Monday, 2 May 2011

Guest post: Middle/upper class privilege gone crazy

Many thanks to Giarne for this restrained response to an outrageous column in today's Herald.

Shelley Bridgeman’s opinion piece in the NZ Herald today “Not all families are equal” really got my blood boiling!

I must preface this with some information about me. I’m 33 weeks pregnant with our first child. I have no direct experience with breastfeeding nor parenting. My comments are based on discussions with friends and family and all the new things I’m hearing at antenatal classes and from our midwife.

Bridgeman’s article is a prime example of middle/upper class privilege gone crazy.

I’ve had many a debate with friends around the pressures of pregnancy – to breastfeed or not to breastfeed; how long to breastfeed for; how much weight they put on during pregnancy; how fast they lost it afterwards; how many stretch marks they had; how they feel about those stretch marks that are left; whether they are comfortable whipping their breast out in public; raising the ‘perfect’ child; dealing with colic, disability; whether to have a drug free birth or interventions that might be wanted/needed. Just the start of the list I’d say.

I want information about many of these topics, but I don’t want anything rammed down my throat. I have a great deal of respect for Plunket, the World Health Organisation and the Parents Centre; I also have an enormous amount of respect and time for the experiences of my friends and family.

Bridgeman is pushing her experiences down our throats in this article. She makes revolting, patronising comments about how other families raise their children and it is obvious that she is most disparaging of lower socio-economic families and mothers in developing nations. How hypocritical that she says "not all families are created equal" and then in the next breathe extols her way as the only way to go.

WHO's recommendations about breastfeeding are about the best start you can give children, the milk that comes from women is a very nourishing, complete food and I would suggest from the women I know that not breastfeeding has more to do with issues they might have (infection, pain, latching problems etc) rather than some upper class notion that they will need breast surgery afterwards or can't find good quality water in which to mix formula.

The author’s focus on the superficial issues with breastfeeding shows that Bridgeman and her peers need just as much advice as the lower class and developing nations – just maybe they need advice about body acceptance, the way advertisers manipulate our environment and they desperately need some assistance being empathetic to others’ lives.

She states:
I have reliable anecdotal evidence that there exists a small and privileged sector of society for whom the act of breast-feeding leads to the acquisition of breast implants a few years later. WHO's recommendations, while a godsend for women in developing countries, aren't doing their counterparts in Remuera and Herne Bay any favours by inadvertently leading some of them to undergo major surgical intervention in order to remedy their dissatisfaction in their post-feeding breasts.

She continues to say “Once the risks and costs of surgery are factored in, bottle feeding would seem a no-brainer for this particular subset of women.” So, her needs come first and she feels validated by other peers saying that they too have put themselves before their children. I’m not sure she read WHO’s 10 facts on breastfeeding in much depth. Colostrum contains antibodies that help protect infants from common childhood illnesses, later in life it is shown the breastfed babies have lower blood pressure, lower rates of overweight, obesity and type-2 diabetes; and for the mother it reduces the risks of breast and ovarian cancer, helps a return to pre-pregnancy weight faster, and lowers obesity rates.

It’s not stacking up as a no-brainer for me yet when breast surgery costs thousands of dollars and has a heck of a lot of risks. It seems to me after my little bit of research that we could be saving thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in health care costs over a child’s lifetime if they get at least a little breast milk. Plus, there are benefits for the mother, one of them is even superficial about getting back to a pre-pregnancy weight.

I won’t really get into the ‘flat head syndrome’ – I’ve heard many theories – that babies spend too much time in car seats (as many of them now clip into pram bases); that sometimes they just come out with some flat bits on their head ... oh hang on, do I really care if my baby has a flat piece or two on its head but its healthy and happy? No I don’t! If that’s all the Bridgeman family has to worry about then aren’t they lucky!

Bridgeman decided that we all needed to hear the superficial reasons why she didn’t breastfeed when she could have taken the opportunity to give some information from some experts and her friends and family about how they navigated the amount of information about how to care for their infant.


James Butler said...

I guess at least we know now that the real "cause" of breast implants isn't the fucked-up objectifying patriarchal society we live in. Phew.

Srsly, holy fuck, the linked article is offensive.

Julie said...

You should have seen the conversations raging on some of my fellow feministy types' Facebook pages James, "offensive" doesn't even begin to describe how many many mothers (and lots who aren't too) are feeling about this!

I do actually hope that Bridgeman writes a response at some point, because I'd be interested to hear more about why she wrote it and what she thinks of the response - whether she was being outrageous or satirical (or whether she will claim that now when she wasn't), and if she has learned anything.

Trouble said...

It's so outrageous I'm not even certain it's in good faith. It's offensive in so, so many different ways. It offends the conservative with its unwillingness to sacrifice for the good of the children, and the liberal for its I'm special so screw the rest of you vibe, not to mention its jibe against p-addicted lifestyle beneficiaries (isn't it a fairly expensive sort of drug?).

I wouldn't be shocked to hear a silly just kidding, gosh I got you riled up sort of reaction in a few days.

James Butler said...

