Breastfeeding, My Daughters, and Body Image

I breastfeed for my daughters. At first glance, this would seem obvious: I have all girls. We all breastfeed or formula feed our children for them, it is what you do as a parent; feed your child.  And this is of course true for me as well.  After all, breastfeeding is the biological normal way to feed a human baby and thankfully my body can do it just fine.  But over time a new aspect of breastfeeding has emerged for me.  I don’t breastfeed only to feed and bond with my daughters any more.  In this age where an impossible ideal is held up as desirable for the female form, when airbrushing celebrity figures to make them “perfect” is the accepted norm, when a woman’s worth is presented as being entirely wrapped up in her sex appeal, when women’s (and men’s) bodies are used to sell things, when objectifying a human being for their body is lucrative, one of the reasons I openly breastfeed my babies is so my daughters can see something different. Initially this benefit of breastfeeding wasn’t on my radar. I was focused, like most new moms, on doing what was best for my baby and “breast is best.” (My views on that saying and it’s impact on breastfeeding have changed after all these years.) Attractive qualities of breastfeeding such as statistically higher IQ levels in breastfed babies, lower risk of obesity in adulthood, super-power like immune system boosting, and faster/better recovery time after birth all sounded good to me and I was drawn in by these dreamy sounding sale pitches that no other product could truly replicate.  I felt my daughters deserved the best and I would do everything in my power to give them the very best I could.  Though not impressed with myself for breastfeeding my daughters, I was pleased, even if I didn’t really think about it too much with my first three girls.  It was just simply something you do as a mother: push baby out, expel placenta, breasts get the signal to produce milk, put baby to breast, and the rest, as they say, is history. It changed though.  While I knew the wonders of breastfeeding I began to see myself and the world a little differently as I watched my girls grow.  Earlier than I ever imagined possible it seemed little girls were encouraged to flaunt their sexuality with clothing options that seemed better suited for “girls” about 4 times their age and no, I’m not joking.  Advertising, toys and cartoon characters jumped out at me suddenly as more messages to little girls (and boys) as to what a woman was supposed to look like and what her purpose was.  Suddenly even my favorite Disney princess from my own childhood concerned me as I considered the sexual overtones of her character and clothing.  I wanted something different for my daughters and I found myself becoming increasingly concerned with the messages my young girls were hearing regarding their bodies and what they should look like.  The messages they were hearing of their purpose and function. Of their worth and value. When Squiggle Bug was born nearly 5 years after Lolie, my 3rd, my girls were fascinated with my changing body during the pregnancy.  They loved the midwife visits and The Piano Man and I considered having them present for the birth.  To prepare them for that we started watching birth videos with them.  Long an open family about bodies, the differences between boys and girls and openly educating about sex, we encouraged them to ask questions.  Watching them watch a baby being born in these videos was beautiful, they were in awe of the whole process and I was reminded of the wonder of birth.  Seeing them take in breastfeeding and learn how it works, I marveled in a way I never had before over the incredible design.  Then a conversation with The Storyteller caused me to marvel in my own body when she said “You can do that?  You did that for us?  That’s amazing!  Mommy, your body is awesome!” I had never, ever in my entire life seen my body as awesome. I have not been good friends with my body.  Unfortunately, much like other women, I have struggled with body image.  In my head I can acknowledge beauty that wouldn’t be considered magazine worthy and I love and applaud representations that fly in the face of western societies expectations of what is desirable.  Yet for myself I hold a different standard.  Growing up I saw beauty defining images that depicted something pinched, poked, pushed, and painted.  And I liked it, wanted to look like that.  Complicating it further was my family’s very conservative faith views of modesty and during the very formative years of puberty I was bombarded with messages that if I dressed a certain way I would be responsible for making men and boys lust… or worse.  As I got older I heard people imply that if a woman was raped to look at how she was dressed, she was probably “asking” for it.  I always felt that any unwanted attention on my body was my own fault.  I wasn’t even sure if my body was something I really had any say over.  The struggle the conflicting messages I received contributed to me being insecure and I was afraid of my own body.  Should I hide it?  Should I flaunt it?  