Nicholas Kristof asks, “What if nutritionists came up with a miracle cure for childhood malnutrition? A protein-rich substance that doesn’t require refrigeration? One that is free and is available even in remote towns like this one in Niger where babies routinely die of hunger-related causes? Impossible, you say? Actually, this miracle cure already exists. It’s breast milk.”
The belief that breast milk has nearly magical healing properties is at least 300 years old, and probably a lot older than that. I have a Master’s student who’s working on a thesis about the rhetoric and beliefs about breastfeeding in the early U.S. Republic, and her research in the prescriptive literature by English and American physicians in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has revealed a pretty static set of beliefs in breast milk’s power not just to ensure the health of infants, but also its uses in curing a variety of maladies in all sufferers, children and adults. Breast milk was recommended both topically and internally for a variety of complaints in the eighteenth century, so it’s interesting to see Kristof reaching for the same language of healing and “cures” when touting breastfeeding in developing countries.
While I think in general that Kristof is correct that promoting breastfeeding is a good thing, I also find that his column treats women’s bodies as mere vessels for the feeding of infants, and their time therefore as worthless. Note his claim above that breastfeeding is “free.” I suppose it might seem that way to some men, but it seems awfully condescending to women everywhere–not just in the developing world–to assume that their time, effort, and attention are without value.
Kristof thinks it’s a “paradox. . . that while [breastfeeding] seems so cheap and obvious — virtually instinctive — it’s also rare.” He doesn’t consider that women in the developing world might have good reasons for their choices–like the poor quality of drinking water he notes is a problem for nursing infants but neglects to consider how unreliable or even dangerous water might be a problem for nursing mothers, who must remain well-hydrated and healthy in order to nurse successfully. Kristof also fails to consider the other demands on women in the developing world. What if a woman already has growing children, who need food beyond breast milk, and fuel with which to cook it?
But if you see women’s bodies as a means to an end and you don’t see their time or labor as valuable, I suppose that Kristof’s analysis makes sense. In his column, Kristof notes that the breastfeeding (that is, nursing exclusively for the first six months of life) rates in some African countries range from 3-14%, but also admits that in the United States the breastfeeding rate is merely 13%! So even in a place where there is (for now, anyway) an adequate supply of clean water and organized medical advocacy for nursing, breastfeeding rates in the U.S. are one percent lower than in Senegal.
Why won’t those stupid b!tchez do what seems so “cheap and obvious?” Why these hundreds of years of prescriptive literature in English instructing and haranguing and nagging women to do what’s “virtually instinctive?” My question is, why doesn’t anyone ever assume that women are rational actors whose choices might make sense given the (often desperate) economic, social, political, and cultural conditions in which they live? If outside experts decide that women should be making different decisions they ought to consider a wholesale reform of said economic, social, political, and cultural conditions rather than lecturing women as though they’re the ones who created said conditions.