We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Lying/women's pictures, blogs & the pressure to breast-feed · 9 May 06

Dear Harriet,

Arabella wrote me today to call attention to another blog at Pandragon

The Lie is So Much Prettier than the Truth

This one is about how demands for abstinence from sex among teenagers simply produces lies. It links back to the drive to stop the dissemination of contraceptives, which she and I noted two days ago,


What we didn’t note was how this is one of many instances where lies directly hurt people. There’s been a series of articles in the the New York Review of Books by Helen Epstein where she shows how the demand for abstinence, and shaming culture that it relies on, has increased the numbers of people on Africa getting AIDs frighteningly.

And some time ago I wrote about a researched article in the New Yorker by Michael Specter, The White House vs. the Laboratory where he demonstrated that beyond working to make condoms much less available, to present them as ineffective against disease and conception (flagrant lies), the Bush administration and its religious and conservative allies are now working to prevent a vaccine known to stop cervical cancer which is sometimes a result of a common venereal disease across the US from reaching the US population.

This latter ugly lying is on my mind because I today read a draft of a paper by a woman student in my class about the spread of virus, HPV. HPV causes warts to appear on on the genital area of women and men and/or abnormal cells in the linings of the cervix, this can develop into cervical cancer, one of the major killers in women across the world. She had this virus, and I was struck by how hard it was (and brave of her) to write about it because of the surrounding culture which seeks to shame and ostracize her—well, kill her really.

In private life lies are often excused as defensive, but they are usually also manipulative, and in my experience can cause much more harm than they do good. I incline to Richard Feynman’s view (within limits) that lying destroys relationships; if lies are necessary to maintain it, we are making the argument of Mrs Smith in Persuasion: that so desperate are people for help or a pretense of community that "even the smooth surface of family union seems worth preserving, though there may be nothing durable beneath."

The second half of my heading today refers to blogs and pictures.
I’ve become aware that Dr Diana subscribes to WMST-l because she has told us that she is now the target of a campaign to destroy her reputation by conservatives groups. From an occasional perusal of her blog I know that she writes to teenage and young women in the Miss Manners or Abby fashion: she offers advice. However, her advice is feminist, candid, and iconoclastic. I’d noticed young women seemed to write in for advice.

Perhaps she has become too popular. Her blog has been inundated by venomous and hectoring comments from conservatives at her university; these comments accuse her of everything bad they can think of, including of course hypocrisy and lying. (Funny how the one thing in public one is not allowed to accuse other people of is lying as in public it’s pretended that’s a terrible sin. Perhaps this taboo is meant to enable the liars to keep manipulating others.) She says the goal of these conservatives at her university is "to silence the opinions regarding gender issues" she offers on her personal website. I wrote a comment on her blog the other day supporting her.

Today, though, she told the readers of WMST-l that she included topless pictures of herself at flickr.com, and that these people have found these pictures and are attempting to shame her and also perhaps endanger her job. She seemed to suggest she imagined these pictures would go unnoticed. Then why put them there?

She went on to say the local news where she lives "ran a report that said there was a controversy and implied I was under investigation by the university, but then went on to implicitly acknowledge that the newspeople told the university about my site; the university had no idea and there’s no controversy except the right’s attempt to force one!" The administrator at the university responsible for answering this sort of query issued a statement about "academic freedom," and then were "asked about a code of conduct for professors and said they would be looking into that further." She has not, she says, "been contacted by anyone in the administration as of yet."

Several issues here: how blogs are seen to matter. Do they? How much? Or only if someone important has paid attention. Jim has come across only one other person on the Net to pick up on the significance of the report in the Guardian, which he wrote about in I now believe the US intends to attack Iran. Jack Straw, openly against attacking Iran, been removed from the British cabinet. It was Jim Henley (on Crooked Timber) who wrote

"About the only thing we can conclude from the [Guardian] article is that the British are on board with ratcheting up tensions with Iran. Which fits with news we can verify."

I, for one, also agree with Henley’s view on Hillary Clinton: Chill Hill: "her rightward gestures are in the direction of the worst kind of ‘conservative,’ the militaristic and moralistic kind."

But I am troubled by Dr Diana’s story about her photos, and her supposedly amused reaction to what was done with hers on flickr: "Twas a hoot to see my boobs on the news, pixilated though they were." Really? Yesterday’s header seems to suggest she’s getting a kick out the attention: "Oprah Here We Come!"

My view is blogs liberate because each reaches so few. I have no desire for a large audience. People who do eventually write in ways that lack integrity. I feel one should write to bear witness.