Would it cause my guy friends to stumble?  Or would it make me popular and admired?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.  Either way my body wasn’t good enough, beautiful enough, sexy enough, big enough, small enough, soft enough, hard enough, safe enough, innocent enough, protected enough, modest enough, pure enough, it would never be enough.  My body failed everything, every standard set.  And I didn’t know how but I felt it was all my own fault. These feelings impacted my relationships including my relationship with my husband and my children.  I struggled with pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding in part due to these feelings.  Breastfeeding Earth Baby, my first, was no walk in the park for me emotionally. With time though I started to feel like maybe it wasn’t my body that failed, maybe it was society that had failed me though I wasn’t sure how.  Childbearing and breastfeeding did give me some respect for my body while at the same time confusing me further as to how motherhood could be so beautiful but drive being beautiful even further out of my reach.  Pushing back wasn’t easy and to this day I still struggle with internal voices telling me I’m still not enough.  With my daughters though the failure was glaring.  How I was failed was muddied by my own destructive behaviors but how my daughters were failed was unfolding before my eyes.  Surrounded by images, stories and marketing aimed to sell them something my daughters were drawn to artificial depictions of beauty just as I was.  I knew this wasn’t what I wanted for them.  We could have fun with dress up, make up and doing the pretty thing for ourselves but I didn’t want them to become consumed with aspiring to some artificial standard they could spend all the money in the world to reach and still fall short.  Early on we started rejecting toys and entertainment options that glorified a version of the female form that nobody really has any hope of reaching and choose selectively options that featured more realistic or simple characters.  We chose to be a Barbie-free home, the Disney princesses were regulated to a minor role, Saturday morning cartoons are a rarity and I stopped reading fashion magazines.  Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the girls were intrigued by this image of false female perfection. So we talked.  A lot and often.  Sometimes serious, sometimes casual, always open.  In the course of dialoguing with them I began to realize something: if I wanted this for them I had to want it for me. Getting rid of the fashion magazines was one of the best things I ever did for both my daughters and myself.  Learning to love and accept my body on an ongoing basis, embracing the struggle of my conflicting feelings is part of empowering them.  Letting them see me use my body for feeding their little sister and my choice to do so without shame and without covering in public, to embrace my body as it functioned naturally instead of imposing an unnatural standard of beauty or being controlled by fear helped them to accept their bodies now and as they grow and change in the future.  It also helped me.  Their questions, fascination and awe at the amazing things my body could do humbled me to tears.  They appreciated something I had never had the courage to truly see.  Today my older three daughters think breastfeeding is great and will easily say as much without blushing or giggling, just honest enthusiasm for something so magically normal.  My daughters are clearly comfortable around breasts and breastfeeding, which is good since, you know, they’ll probably have both some day.  I want them to appreciate and value their body both then and now. It is my honest hope that my older girls will remember me breastfeeding and these memories will be a part of empowering them to accept their bodies, to be fascinated and enjoy the power of their bodies and to embrace a much fuller and honest definition of beauty and their growing sexuality.  For my younger girls I hope that we continue to have friends that breastfeed their babies so my daughters will see and ask questions like their big sisters did, developing the same awe and confidence in the female body, including their own.  From this place they stand a greater chance of a healthy body image, generating confidence and self respect.  I’m still working on this for myself and I won’t stop because I’m not only doing it for me, I’m doing it for my daughters.  For me I am learning that my body, indeed my whole self is more complex than advertisers and parts of society would have me believe.  And I’m claiming it back.  For me.  For my daughters.  For women everywhere. As Earth Baby grows into her body as a young woman we have more and more frequent conversations about breasts and I love seeing her views develop.  Many times our conversations happen while I’m breastfeeding Smunchie and as she expresses her thoughts and concerns, voicing her questions that are both practical and philosophical, I marvel at the beauty of this moment.  Normal.  Healthy.  Beautiful.  I am breastfeeding for my daughters. (Photograph by Jack Potts, Bohemian Photography)

