Breast is Best?
On a cold morning in early December last year, I found myself sitting in the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution in London, looking at pages and pages of breasts.
Pausing occasionally to wonder at the collection of life choices which had led to this moment, I scanned these black and white photographs of lactating women from the 1920s and 1930s, attempting to understand the set of criteria according to which they were categorised into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ breasts.
The pictures were taken and kept by the Mothercraft Training Centre in London, and were intended for nurses and other healthcare practitioners working with mothers and young babies. Informed by the programme of scientific childrearing developed by the New Zealand doctor Truby King during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Centre’s staff promoted breastfeeding as the best way of providing babies with adequate nutrition.
In King’s view, breastfeeding needed to be approached scientifically. Mothers should not feed on demand but, rather, according to a strict schedule, depending on the age of the infant. This feeding by the clock was a technique aimed as much at mothers as it was at shaping obedient and self-reliant babies and young children.
Like other specialists in the relatively new field of paediatrics, King believed that mothers were irrational and emotional, and inclined to follow what he characterised as the unscientific and unsanitary advice provided by their female relatives. By breastfeeding in King’s ‘scientific’ manner, mothers could learn to be rational creatures.
In King’s view, not only were there right and wrong ways of breastfeeding, but also good and bad breasts. The photographs in the Mothercraft Training Centre’s collection were meant to help nurses identify the link between the shape of women’s breasts and the ways they would feed their babies.
I was reminded of these photographs this week by the most recent cover of Time magazine, which features 26 year-old Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her son. She is young, slim, and wears a skimpy top, and her child is a sturdy three year-old.
The debate which erupted around the cover focussed on the age of the boy: wasn’t it weird, asked some, for a mother to be feeding so old a child? The picture – deliberately, I think – provoked this controversy by upsetting contemporary notions of what nurturing motherhood should look like.
But what interested me is that Time chose this particular photograph for its cover. The edition’s focus is not, in fact, on breastfeeding. It’s about a popular childrearing guide The Baby Book (1992) written by William Sears, which advocates that mothers and babies remain as close together as possible for as long as possible. Kate Pickert explains:
While the concept sounds simple, the practicalities of attachment parenting ask a great deal of mothers. The three basic tenets are breast-feeding (sometimes into toddlerhood), co-sleeping (inviting babies into the parental bed or pulling a bassinet alongside it) and ‘baby wearing,’ in which infants are literally attached to their mothers via slings. Attachment-parenting dogma also says that every baby’s whimper is a plea for help and that no infant should ever be left to cry.
Hilariously lampooned by Maggie Gyllenhaal in Away We Go, attachment parenting has been the subject of extensive and frequently ferocious debate. Breastfeeding, though, is only one feature of this particular mode of parenting. So why the cover on Time? It’s partly because photographs of breastfeeding women still – depressingly – provoke argument. As Jill Lepore writes, there’s a long history of banning magazines which print pictures of breastfeeding women:
Like its historical antecedents – a centrefold in a 1938 issue of Life called ‘The Birth of a Baby,’ and another, in 1965, called ‘The Drama of Life’ – it has gotten a great deal of attention. Sales have been brisk. Interest has been prurient. Outrage is all the rage.
Life’s ‘Birth of a Baby’ issue was banned all over the country (but not before selling seventeen million copies). Overnight, Gallup conducted a nationwide poll, asking: ‘In your opinion, do these pictures violate the law against publication of material which is obscene, filthy or indecent?’ (Twenty-four per cent of respondents said yes; seventy-six per cent no.) A generation later, the photographs on the 1965 cover, ‘The Drama of Life’ were shipped into outer space on board the Voyager (but not before selling eight million copies in four days). Each gave rise to criticism, some of it quite wonderful. The week after Life published ‘The Birth of a Baby,’ The New Yorker published a parody, called ‘The Birth of an Adult,’ written by EB White. ‘The Birth of an Adult is presented with no particular regard for good taste,’ White wrote. ‘The editors feel that adults are so rare, no question of taste is involved.’
‘Respectable’ news magazines often print photographs of women with semi-covered breasts. If these usually sexualised images of women are tolerated, why do pictures of breastfeeding women provoke such disgust? Given that the World Health Organisation and many governments advise mothers to breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months of life, it seems strange that breastfeeding women should be regarded as a kind of social embarrassment.
Indeed, Facebook’s decision to treat photographs of women breastfeeding as pornography, and women’s experiences of being forced out of public spaces when breastfeeding, seem to suggest that the issue is connected to how women’s bodies are understood socially.
Our bodies are socially and culturally constructed. As South Africa has seen over the past fortnight, the portrayal of the President’s penis in Brett Murray’s painting ‘The Spear’ has provoked outrage partly because it defies taboos around nudity in some South African communities and is seen as being part of a long history of white exploitation of black bodies.
