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