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Comments

  1. Amanda Truesdale says:

    What a wonderful article, so simple and yet so complex. Women’s body’s are truly amazing it was only after I had my son I respected myself so much more. I am women hear me roar!

  2. I am expecting my first child next month, and I always knew I wanted to breast feed no matter what, no matter how hard or painful it is to start I know it’s what I want to do.

    I appreciate how you put breastfeeding in such a beautiful, natural light, it really makes me feel like I’m making the right choices for my daughter and myself. I have gained a strong feeling of empowerment from reading your blog.
    Thank you so much

    http://indiasroses.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/parenting-by-nature/

    • Thank you for sharing that with me. I too was young when I had my first. You are making the right choice not only for your daughter but for yourself and women everywhere as well.

  3. I love this. 🙂 And your picture is BEAUTIFUL.

  4. Beautiful! Just beautiful! Like you, I have always struggled with body image, and want better for my girls. I love that they are able to see me breastfeeding their baby brother, and know that they also were breastfed. Thank you, Jessica for doing your part to make breastfeeding normal and more socially acceptable! That picture, by the way, is gorgeous!!!

  5. Beautiful article. I can really relate as I have 3 girls of my own. <3

  6. How old were your children when you watched the above-mentioned videos? I find that concept fascinating and am considering using it as a tactic to fight off the media encouraged commercialization of false beauty for my baby girl in the future.

    • They were pretty young, the youngest was about 4 at the time. A little over a year ago I watched those videos with my not quite 2 year old because we considered having her present at the birth if she was interested. She wasn’t but it was an option. Now 3 she knows how babies are born and will sometimes ask about it. Choose the videos carefully but I don’t think it’s ever too young.

  7. Cristal Westover says:

    I felt so much the same way. I was very young when I had my first one and was riduculed at the fact that I was breastfeeding. From my own mother, MIL, and all family. I bf for 2 weeks. The next baby came 15 months later and I didn’t even try because there was no support for me.
    5 years later I had my 3rd baby and I grew up emotionally and thought to myself, I am going to to for my baby what is best and not care what others think. Since, then I have went on to have 3 more children whom I bf exclusively and not had any problmes, except for the fact that I still don’t have family support except my husband of almost 17 years whom supported me every time.
    I actually just got into an arguement with a fb friend who was mad that I posted the breasfeeding petition. I told her that is what is wrong with society that breast are way too sexualized.
    I’m just glad I have had the chance to nurish my beautiful babies

  8. Angela West says:

    This is beautiful, and beautifully written. Thank you for writing about many of my own concerns about raising my daughter, and also my son. Breast-feeding my babies is one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. I have been angry with my own body many times over the years, for all the frivolous reasons I shouldn’t be (‘imperfections’ compared with those societal ideals) and for much more serious reasons (we lost three precious angels to miscarriage, and I have been fighting debilitating migraines for the past several years) but breast-feeding is one thing my body did very, very right. Thank you again for this article, and for the Leaky B@@b.

  9. This moved me to tears, I absolutely loved reading this. I have an 8 month old and plan to breastfeed as long as she likes. I’ve gone through some big hurdles in the beggining, it wasn’t easy, but there was never a question of whether I would continue. It’s as natural as breathing to me and whatever it took, it took. My partner and close friends have been super supportive, but I’ve moved since having my baby and my family is not exactly the circle one would want to be around when dealing with breastfeeding issues (I’ll leave it at that). They are also big on looking a certain way and being slim, I’d say bordering on obsession, so that doesn’t help me on days when I feel particulary not at my best. But I know that my daugher sees me for who I really am, and even at 8 months I see the wonder in her eyes when she looks at me. She reminds me what true beauty is and how its my role to make sure she learns and knows what’s natural and truly beautiful, for all the reasons that you describe. So, THANK YOU for this amazing piece, and sharing a part of yourself with all of us!

