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)