Babies, Breasts and Middle-Class Myths ; `There's a Social Delineation between Middle-Class Women as Breast- Feeders and Working-Class Women as Bottle-Feeders'

Article excerpt

NATIONAL BREASTFEEDING Week, just in case you hadn't noticed, has ended with fireworks. Metaphorical ones, of course, in the form of a study insisting that "women are becoming reluctant to breast-feed because of misleading images in the media". The research, conducted by a media expert, Dr Lesley Henderson, concludes that "the media rarely presented a positive image of breastfeeding, and this could be a major influence on women's attitudes".

Apparently, on television, bottle-feeding is shown more often and presented as being less problematic than breast-feeding, with the health benefits of breast-feeding and the risks of formula-feeding largely absent. Further, breast and bottle were associated with different types of women in the media. Breast-feeding was associated with middle-class women, whereas bottle-feeding was linked with "normal" or "ordinary" women, and depicted as the obvious choice.

This is a little confusing as, actually, real life is like that as well, with a clear social delineation between middle-class women as breast-feeders and working-class women as bottle-feeders. It's like salad, isn't it? The middle classes think it isn't an evening meal if it doesn't have "leaves", while the working classes stalwartly refuse to eat up their greens.

Such generalisations may make social-engineers bang their heads on their vinyl-matt MDF bookshelves, but the distinctions are there, whether perpetrated or reflected by the media. The media is responsible for a lot of ills - but class distinctions in breast- feeding? Surely it's a little more complex than that?

Anyway, isn't bottle-feeding more often seen on TV soaps and dramas because everybody's acting and any babies involved are unlikely to find that the person who is playing mum just happens to have breasts full of milk? Maybe newborn babies are now expected to shut up their piteous mewling and pretend to be sucking greedily, all in the name of positive images in the media. But babies can't just act as if they're feeding away at some strange woman's udders. They can, however, sit around being filmed if they've got a plastic teat full of sweet and warm formula in their mouths to make them happy.

And isn't bottle-feeding seen far more often in advertisements because with breast-feeding, there isn't much paraphernalia to sell - except for the dreaded breast-pump, of course, surely just a fiendish device put about by formula companies to increase their profits. The reason why breast-feeding isn't prevalent in the media is simply because the media, in business terms, is a vast machine for selling things to us, and with breast-feeding, the point is that by not buying, you get a better-quality product.

Unfortunately, though, by its very nature, this unusual bargain does not attract the kind of marketing effort that other baby products can guarantee to have behind them. Of course it's irritating that the people most likely to benefit from the simplicity, cheapness, and efficiency of breast-feeding are the ones most likely to forego it, but this is not just because no one has seen Sarah-Louise struggling with a nursing bra on Coronation Street.

Dr Henderson gets closer to one of the real reasons for the class polarisation in childbirth when she speaks of bottle-feeding being linked with "normal" or "ordinary" families. It has become such an article of faith among sections of the middle classes - especially the liberal-left, feminist, middle classes - to fetishise all aspects of childbirth as natural, that all they have succeeded in doing is making themselves look self-indulgent and cranky.

Breast-feeding is, in many women's minds, associated with such purist nightmares as refusing all painkillers during labour apart from an aromatherapeutic massage from the dad, having the sisterhood round to snack on the placenta, and allowing your child to stay on the breast until old enough to vote. …