Depictions of breastfeeding women are relatively common in art before the early twentieth century. These were meant to celebrate women as mothers – in a role which most believed celebrated women’s God-given and ‘natural’ role on earth. The photographs of lactating breasts in the Mothercraft Training Centre collection were intended for medical purposes – as were the pictures of breastfeeding mothers in mothercraft publications. I wonder if it’s possible to link the worldwide decline in breastfeeding during the 1940s and 1950s to the decreasing tolerance for the portrayal of breastfeeding women in popular publications? As breasts have become increasingly sexualised in advertising and the media, has this accompanied a discomfort with the idea that they can also be used to nourish and to nurture?
Although decades apart, there are similarities between the attitudes which informed mothercraft and those behind the Time cover: that women’s bodies are not their own to control. The Time cover suggests, firstly, that breastfeeding in public is not only worthy of comment, but also freakish – that it should be done within the secluded confines of the home. And, secondly, it implies that when women are in charge of raising their children, they behave irrationally: that they embrace ‘gurus’ and are ‘driven to extremes’. There is nothing on this cover to suggest that this mother chose – calmly and carefully – to feed and to care for her child in this way.
Marilyn Yalom, A History of the Breast (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
The Story of the Teeth
I was born with comically bad teeth. I have only one wisdom tooth – welded firmly to my jaw – and had multiple permanent teeth for some of my milk teeth, and none for others. (I still have two milk teeth.) That I don’t look like a caricature of a Blackadder-ish wisewoman is down entirely to my parents’ swift removal of me to a brilliant orthodontist who – with the aid of braces, plates, and two operations – gave me a decent set of teeth.
I spent rather a lot of my childhood and adolescence in pain, as my teeth and jaw were cajoled and wired into place. (I must add, though, that my parents provided me with an endless supply of sympathy, and soft, delicious things to eat, as well as plenty to read.) It was partly for this reason that I never understood the outrage that greeted the news of Martin Amis’s decision to spend around £20,000 in fixing his teeth, ending decades of persistent toothache.
Of course, much of the anger about this amount was linked to his lucrative move, in 1995, from the late Pat Kavanagh, the literary agent who helped him to build his career, to Andrew Wylie, causing an acrimonious rift with Julian Barnes, Kavanagh’s husband. Indeed, AS Byatt later apologised to him for having criticised both his dental work and his acceptance of an extraordinarily high advance negotiated by Wylie, explaining that she had had toothache at the time.
In his memoir, Experience (2000), Amis writes evocatively of the hell of toothache: that it seems to be the only manifestation of dull pain which can’t be blocked out or ignored. It demands attention. (Apparently James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov were fellow martyrs to tooth pain. There is, clearly, a link between toothache and stylistic experimentation.)
It’s no wonder that modern dentistry is usually cited as one of the best reasons against time travel. The dentist Horace Wells (1815-1848) originated the use of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic during dental surgery. Wells died – partly as a result of an addiction of chloroform, ironically – before nitrous oxide became the anaesthetic of choice, rather than ether for example, among dentists. In South Africa, I’ve found evidence to suggest that it was possible to have teeth extracted under anaesthetic from around the 1880s – although it’s likely that this was available to wealthier patients before then.
In fact, the state of one’s teeth has been a potent indicator of class difference since at least the nineteenth century. Access to dentists and technology – powders, pastes – to prevent tooth decay meant that the middle and upper classes had better teeth than those who were poor, whose diets tended to feature substantial amounts of tooth-eroding sugar, and whose visits to dentists – who had usually had little or no training – were done only in case of dire emergency.
In the pub conversation described in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the speaker refers to a friend, Lil, who worries that her recently demobbed husband will leave her, partly because she had aged so much during the recent Great War:
As false teeth became cheaper and more widely available, it seemed to make better sense to have all one’s teeth out at once, rather than suffer a lifetime’s worth of dental pain.
We attach a wide range of meanings to teeth: from the elongated incisors of vampires, to the whiter-than-white rictus grins of celebrities. My friend Shahpar in Dhaka points out that in south Asia, some Muslims associate oral hygiene using the bark of the miswak tree with holiness, as they believe that the Prophet used the bark to clean his teeth. More generally, people in the region place an exceptionally high value on having a healthy, full mouth of teeth – reflected in some truly appalling jokes.
I’ve been reading about anxieties about oral hygiene and dentistry recently, hence this interest in shifting cultural and social constructions of teeth. During the early decades of the twentieth century, global anxieties about infant mortality and childhood health, resulted in a heightened concern about the care of children’s teeth. This was part of an infant welfare movement which had emerged all over the world at the end of the nineteenth century, in response to unease about high rates of infant mortality (usually as a result of diarrhoea), the apparently failing health of urban working-class men, and eugenicist anxieties about maintaining white control over political, social, and economic power.
