In her new book Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts, feminist scholar Fiona Giles takes on the image problem of breasts in this double-D obsessed society and “outs” breasts for being what they are: functional.
Giles has compiled, through interviews, surveys, questionnaires, and extensive historical and literary research, a book that is packed with lactation information and rumination.
Although most of the people who responded to her questionnaires and surveys had somehow managed to fit breastfeeding into their lives, this isn’t a rigid how-to manual, or a preachy breast-is-best diatribe. Rather, it’s what Giles calls in her introduction, “a galaxy of voices, a narrative milky way.” Giles hopes that by presenting lactation in all its glory and pain she will, “reach to a wider, and a wilder space in which breast feeding might more freely ebb and flow.” By showing the extremes, she hopes to create a place where we all feel safer and more comfortable with the middle stuff. And for the most part, it works.
As someone who was personally in breast-feeding hell for the first three months of my now-almost-three-years-old-and-still-nursing daughter’s life, by the end of the book I felt like all my early nursing horror stories and my now much-discussed choice to keep nursing were pretty darn unremarkable.
From the riveting stats on nursing mothers’ breast health (a 4.3 % reduction in breast cancer per year of nursing!) to the history of wet nursing, to the fetish of adult nursing, Giles produces a book that has me ready with a whole new arsenal of interesting facts to spout the next time I get asked if I’ll still be nursing my daughter when she goes off to college.
Beginning with the ancient connection between the universe and lactation (galaxy and lactation come from the same root word, galactic) and ending with her personal family history of breastfeeding, Giles has the writing and research chops to really explore lactation, drawing out important points with charm and clarity. The facts she presents are the meat and potatoes of this book, and left me feeling, as my mother-in-law likes to say after Thanksgiving, “perfectly over-full.”
Giles falters, however, when she leaves her comfortable domain of facts and heads into storytelling. According to Giles, “the power of a story is to create a wilderness territory that is also safe.” The problem is that many of the stories Giles uses aren’t hers to tell. They are composites of stories people shared with her, edited from interviews, or from transcribed monologues, or fictionalizations based on e-mail exchanges.
Beyond the problem of the confusion in trying to decipher where Giles’ voice stops and the characters’ voices begin, the stories, even though based in truth, don’t have the emotional truth to them that the rest of the book has. Although these accounts are not poorly written, I often found myself asking, “Who are these people and where are they from?” The characters didn’t feel like real people that one might know in real, regular life.
However, when Giles leaves the storytelling to others, she wins again. Gayle Brandeis’ “Mammatocumulus” brings us back to the sky, with a fluid, milky ode to nursing. Belinda Luscombe’s “Let Down” is an honest and funny account of her shock at the physical pain involved in breastfeeding that no one warned her about. Luscombe’s first sentence wryly sums things up: “The other day I thought I was having a heart attack. But nope, it turns out I was just breastfeeding again.” And Allison Bartlett’s “Thinking Through Breasts” is a thoughtful excerpt from a larger essay exploring the life of a feminist academic mother trying to integrate breastfeeding into life.
Despite also suffering from a bad case of structural confusion (loosely defined chapters begin and end with no particular clarity or common theme) no one can deny that
Fresh Milk is an original and important book. Maybe Giles wants readers to get lost, to find themselves alternately confused and caught up in her ample material, stirring them up, unsettling them so the seeds of a new way of thinking about breasts can begin to take root.
Like the seemingly endless stars in the sky, there are seemingly endless ways women choose to nourish their children, and this book helps us remember that. In her afterword, Giles says the way forward is to “concern ourselves less with feeding ‘the right way,’ and more with the right to feed.” Although I’m pretty sure I’ll never use the lacta-licious recipes for breastmilk ice cream and “pump”kin pie, or understand the Society for Nursing Couples, I am positive that opening our hearts and minds to all of the options out there can only help in the work we do supporting our children, our selves and our society to fully progress and shine.