts produce milk even when there is not a cute baby around to suckle. What’s more, we need to stop blaming breasts for being breasts, mammals for being mammals and, above all, women for being women. If we’re so much better than the average beast, why can’t we create a world that takes every body into account?

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

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