Denture Shop, India, 1946*
Although child welfare campaigners during the nineteenth century drew parents’ attention to the need to instil in their children good habits of dental hygiene, the discourse around the state of children’s teeth during the early twentieth century differed. To be fair, rotting teeth and gum disease are the cause of a range of health problems, and it makes sense to direct public health policy towards making dental services freely available.
But particularly during the 1920s and 1930s, preventing poor oral hygiene and tooth decay began to take on moral overtones. Doctors and child welfare activists increasingly understood bad oral health as a signifier of chaotic, ‘unscientific’ upbringings – which, they believed, tended to occur in working-class families. Writing about Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice’s influential 1903 study of the large numbers of volunteers who were deemed to be physically unfit to fight in the South African War (1899-1902), Anna Davin explains:
This was one of several essays and articles which argued that poor nutrition in childhood – most notably feeding babies food meant for adults – caused ‘bad teeth’ and, thus, compromised health in adulthood. The best means of remedying this situation was to encourage mothers (and in the minds of doctors, welfare campaigners, and policy makers, these mothers were inevitably working-class) to adhere to ‘scientific principles’ in raising their children, chief of which was providing babies and young children with a diet calibrated precisely to their needs. These principles and diets were formulated by health professionals – medical men – and they, as well as nurses, health visitors, and others, encouraged mothers to abandon ‘superstitious’ and ‘ignorant’ childrearing practice in favour of properly ‘scientific’ guidelines.
Those doctors and campaigners influenced by eugenics argued, though, that children’s moral character depended on good dental hygiene. (Susanne Klausen explains what we mean by ‘eugenics’: ‘in its broadest definition…eugenics was concerned with improving the qualities of the human race either through controlling reproduction or by changing the environment or both.’) In The Story of the Teeth, and How to Save Them (1935), Dr Truby King, the extraordinarily influential founder of the global mothercraft movement, argued that the health and strength of babies’ and children’s teeth depended, firstly, on the health of the pregnant and lactating mother, and, secondly, on proper nutrition.
Breastfeeding – not on demand, but at regular intervals depending on the age of the baby – was, he believed, the foundation for the development of strong teeth and jaws. The introduction of nutritious food once the baby was six months old should, he wrote, encourage the child to chew, thus stimulating the nerves and blood vessels in the face, causing the milk and permanent teeth to emerge quickly and cleanly.
King had dire warnings to those parents – particularly mothers – who, he suggested, ‘gave in’ to the demands of their babies and children:
Why? Because oral hygiene and healthy teeth ensured that the citizens of the future would be morally good, productive, conscientious individuals:
Good teeth meant good citizens. Bizarre as this thinking may have been, it did – often – have positive outcomes. For instance, similar views held among South African doctors and child welfare campaigners were behind the establishment of a network of dental clinics for poor children – albeit mainly white children – during the 1920s and 1930s. Children whose parents could not afford private dental care, could attend these clinics gratis.
One of the most striking characteristics of eugenicist thinking was its tendency to blame mothers’ ignorance, stupidity, or credulousness for the poor health of their babies and children, ignoring the environmental factors – the contexts – in which they raised their offspring. King’s implication was that mothers were ultimately responsible for the ‘vice and criminality’ of society: if they, he wrote, had simply disciplined their children, feeding them properly and ignoring their demands, then all adults would be productive, self-controlled citizens.
Although King’s reasoning is demonstrably bonkers, this tendency to blame (single) mothers for children’s anti-social behaviour persists, particularly within right-wing political and media circles. This is a strategy which absolves the state and other institutions of any responsibility for ensuring that children are adequately care for.
The study of attitudes towards teeth and dentistry reveals a range of beliefs about parenting, childhood, and, nutrition. It seems, then, that we are not only what we eat, but we are also how we eat.
Sources cited here:
Anna Davin, ‘Imperialism and Motherhood,’ History Workshop, no. 5 (Spring 1978), pp. 9-65.
Susanne Klausen, ‘“For the Sake of the Race”: Eugenic Discourses of Feeblemindedness and Motherhood in the South African Medical Record, 1903-1926,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 23, no. 1 (March 1997), pp. 27-50.
Antora Mahmud Khan and Syed Masud Ahmed, ‘“Why do I have to Clean Teeth Regularly?” Perceptions and State of Oral and Dental Health in a Low-income Rural Community in Bangladesh’ (Dhaka: BRAC, 2011).
Truby King, The Story of the Teeth and How to Save Them (Auckland: Whitcombe & Tombes, 1935).
Naomi Murakawa, ‘Toothless: The Methamphetamine “Epidemic,” “Meth Mouth,” and the Racial Construction of Drug Scares,’ Du Bois Review, vol. 8, no. 1 (2011), pp. 219-228.
Alyssa Picard, Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 2009).
David Sonstrom, ‘Teeth in Victorian Art,’ Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no. 2 (2001), pp. 351-382.
* This photograph is from Retronaut.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.