Some time ago I wrote about now from classical times on the archetype of naked breasts has been used as a "sign" of sex on offer, or prostitution, Fence and Renaissance Signs I’ve been accused on a couple of lists of being obsessed by the topic of breast-feeding or breasts, and my reply has been they are central as a visual symbol of women to men, and enable men to exploit women—though accusations of priggishness, guilt and shame, and nowadays pseudo-science. And there is a strong attempt to control them beyond the nine months’ pregnancy itself. I don’t think I am obsessed with the topic: it appears on my postings about as often as it does here (which is to say not very often). What I’ve discovered is my slightest subversive objection to celebrating pregnancy and enforcing breast-feeding gets an immediate indignant or distressed reaction, let my mention or reference be ever so small a detail in a long email (or blog) about many other things.

I wrote on WMST-l how pregnancy is itself a mode of domination, and after facing the danger and hardship, women are placed at the beck and call of babies (and doctors and nurses too). I didn’t go on to tell the stories I’ll tell here. A fellow adjunct I’ll call Sue who was pregnant and left GMU, used very quietly to ask questions because I gave truthful answers. One day it was how did I deal with being wet all day; did I really have to change my clothes 5 times each day? I looked at her as if she were mad. It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. She then said she was dreading the amount of wash, for she really intended not to use paper diapers. She was relieved to hear I never considered breast-feeding and said she meant only to do it briefly, but felt she must. How would it look not to?

I was someone for her to talk to about her fears of childbirth: no one else would validate them—another day in response to some imagery she produced I spoke of how many woman fear they’ll explode into many pieces but that one experience of vaginal dilatation and look at the baby as this tiny frog with a big head that can slip out does away with that. I sympathized with her accurate stories of how she felt being pregnant: uncomfortable.

Another adjunct woman whom I’ll call Brooke looked most disapproving; she regularly brow-beat a grown-up college daughter on the phone with pious rules and endless pressure. She reminded me of Hillary Clinton. Same hairstyle too.

Funny: probably a non-sequitor: but I also remember a paper a young woman student wrote about how people who are horse-owners are taught to embrace the horse when very young tightly in order to dominate them for the rest of their lives. It seems this works.

And then there’s the news-story (and reality) of the woman physician whose baby died when said baby was in the care of a sitter, and how the physician and her husband accused the sitter of murder; how she proved herself to be a caring mother with stories of herself expressing her milk before she hurried out to her career for mucho money for many hours.

Well, I’ve gone off on a tangent partly to put another voice in public about pregnancy and breast-feeding. To return to pictures of non-pregnant women with exposed breasts: the most familiar photo of Marilyn Monroe as a miserable nailed-down totem centers on her breasts in a low-cut black sequined dress.

I don’t say that’s all there is to that photo. There’s the garish lipstick on an mouth presented as a circle.

In my paper, Women in Cyberspace, I talked about the problem of pictures for women. What problem? Pictures are expected; it seems unnatural not to have a face and body attached to a name and website. In the case of academic and respectably professional women (attorneys, lawyers, nurses), I noticed a strong drive to be utterly conventional, and personal pictures (even conventional ones) buried deep in the academic women’s site. Diana Blaine’s story highlights why academic women picture themselves on the Net in the way they do. Perhaps she’s tenured; I’ve never looked. But tenure is not an all-powerful protection. To her flippant assertion of insouciance, I’d reply: When you get involved in politics, you become a politician.

I doubt Dr Diana’s photo on flickr.com are functioning to help remove the inculcated revulsions in our culture against women’s bodies.

What do you think, my dear?


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. ON WWTTA, Gudrun contributed the following two URLs and headed her posting: "Who are you calling a feminist?"



    And then there is this one.


    There are links to interesting articles to the left of this article here.

    Bon appétit.

    chava    May 10, 12:13am    #
  2. Comments from a man on WMST-l:

    "Give me the URL for the Flickr’s flicks of you.

    Why are you courting trouble with this sort of come on? Ronald Reagan used to run the state you’re in. It’s dangerous there.

    Mike R"
    chava    May 10, 7:31am    #
  3. Thanks for another entry on the ubiquity of Domination. What fine antennae you have!
    R J Keefe    May 10, 11:23am    #
  4. My favorite response to the Harvard study was a link to an article about it from Fark.com. It links to news articles, often odd or amusing ones, with takes such as "Interesting," "Weird," "Sad," "Scary," "Hero," and "Florida." Their tag when linking to the article about the Harvard study was "Obvious."
    Isobel    May 10, 3:17pm    #
  5. From WMST-l, Katha P:

    "i have trouble following why you want to present yourself in an "eroticized" way to your students, the university community, and anyone who finds your website. The article about the incident in Inside Higher Ed quotes you as saying " To put them in perspective, they’re just tits." In other words, NOT eroticized, not important. i think there may be some slippage between the position that "they’re just tits" and what you say below, that you posted the photos "with defiant pride" to show that middle-aged on-implanted breasts are sexy. Sort of a "you’re a sexist if you don’t look at me/ you’re a sexist if you look and care" position.