  10. This was beautiful. Thank you!

  11. inkandtofu says:

    Thank you! I feel as though you have given me permission to accept the way I feel. I identify completely. I felt so beautiful while pregnant but everything I saw on tv said I had to feel like a whale. And now that I have my beautiful daughter I’m left with the stretch marks that leave me so conflicted. I love and want to accept my “Lilly Lines”, but all the women in my life comment on how much they hate theirs or how disgusting they are.
    Thanks for the reassurance. I can get to a place where I love myself 🙂

    • Yes! Accept you just how you are and you’ll be giving your daughter an even better start in life than you can imagine. Those women that hate theirs or feel they are disgusting may be inspired by you as well, I certainly hope so.

  12. This is a wonderful article. I have two boys, and I breastfeed for them, because I don’t ever want them to objectify women. Breastfeeding should be seen as natural, and the only way is for us to breastfeed without worrying of what other’s might think, or know exactly what they’re thinking and do it anyways.

  13. Have hope for your boys, Adriana! I have three boys and a girl — my youngest is a boy and his six- and nine-year-old brothers watch me BF all the time, consider it normal, natural and just not a big deal.

    I finally had to talk to my nine-year-old about putting his head on my bare breast to cuddle his baby brother, because the touch was making me a little uncomfortable — and I told him that was my issue, not his, but it’s also my body and I need to be comfortable while BFing. He was cool about it, as always.

    • What a wonderful way to model setting boundaries regarding personal comfort and respecting individual personal comfort boundaries with your son! That’s so encouraging for me to hear that there are boys being brought up like that. Thank you!

  14. I am NAK but I had to say how timely this is. On NPR today they were discussing the book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and the challenges of raising a girl. I myself only have boys but I am troubled by the princess culture and the way marketers target girls. No to mention the fashion choices.

    When I breastfeed in front of my niece and little sister I hope they are seeing something that will stick with them when they have children one day.

    Beautiful post.

  15. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.

  16. What an incredibly beautiful post! I nursed my son until he was nearly 4 and he still remembers it, asks about it and can’t wait for me to have another baby so that I can nurse that one too. I hope that he always remembers what an incredible thing our bodies can do – because I think it will make him a better man someday too. You can read our breastfeeding journey here: http://mommynewsblog.com/gentle-weaning-one-moms-journey-through-breastfeeding/

  17. This was absolutely beautiful. I’d like to say that I breastfeed in front of my 9 yr old son and I hope that he grows to respect a woman’s body for the amazing things that it can do instead of (or in addition to) its sexual prowess.

    The more our children see this loving, nurturing act, the more (hopefully) our society and culture will change to embrace the perfection that IS the female form, in all its many forms.

  18. Absolutely beautiful picture and post.
    I have 2 boys. My first I was not able to breastfeed, but I did end up exclussively pumping for him. It was a struggle the whole time to keep my supply up and often had to supplement.
    My little Peanut is 4 weeks old tomorrow and breastfeeding is going so well! I am so happy and it has been such a boost in my confidence of myself as I watch him grow quickly from all the delicious mama milk!
    I hope to be able to instill good values into my boys. I want them to know that people come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone deserves respect.

  19. What a fine article! How stunningly heartfelt, how thoroughly important. Those girls are lucky to have such a mother.

    I find this inspiring, and I’m not even the targeted sex. Bravo.

    • Just thought I’d share this about foulmra I don’t have children, but I do raise dairy goats. This involves removing the babies and bottlefeeding, for a variety of reasons health and behavioral. I’ve tried replacer (the livestock version of foulmra) and if I feed more than 50% replacer at a time the kids ALWAYS get sick, with nasty runny bottoms, etc. Even pasteurized/homogenized cow’s milk works better, although I avoid even that. First choice is feeding raw goat’s milk, since they grow better (No illness + adequate nutrition), and well-grown kids win more blue ribbons. Second choice is frozen, year old goats milk if I have a supply and demand problem.So if my goats can’t even thrive on the stuff, why, pray tell, would I feed it to my much more valuable and longer lived human child?

