Self-portrait by Melbourne-based photographer and mother-of-two Suzie Blake

‘What Does Breastfeeding Look Like?’ is a project documenting breastfeeding mums around the world, by Melbourne-based photographer and mother-of-two Suzie Blake. So far, she has shot mums in Australia and the UK, and plans to extend the project around the world and compile the resulting pictures in a book. Here she explains why she started the project, and what she’s learnt so far…

The idea started as I was in need of a thesis proposal for my Masters in Fine Art application. So while I was sitting there breastfeeding my then six-month-old son Xavier, wondering what I could do, I started thinking about breastfeeding, photography and feminism and how they relate. After doing some research I learned that it’s a comparatively untouched element of feminist conversation, but an area of great importance. As it turns out, I’ve been accepted to do my Masters and now I also have this project which is doing really well.

The main thing I’ve learnt is that we are all in this together. The media, corporations and big business love to present women as being divided. The truth is we are not divided at all

The main thing I’ve learnt from the project is that we are all in this together. The media, corporations and big business love to present as being – and encourage women to be – divided. The truth is we are not divided at all. We share a very unique ability to feed our young and it is a wonderful aspect of our biology which brings us together, not just the joy of it but the struggle. I completely deny the concept of ‘mommy wars’ and breast vs bottle. It’s a story aimed at tearing women apart for financial interests.

When I speak to the women I photograph I am in awe of their strength and resilience. Many of them have struggled to get to the point of enjoying breastfeeding and this is a story not often revealed. If more women knew that breastfeeding can be initially difficult, but the struggle can be overcome, I think more women would keep it up. This, coupled with a complete change in how society operates as a whole, but that’s another story altogether.

I’ve honestly never experienced any negativity breastfeeding in public. With my first son Maximiliano feeding was pretty easy, but I put it down to ignorance and experience. Ignorance because I had read nothing, I attended no birthing classes and I had no friends with babies at the time. Experience because of what I’d seen as a child growing up, my mum breastfed me and my siblings and I was surrounded by breastfeeding women throughout my life, plus my mum is a midwife and a breastfeeding advocate. When Maximiliano was born the midwife asked me if I was going to ‘try breastfeeding’. I was confused, and said ‘yes, what else will I do?’ Truth be told, I had no concept of formula, so breastfeeding came somewhat easily to me by virtue of my lived experience.

With my second son Xavier it was different. He had some medical problems, which weren’t serious as it turned out, but nonetheless scared the life out of me. It was a very stressful period, leading up to the birth, then the birth itself and the first months were tough. I thought I’d breeze through – I’d breastfed Max for almost two years – I was a pro! But I’d forgotten how different it is to feed a newborn, and with all the other stresses, feeding became an issue. I had so much milk it would spray all over him. Conflictingly at one point a midwife suggested I ought to top up with formula – maybe he wasn’t sucking hard enough? I chose to ignore what she said, but it did make me worry. As it turned out he did have a little bit of tongue-tie, but I put our breastfeeding difficulties down to stress.

I guess these two different experiences made me see that breastfeeding can be easy and it can be hard. It also made me think about what makes breastfeeding easy and hard.

We expect mothers to raise perfect little individuals fit for society and when they don’t succeed in doing so we admonish them. We blame them

There is a lot of pressure on people to stop smoking, and we all agree that’s OK. The same should be true for breastfeeding. I believe formula companies should be treated in the same way as tobacco companies, particularly in the developing world where infant mortality rates associated with formula feeding are tragically high. There is a lot of pressure for people do a lot of things in life. Pressure to do well in school. Pressure to look good. Pressure to have a lot of money. Pressure to drive a nice car. Pressure to be thin. The list goes on. As soon as pressure extends to something like breastfeeding we decide, as a society, that it’s unfair on women.

It’s unfair to put this kind of pressure on mothers to breastfeed because it should be a woman’s choice and mothers already have enough pressure placed upon them. And it’s true, mothers do have far too much pressure placed upon them. You don’t see men suffering from ‘fathers guilt’ scouring for answers on the internet as to why baby hasn’t reached x, y or z milestone. We expect mothers to raise perfect little individuals fit for society and when they don’t succeed in doing so we admonish them. We blame them. But it’s not the mothers to blame, it’s society. It’s the way the world operates that makes it difficult for a mother to do the job of breastfeeding and mothering more generally.

The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for two years and beyond, and yet governments do nothing to allow this to be a possibility. It’s like saying to a refugee ‘we want you to assimilate but we’re not going to teach you the language’. Society and governments sit around in board rooms scratching their heads wondering why women aren’t breastfeeding. They’re not breastfeeding because it’s impossible for most women to breastfeed and survive, and by survive I’m referring to the necessity to work and earn money. Not only that but our media is focused on objectifying women and presenting women’s breasts as fetishistic objects. Most people find it incredibly hard, impossible in fact, to comprehend that breasts have multiple uses. We never question the fact that we use our mouths for talking, eating and kissing. I believe this inability to accept breasts as being multipurpose body parts is due to women’s lack of ownership of their own bodies. We have become so accustomed to our bodies existing for the fetishisation of men that we are unable to use or accept them in any other way.

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