Nine months ago I was thrown into the world of sleep deprivation, parenting forums and mum guilt when I gave birth to my first daughter. Despite this, there is so much more to me than my status as a mum. I am a woman, a queer person, a Gypsy. All of these things add to how I perceive and understand the world.
I like to believe I’m very aware of the ongoing discussions to increase inclusivity within our society. With that in mind, one topic that frequently comes up is whether breastfeeding should now be referred to as ‘chest feeding’ to include men who nurse and trans-women.
As a breastfeeding woman, I cannot help but despite this term. In no way am I attempting to offend anyone within this piece. And, I truly do believe we should make language inclusive wherever necessary / possible - but this is neither of those things.
In fact it is derogatory and disrespectful to women. Before I get into things let's dig a bit deeper into the differences between chest and breastfeeding.
What is chest feeding?
The NHS defines chest feeding as “feeding your baby with milk from your chest’. As an act, chest feeding is no different to breastfeeding. It is simply a different term that some people may prefer to use.
There are many reasons an individual may choose to characterise their nursing journey as chest feeding. The term is most often used by trans people, particularly those who have had top surgery and therefore do not feel like ‘breasts’ is a term that aligns with their identity. Similarly, non-binary individuals who do not associate themselves with female terms may prefer the term chest feeding.
There are also arguments from cis-women suggesting that chest feeding is a more progressive term, in comparison to breastfeeding, due to the hypersexualisation of breast and breastfeeding within mainstream society.
With this in mind, the conversation of improving inclusivity, of course, includes altering our language. Personally, I have absolutely no issue in keeping that conversation going to hopefully progress and allow people of all colours, genders and backgrounds comfortable within society. For example, I’ve worked largely within the reproductive health sector within the UK and am continuously pushing for more inclusivity across clinical practice and advocacy.
I truly believe that changing our language will make huge differences to people's wellbeing with very little action needed. Using the terms ‘pregnant people’ or ‘patient’ instead of gendered words such as ‘women’ or ‘pregnant women’ have a big impact without causing too much proactive work for people.
Inclusivity vs facts
Despite all of this, I don’t believe chest feeding should replace the word breastfeeding. There are a couple of reasons for this but the first is that it is not biologically correct. Individuals who choose to nurse their child do so from their breast tissue, which is located within their breasts. Regardless of your gender, all humans have breasts - even trans-men who choose to have top surgery will have a degree of breast tissue remaining.
As a result of this, breastfeeding, and breasts, are not a gendered term. They do not belong to women exclusively. As you will notice, individuals who identify as male and who are AMAB can, and do, still receive diagnosis of breast cancer.
It’s also important to note that anyone can induce lactation and breastfeed a child. This person can be male, female, gay straight, the birthing parent or an adoptive parent. There really are no limits. And, while some would suggest that this creates more room for argument, I again disagree. By using the term breastfeeding, we are not trying to offend individuals who do not identify as female, nor exclude them from breastfeeding conversations. Instead, we should be promoting clarity and education on the human body.
Stop objectifying women’s bodies
When I say the word ‘breast’ what do you think of? Many would argue that hetrosexual men think firstly of sex and not breastfeeding however, I would actually suggest this would be true for most humans regardless of their gender or sexuality.
A 2022 UK-based study found that breastfeeding individuals stated the media and social media played a key part in the sexualisation of breasts and breastfeeding. As a society, we seem to struggle with the transference of ideas from breasts that you dress up to look attractive using push-up bras and low-cut tops, rather than the mammalian necessity for feeding our children.
Our culture is comfortable with portraying breasts in a sexual notion without too much thought of indecency, yet the portrayal of breasts in one of the most natural settings, can be perceived as uncomfortable.
This ideology is one of the big driving forces promoting the transition away from the term breastfeeding. For some individuals who identify as female, or women, the term breastfeeding has become oversexualised, gendered and derogatory. In some instances, I would agree with this. The dangerous use of female bodies throughout advertising campaigns and marketing clearly resonate with some of the concerns from breastfeeding mothers.
However, I don’t believe the way to tackle this issue is to move away from the term breastfeeding. Instead, we should be pushing for the de-sexualisation of breasts. Like with any issue of inclusivity or discrimination, as a society we should be attempting to solve the problem at its root. In this instance, it’s being argued that, because breasts are sexualised, we should remove the word completely. As a queer, cis-woman, I find this degrading in itself. You are not being inclusive. Rather you’re allowing for female bodies to continue to be objectified by the male gaze.
My body does not define me, but in this case, individuals who are proactively seeking to remove the word breastfeeding are allowing those who identify as female to be dictated by outdated, patriarchal ideas. I have been exclusively breastfeeding for nine months and I am incredibly proud of that. I am proud of my body - my breasts. I have been able to give my child nutrients to grow and develop and that is amazing.
I think we too often assume that growing a human being stops at childbirth. It never does. Whether it’s by breastfeeding, unconditional love or one-on-one playing you, as a parent, are always supporting your child to develop. That alone is wonderful. Please do not attempt to take that away from any breastfeeding person by dictating the bounds in which my body is allowed to be sexualised.