@Julie that's why I went for the superlative Holy-Fuck-Offensive :-)

I'm not sure which I hate more: the patronizing talk-down to breastfeeding mothers (or "lifestyle beneficiaries"); or the trivializing of the anguish gone through by mothers who have tried to breastfeed for the right reasons and failed (for all the reasons Giarne mentioned). I'm going for the second, being the one I have experience with.

Unknown said...

the whole thing is offensive... I am offended by her patronising tone, that obviously shes upper class and knows whats best and that the rest of us should bow down to her awesomeness... I am offended that my breastfeeding my children is so "third world". shes come across as quite horrid,

Giarne said...

Some of you could have added nicely to the blog as there were a few points where I was struggling with what appalled me more. Agree wholeheartedly with you all.

I don't think it was in good faith at all, if she hides behind the "just said it to get you all worked up" I'll be even more pissed off than I am today.

Thanks to some lovely friends for posting the article and starting the debate :)

Deborah said...

I've been spitting about that article all day. Talk about Teh Patronising. And just plain wrong. Many thanks for this excellent response, Giarne.

Trouble said...

There are ways to question whether or not breastfeeding is all it's cracked up to be, but not in such an incredibly entitled sort of way. She only just stopped short of advocating recruiting wetnurses from your plantations.

Besides, doesn't the milk still come in even if you decide not to breastfeed? I'd have thought that would still have an ultimately deflating impact.

DPF:TLDR said...

If she does claim that it was satire, here's a link that might prove useful:

Anonymous said...

Here's a little study on breastfeeding in developed countries.

"reduction in the risk of acute otitis media, non-specific gastroenteritis, severe lower respiratory tract infections, atopic dermatitis, asthma (young children), obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and necrotizing enterocolitis.... For maternal outcomes, a history of lactation was associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, breast, and ovarian cancer. Early cessation of breastfeeding or not breastfeeding was associated with an increased risk of maternal postpartum depression."

On the other side - (debateably) perky boobs. I presume based on Shelley Bridgeman's reasoning only poor undereducated people with unclean water get things like ovarian cancer and childhood leukemia?

Giarne said...

Yes, I think she does believe no harm will come to her privileged family.

The NZ Herald site stopped comments from being made due to some that were offensive - yet they moderate the comments and could have allowed the debate to continue and delete the offensive ones.

I wrote this to the editor - doubt it will be published, I don't get the NZ Herald either and won't know if it is published. I also intend to write to the 'community editor' about it too.

In a stunning show of censorship, the NZ Herald took the comments function off Shelley Bridgeman's opinion piece on breastfeeding.

There were 50 comments before the shutdown, a high percentage of those were astounded that Mrs Bridgeman wrote such a condescending, patronising and un-researched piece of writing and they were upset at the way lower socio-economic families and developing nations were put down.

Instead of taking down the offensive piece of writing, the web editors stopped people from having their say, even though they could have moderated the offensive comments out and left those who wanted to seriously debate the topic to it.

Mrs Bridgeman opened up the can of worms with her comments about not following researched advice about breastfeeding nor sleeping infants on their back due to purely superficial reasons; she might feel she needed to have to get breast implants and that her baby might have a flat piece on their head.

There is a lot of pressure on families already and many decisions to be made about infant care. Families should indeed have choices - they should make informed choices based on solid evidence and experience, not on the basis of advertising hype about how women and babies should look perfect at all times.

The offensive piece of writing that deserved to be removed was Mrs Bridgeman's, not the readers.

Anonymous said...

I really don't think I can find the words to describe such utter garbage.

"Reliable anecdotal evidence". I know it is just wiki, but I rather like Wikipedia's description of it.

Looking at her other posts - chock full of seemingly unrecognised privilege - I somehow doubt this was satire. Just plain insulting.

katy said...

What a bizarre column, surely it can't be for real??

The flat head thing is relevant not as a cosmetic thing but if it impacts on normal neurological development, which some think it does. I think it is unclear, though, if lying on the back for too long causes it, or if babies who aren't developing properly are more inclined to lie still on their backs for long periods.

Julie said...

@Anon, thanks for the info, kindly adopt a handle in future, even if it's just an initial on the end of your comment, thx :-)

Demelza has also written a cracking response to Bridgeman's column.

Adorabubble said...

Actually I think I can see where she is coming from. Obviously the best she can do for her child is to maintain their current privileged lifestyle. This is presumably dependent on maintaining a relationship with the father (I assuming freelance writting is not a big earner); and she has determined that her primary contribution to this relationship is the perkiness of mammaries. This mindset is reflected in her need to ensure the physical perfection of her daughter – an ugly girl will never be able to marry her way into the smart set.

I feel terribly sorry for her, as she has suffered a serious failure of logic – no amount of botox can compete with the firm flesh of an 18 year old. If this is all she has to offer, her marriage is doomed. As such she should be preparing the ground work for the divorce. Assuming that he is much smarter than she, and can afford the better lawyer, it may well be the case that an 'equal' split of assets will not yield the designer Remmer's kitchen of her dreams. Far better that she aims for primary care and to remain in the family home, but this objective may be difficult to achieve with this shared parenting via a nanny malarky. Particularly if the next Mrs XXX is the nanny, who is already bonded with the child.... If only she had gone all Earth Mother – imagine how unassailable her position would be after 4 years of breastfeeding!

