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The Secret Life Of Breasts
by Fiona Gile
A non-review by J. STEFAN-COLE

FRESH MILK; Simon & Schuster, 2003, is Fiona Giles's most personal book. She is described as a feminist, and her other titles include the anthologies, CHICK FOR A DAY and DICK FOR A DAY. In CHICK, Ms Giles asked men to imagine possessing a vagina for a day, In DICK, women were asked about having a penis (for the same duration). The idea was partly to knock over some barriers, at least as far as fancy goes, and the results were as mixed as the contributing artists and writers. The consensus was that most were going to get laid one way or another with their new, time-limited apparatus.

Full disclosure: this writer is included in one of those anthologies, which gives me access to the author and I queried Fiona Giles via internet from her home in Sydney, Australia, before writing this.

FRESH MILK is compiled of personal research and contributions by women and men, many of whom are not writers or artists. Yes, I said men. The book includes an Englishman who e-mailed to say that after the birth of his second child, in the 1970's, "We wondered if it were possible for a man to breast feed. I am a little on the chunky side and have small breasts. We were successful to a degree though I did have to supplement my feedings..." (My eyebrows are now raised skeptically.) There is also the shirtless father whose crying daughter found his nipple and began to suck contentedly. Men do have breasts--they can, for example, get breast cancer, and while Ms Giles never witnessed a male produce milk, it is apparently not biologically impossible. Nor is the myth that childless woman too can lactate.

Other Book Reviews:

A Whistling Woman
- A. S. Byatt

Being America
- Jebediah Purdy

Fresh Milk
- Fiona Gile

The Man with the Dancing Eyes
- Sophie Dahl

The Stone Virgins
- Yvonne Vera

The Murdering
of My Years

- Mickey Z

Vanishing Splendor
- Alain Vircondelet

Skirt and Fiddle
- Tristan Egolf

- Arthur Bradford

Nowhere Man
- Aleksandar Hemon

The Book of Illusions
- Paul Auster

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby
Wei Hui
Shop Talk
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel
David Markson
My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

A great many secrets are revealed that may shock, amuse or simply shed light. You might think, what's the big deal? A baby is born knowing what to do. Right? Wrong. The situation is fraught with complexities most of us never had an inkling we ought to consider. Or, as my friend Andy said as his wife gave a blow by blow account of her C-section, "TMI," too much information. Maybe everything you never wanted to know about lactating breasts falls under the heading of TMI. Do we really need to know about cracked and bleeding nipples, thrush and mastitis?

It could be argued, and I think Ms Giles would agree, there is no such thing as too much information. On the other hand, there is my friend Chris who, after witnessing his wife deliver their daughter vaginally, complained that sex had been ruined for him; his favorite hot spot had been turned into a yawning, utilitarian canal. In time, of course, his sexual appetite returned. So, what about the breast suddenly becoming a leche bistro? Turn on or turn off? We read of a pornography producer who's specialty is lactating breast flics, and of men who lust after nursing women. Okay, raise your hand: how many think a new born automatically locates the nipple, latches on, eats? What could be more elementary? Well, not latching on, for one, not how to hold baby in the correct position either. Instead, how about mother needing help, feeling frustrated, scared, and often hurting when her milk letsdown. If that's not enough, how about cold cabbage leaves applied to sore nipples?

TMI? Try this, breast feeding can also be sensual, even sexual. Sexual? The book tiptoes into some taboo areas, like the fact that a suckling baby can be erotic for the mother. No one would suggest that was the motivation behind three generations of babies being deprived of mother's milk. But formula-making companies saw a profit selling the idea that, ugh, nursing was unmodern, unbeautiful, and maybe bad for baby. Women were made to feel squeamish, backward, like barbaric jug bearing boobs, cows, if they did not bottle feed.

