Breastfeeding Is No More 'Natural' Than Bottle-Feeding, C-Sections, or Adoption


O, nature! If you want to talk to me about the blossoms hanging off of a bleeding-heart stem like a perfect arc of valentines, or a spray of stars flung like glitter against the velvet of the night sky -- be my guest. I am all romantic ears, all doe-eyed wonder. But if you want to talk to me about what you think people should and shouldn’t be doing with their own personal bodies? Cue the closing of my romantic earflaps. I really don't want to hear about it. And if you must tell me anyways, well, then please don't use the word "nature" to justify your own beliefs.


I mention this in heated agreement with a recent Slate piece by Elissa Strauss in which she worries over the use of the term "natural" with respect to breastfeeding. Strauss cites a newly published argument that the unintended consequences of this association -- between breastfeeding and "natural" -- could include a parental demonizing of all technology, including, most alarmingly, pediatric vaccines. Breastfeeding is natural; natural is good; not natural is not good; vaccines are not natural; vaccines are bad. QED.

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And it's not just about vaccines. Identify "natural" as good and "unnatural" as bad, and you’ve got a handy way to justify your own inclinations and righteousness -- but not really a useful or sophisticated tool with which to carve out the shape of our own agency. The anatomical fact of mammary glands does not mean that all women should breastfeed, given the fact that we know that many can't or don't -- because they don't have babies, because they're trans, because they're raising babies birthed by other women, because they're unable to breastfeed or don't like breastfeeding, because they choose to or must earn wages out of the home and choose to or must stop breastfeeding to do it, because they worry about toxins in breast milk, because they think formula is best, because the thought of a nine-pound parasite dangling from their nipples gives them the heebie-jeebies.

Mammary glands exist, and we, as humans, decide what they mean to us -- the same way we decide what all our other bodily protuberances and slots mean. To some people, a vagina means: "A penis goes here"; to others, an anus means that very thing; still others don’t reserve any of their anatomical hidey-holes for penises. Tomatoes, tomahtoes. Men have nipples that make no milk, and yet I have never heard anyone make a case that they should be used as pacifiers.

The nature that giveth is also, as we know too well, the nature that taketh away. It is "natural" for children to die of strep, for mothers and babies to die in childbirth. In my prenatal yoga class, after the instructor described how she shimmied out of her harem pants so that her first baby could drop peaceably into the moss while she was weeding her hostas, there was a chorus of amens. One woman admitted that even though she'd tested positive for hepatitis B, she was forgoing the recommended vaccine, choosing instead to go the "natural" route. When I mentioned, hormonally, that what was also natural was babies born blind because of hepatitis B, I became, and stayed, a prenatal yoga pariah, right up until the radically unnatural emergency C-section that saved my baby's life and my own. Va-geena, vagina.

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The point is you can do what you do without forcing everyone to do the same thing. This is what we call the politics of choice -- and it extends beyond conception and the terminating or keeping of our pregnancies to all the rest of the reproductive baggage we might schlep around before or after: the kind of sex we choose to have or not have, the gender we enact, the use of birth control, fertility treatments, childbirth, and, yes, breastfeeding. The point with breastfeeding, as with abortions, is not that every woman should -- it's that every woman should have the right to.

To that end, "Breast is Best" has offered an important corrective to the unethical foisting of formula, especially the famous corruption, and subsequent boycott, of Nestle in the 1970s. (Even though I would forever like to disassociate the words "best" and "breast" given that the nursing pillow I used was called "My Breast Friend," and it gave me a terrible lonely-mammal feeling.) We are right to be suspicious of marketed products, and Who’s making money and how? is always a good question to ask. Furthermore, people are weird enough about breastfeeding -- ogling, prohibiting, manufacturing their weird capes and awnings -- that I understand the urge to say: Hey, this quiet suckling is more natural than your stuffing that double-bacon with cheese into your burgerhole, which I am being forced to witness on a public bus.

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Because "natural" tends to mean "normal" which tends to mean whatever people want it to mean -- and those meanings have constrained women far more often than they have freed us. It was "natural" for women to be subservient, to not vote, to not work, to have sex with men only, to wear itchy lace garter belts and other trappings of femininity which is itself so profoundly natural that it must constantly be shored up with bows and lace and underwire and spangly thongs and tweezers. (You know what’s natural? My ginormous bush, that's what.)

So I'm with Elissa Strauss, who quotes a bioethical study about the deployment of the word "natural":

They conclude the paper by recommending that scientists, governments, and doctors stop using the phrase natural -- which, they determine, has no fixed meaning -- unless they are very clear about the beliefs and values behind it. I'd love to see the rest of us do the same.

Me too. Let’s not say "natural" when what we mean is something else -- something more like a social imperative than an innocent description.



Catherine Newman writes essays, criticism, and fiction, and her work has been published in the New York Times, the Boston Globemagazine, and many other publications. She is the Real Simple etiquette columnist and the author of two memoirs, including Waiting for Birdy and the about-to-be-released Catastrophic Happiness. She blogs at

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