  20. Wonderful article! Marvelous!! Fabulous!!!

    I’m still now breastfeeding, though more like snacks, my first-2y3m-old-daughther. I wish to pursue the things as you said.
    Breastfeeding needs massive support from the environment. All the best to all the breastfeeding moms! 😀

  21. i love this post. I sure hope that my daughter will have fond memories of our nursing experience as she is still nursing at 37 months. Your experience with your nurslings is in sync with this year’s theme for World Breastfeeding Week – “Talk to me! Breastfeeding – a 3D Experience” 😀

  22. Cassie Hrtanek says:

    What a wonderful post – beautifully written! I have two girls and like you started out breastfeeding for them, but over the years have realized that it has done probably just as much (if not more) for me! My self-confidence and self-appreciation has been impacted in ways I had never considered. I truly wish this for all mothers.

    Bravo – thanks for sharing!

  23. Where exactly is the facebook like link ?

  24. I love this post! A gorgeous photo and a beautiful message! What a gift to your daughters that they are seeing the beauty of breastfeeding and the amazing things that women do. I love that your described breastfeeding as “magically normal.” The female body is awesome, and articles like this one shine a light on why it is so important for all of us to realize that. My daughter received a stuffed Disney doll and a Disney book over the holidays, and I noticed that the female characters’ bodies are not realistic or attainable. I think breastfeeding has given me a new respect for the female body and how amazing it is naturally. There is no reason for girls or women to feel like their bodies are not enough, but that is not often the message that people hear. Thank you for sharing this. I especially loved the sentence below:

    “Letting them see me use my body for feeding their little sister, to embrace my body as it functioned naturally instead of imposing an unnatural standard of beauty helped them to accept their bodies now and as they grow and change in the future.”

  25. This article is just fantastic! In every way. Like Kim, a previous commenter, I also heard the NPR segment on the princess culture. I have a little daughter (7 months) and I’m just beginning to ponder raising a girl. It is daunting, but I feel encouraged by your words and by others who also speak out about body image in our society. Thanks so much for your great perspective!

  26. After having raised my 3 girls with all these same ideals and paradigms, child-led weaning, even having homeschooled, they still grow up and choose their own preferences. I live with three teenage beauties who devour their fashion magazines, but are also very healthy eaters, two of them are dancers. It is humorous to me that they have chosen to embrace so much of what I protected them from, but what I wanted for them was to be their own person…so they are! You all here online are so fortunate to have the support of so many. Let’s applaud all those pioneering women who paved the way when such support was sorely lacking! Most of the against-the-mainstream childbirth and mothering I have done I learned about from other women first and it resonated with me. I’m so grateful that they shared when I could hear!

  27. thank you so much for writing this!!! I often have trouble with wanting to look like the girl on the bill board. I never have stopped and appreciated my body for all the beautiful things that it does and gives to me on a daily basis!! This made me cry and im thankful that im not alone in this struggle. Maybe i should cut tv out and then i wont have to see all those woman that men fantasize over. I am a real woman and i need to love myself because my body is not going to change only my feelings toward it can!

  28. Deirdre Sheridan says:

    Again Jessica you have looked into my heart and written the words that I feel! The emotional side of b/feeding is the one that is so difficult to explain to people and the long term benefits that are social, emotional , spiritual and not just physical. I too have birthed and breastfed in a way that I hope will impact positively on my 3 girls and 2 boys. They have already in their schooling come across ignorance and lack of current information, and that was the “educators”. I can only hope that they will make up their own minds and parent their children while listening to their hearts when they get older. xxxxx

  29. What a beautiful post – truly beautiful. It is so lovely to hear another breastfeeding mama talk about her experiences and the impact it has on her children. As a mother of 1, I can only aspire to be where you are now one day.

  30. Kate Eschete says:

    What a beautiful post. I’m sitting here with my 3 mo son and am amazed at what my body does for him. I’ve realized that I give back to society and nature by breast feeding bc I cut waste and trash n many other things, but I also give to myself n many other women bc I breast feed. I have struggled with body image n have realized tht breast feeding is probably one of the most empowering and healing things I could have ever done for myself as well. There is a societal stigma between the generations in my hubby’s family tht has brought my personal struggles to the surface and i feel more like a woman than ever before! Thank u for the constant encouragement n support! Love u n love hearing about u n ur girls! Keep it up!

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