The tide has turned, breast milk is now known to be the healthiest food for a newborn, rich in anti-bodies and nutrients that formulas can't reproduce, and women are encouraged to breast feed for at least three months. But there is a catch: As long as they do so in private. It is still considered disgusting by many to see a baby breast fed in public. There are nightmare scenarios in the book of women being tossed out of suburban malls for showing some milk-filled skin. If there is low tolerance for the machinery of nurturing, imagine what would happen if it became known that a mother might actually think carnally while in the act? Fiona Giles has solidly opened that secret door. Now imagine children being removed from their mother for being breast fed too long. A decided push-pull exists in Western society between the breast as object of desire and as a functioning udder; between the sacred idea of motherhood and the real-time flesh that makes it a back-room affair.

I guarantee you will never view another Madonna and Child painting the same way again after reading FRESH MILK. The Madonna of imagery is actually allowed more play than a mall mother. I have long suspected half those paintings with an engorged, saintly breast peering outside the drape represented just the littlest bit of porn allowable in an art that had to be sanctioned by the Church. One amusing section involves an expectant woman buying her first nursing bra. This worldly mother-to-be was thinking modified Victoria Secret only to find the ugly apparatus resembled a prosthesis, "The pink-toned beige had the flesh-colored look of a fake body part straining to blend in. These items were suffering from aesthetic shame, and desperate to vanish."

I asked Giles about the label of feminist. The term is not much in use anymore. Okay, dumb mouths like Rush Limbaugh and that crowd, caught in a time warp, threatened by women with equal pay and a say in how to utilize their own bodies still do, but the idea of women's rights is not even on the table anymore, at least in the West. Ms Giles says she was brought up to think in terms of knowledge about women, and that much remains clouded in ignorance. She says, though, that she is also, "many other things equally; a mother, a lover, a sister, a daughter, a scholar, a writer, an editor, a strange person!" The idea of writing about breasts came to her while nursing her first son. Research turned up surprisingly little on the topic: "As I researched...I also developed ideas about cultural grief--how do three generations of Westerners make sense of not being breast fed? What does it mean about us? Has it had any ill-effects? If so, what kind?" The book reveals her own mother's harrowing and unsuccessful attempts to breast feed her children.

Most of the woman described the bond created by nursing their child as very strong, if not blissful, though for some the process remained difficult and for a few, outright hateful. So how about wet nurses? One angry mother said, no thanks. This new mother had gone to a conference where baby sitters were provided and mothers were to be called from meetings if a child needed her milk. This mother was not called, her child was not given bottled water as instructed, but was wet-nursed instead. The mother took huge exception, first in case disease might have been transmitted, like HIV or Hepatitis. She went public when the baby-sitting firm failed not only to provide blood tests, but an apology. Once blood tests proved the offending sitter was healthy, the grievance boiled down to the lack of consent, and the story made the news from Australia to England. What struck me was how close the mother's reaction was to a betrayed woman's. She was very proprietary, particularly that her child know only her breast. Concern over potential health hazard aside, no harm was done to the baby by drinking another woman's milk. I had trouble understanding all the fuss. It seemed tribal. Would she have consented if the, probably, well-meaning sitter had asked first? I wondered, by a stretch, how any fathers could get near a child so domineeringly regarded by its mother.

What about daddies generally? The lactating Englishman notwithstanding, I asked Ms Giles why the book didn't address breast feeding from the father's perspective. Did they feel joyous, or left out, jealous, or relieved their own bodies were not being called upon to perform? She said the men she queried were not very revealing.

Never mind, what about those dads who drink their partners milk, even doing so as foreplay? There are some kinky sections, and some erotic passages where mother's milk becomes a kind of sundae deluxe. There is the woman who, out of store-bought milk when the pastor came calling for tea, used her own, discreetly, from a creamer dispensed in the kitchen. The pastor enjoyed his tea very much.

FRESH MILK may tell more than some wish to know about this marvel of nature. If unafraid to learn, though, the breast begins to loom even larger--no pun intended. What power, what bounty nature has given to an object that swells with beauty. Some societies don't think twice about a woman walking about topless, maybe a baby latched onto a milk rich breast. Others invent miracle bras and see through lace, but fearfully attach shame to nursing in public. Well, it is no longer a secret: breasts are power and Fiona Giles has exposed them with charm, wisdom, and tell-all daring.

©May 2003, J. Stefan-Cole


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