Written entirely tongue in cheek, but if anyone wishes to continue the snark, feel free to enjoy Ms Bridgeman's account of how she had to settle for Remuera, and the disaster that is your specially imported Italian tiles not being dark enough: ( )

Adorabubble said...

Oh god - I just finished reading that House and Garden article and am fighting the urge to gag. Remember plebs, should you ever have the honour of crossing Ms Bridgeman's threshold the Martin Poppelwell white earthenware bunny sculpture is ironic.

Julie said...

If we can try and debate the points without being too personal about Ms Bridgeman that'd be nice, as tempting as it might be to do otherwise. Thx.

I know that's often hard when someone has written something from their experience and extrapolated it wildly. IMHO Bridgeman's experience is still hers and still valid for her, even though the conclusions she reaches are pretty faulty.

Possibly my rage has mellowed in the hours since I read this, understand that others may not feel the same!

Angela Magee said...

Her article was wildly stupid and well addressed in the original post and comments here. I would just add the obvious (hinted at in the flesh of an 18 year old): age happens/breasts sag. In addition to the fact that one's boobs will change eventually regardless, there's the fact that the changes that come with the milk non-breastfeeders let dry out are likely to be permanent as well. So the best way to never "need" this cosmetic surgery is to never get pregnant and not live past 30.

There are very real reasons for why some women cannot or will not breast feed, but the article wasn't about them. Class privilege gone crazy indeed.

Tamara said...

Wow, I am lacking in words (that haven't already been used) to describe this article! I also found the tone really odd. Sort of pseudo-factual and not personal enough considering the content. Why was this even published?

Anna S said...

Maybe to her this article wasn't that outrageous. She probably has discussions like this with people in her milieu, and everyone agrees. Or at least they keep silent to avoid giving offence.

I know of wealthy women who have had every single one of their pubes zapped so it will never grow back. I find this baffling, but it seems to fit in with a world view in which you wouldn't breastfeed cause it might give you saggy breasts.

It's probably a case of her point of view reaching a larger audience than usual, and that audience is loudly saying WTF.

My view is that there are pockets of extreme privilege in our very divided and unequal society, and it might be quite normal to have breast surgery in that world.

Painful, dangerous, and with an unfortunate end result would be my view, but to them it's quite normal.

Maia said...

I had no idea the 'advantages' of breast-feeding were so dependent on fatphobia (at least as WHO presents them):

"later in life it is shown the breastfed babies have lower blood pressure, lower rates of overweight, obesity and type-2 diabetes; and for the mother it reduces the risks of breast and ovarian cancer, helps a return to pre-pregnancy weight faster, and lowers obesity rates."

'Breast-feed or you and your daughter will be fat' is a problematic message from a feminist point of view.

Nikkin said...

It is sad to read of the "putting baby first" vs "putting mummy first". The mother/baby dichotomy is counterintuitive. The wellbeing of baby is caught up in the wellbeing of the mother and vice versa. Our experiences of motherhood, our health and our bond to our babies are just as affected by our breastfeeding experiences as our childs experience, health and bonding.

This is not an issue of mummy fail. This is a symptom of our society. Our bodies are a symbol of our status, our ability to manage and schedule our children a symptom of our disconnection from nature.
Really really sad.

Anonymous said...

Oh - and really well said, Julie. As offensive as we might find Shelley's comments, it is important to be critical of the comments/opinion rather than the person.

Anonymous said...

You'd think with three adults in the house, they could occasionally pick the child up so it wouldn't get a flat head...


Anonymous said...

I would consider myself to be in the same or similar socio-economic group as Bridgman.

Instead of paying someone to look after my baby when he was born, we decided to pay someone to look after the house - a cleaner came two times a week for the first 3 months (then once a week for another month)so that I could focus my attention on our new baby. We will be doing the same for baby number two next year some time - depending on when I fall pregnant again :)

My son is now 12months and I am still breastfeeding a few times a day and feel that I have done the best by my child. Also, my husband and I both agree that slightly saggier boobs are a small price to pay for such a happy and healthy child.
IF I decide to have plastic surgery it wouldn't be a high price either (Not that I am planning to at this stage!)

S.C, mother of one lucky little boy!

MythbustingMotherhood said...

Ironically, breastfeeding doesn't even cause saggy breasts - it is pregnancy that does.

For me one of the biggest reasons to breastfeed my children has been for the bonding and nurturing factors. You can't just pay someone to do that stuff for you.

I will be having abdominal reconstructive surgery later this year to repair damage from my pregnancies. It is essentially a tummy tuck so there are cosmetic elements to it (but it's also to address problems with pain, functionality etc). I still would not sacrifice anything that is fundamental to my childrens' health and wellbeing for my own vanity and I know what it's like to be disfigured by motherhood.