    With all due respect, and yes, this does seem a tempest in a very small teacup, I’m wondering if you thought about how encouraging the blurring of the personal/professional divide might rebound against you. Sometimes you talk as if you were trying to push the envelope, and sometimes as if you barely remembered the photos were up there. Sometimes you talk as if you are surprised anyone is interested, sometimes as if you felt you were doing something quite radical, etc. The Web encourages this slippage between personal and public, but you seem to be taking it another step, without quite acknowledging you are doing so."
    chava    May 11, 7:50am    #
  6. I wrote Dr Diana on WMST-l:

    Although three photos of someone’s naked breasts is probably a tempest in a teapot (maybe not even that it’s so banal), the pictures are getting attention. You can see them on the Net from the website of the TV station.

    On one level, the reply is when you get involved in politics, you are a politician. Anything you put into the public may be used as a handle against you by those opposed to your views or agenda. It’s disingenuous or naive to assert you are going to escape the ways others will interpret your behavior.

    I would be disingenuous were I to avoid the literal subject and my own response. Women’s breasts are important—sometime ago I came across an anthropologist who is respected describing women as creatures with breasts. As a sexual instrument, they are visible and in that way the equivalent of a man’s penis.

    To my mind the new pornified fashions which imprison a woman and the intense pressure on women to breast-feed which also imprisons here link up to this too. And much to the individual woman’s disadvantage.

    I’ll connect this to teaching. About 3 years ago now I had a humiliating experience . On one of my student evaluations a young male student expressed anger and disgust at my appearane in a classroom. It seems that since I am old (now 59 but then around 56 or so) and he was nonetheless attracted to me (aroused would be the frank term), he was appalled and indignant. That I had given him low grades didn’t help :). That and a few other more subtly expressed or unconscious reactions to me in the classroom have driven me to pay attention to my clothes so that I try to think about not looking sexually attractive. It’s distressing and frustrating to me to have to think of this. Yet if I do not my teaching is hurt; I become less effective, and something else is happening in interactions which gets in the way—even when I can’t for the life of me figure out why this should be and find it unfair, injust, painful.

    Our next ACECS meeting (American Society for EighteenthCentury Studies) will have one women’s caucus session devoted to the woman’s body as a teacher in the classroom. I voted for this topic.

    I think someone who wants to make a beneficial and progressive effect in the public marketplace must, must take into account how her body is perceived and the uses made of it.

    I realize the logic of the argument on behalf of inculcating attitudes which might just one day turn around the revulsion against the body so common is US culture goes against me. But human realities are not logical. I suggest that while we want to compartmentalize our lives, it’s not possible when you enter the political arena.

    chava    May 11, 8:23pm    #
  7. I wrote an email to WMST-l in reply to one of Dr Diana's. I tried to point out the fallacies and unacknowledged hypocrisy (e.g., her vanity in showing her breasts off) in her decision to put naked photos of her breasts online. My email included the subject of pressure to breast-feed (as part of attitudes towards breasts); this was immediately picked up and complained about online. I answered, but my answer was suppressed (censored; it didn’t appear on the list). Others may have been censored off too. But one did get through and someone wrote (a carefully qualified paragraph) supporting what I had written.

    For the sake of those women who feel so alone and at risk from loss of self-esteem because they find breast-feeding frustrating, imprisoning, or inconvenient, I put my email here: and the two supporting pieces:

    Jessica N conceded:

    "It works both ways – there is tremendous the candidate ASKED to breast-feed DURING her interview.) ... And then there is the pressure TO breastfeed, mostly felt from other moms. Ellen is right, to some extent, to say bfing is "to the individual woman’s disadvantage," in that bfing is physical labor, it’s intense, and it is difficult to do it and do anything else (e.g., have a career). It’s one more way that women are expected to sacrifice their bodies for someone else. (It does have a positive side, of course – for both the mom and child – but I’m focusing on the outside pressure.)"

    So I wrote:

    Thank you to Jessica for an unusual support. I realize my position on this is in public unique—not in private. I don’t know quite how to connect this to teaching except that in the hall below the English department is the nursing department. They have two cardboard displays, and one of them (of all the issues they could deal with) is a series of pictures and articles showing nurses how to pressure women to breast-feed. That’s how I’d put it.

    A true story: after I gave birth to my second, I almost drowned in my body fluids (I hemmorhaged) and was given some pills to drain off all excess fluid. That meant I had no milk in my breasts. Nonetheless, I was pushed out of my bed with an IV pole and taken into a room filled with other women who had just given birth. Everyone was to come. A movie was then played which was at leatst 50% snake oil—doing everything possible to create guilt trips over not breast-feeding. I was in a middle seat. I did get up and make my way to the end of the aisle and walked out. It was quite a scene. I was breaking some taboo.

    Years ago—say the 1970s there was still some pressure on middle class white American women not to breast feed—from reasons of embarrassment, and dislike of the body. Yes you are given a little packet with sample formula. Bur where I’ve been most people assume you mean to breast feed and talk of it as this holy activity.

    Many conversations I’ve had in private (it’s always in private) with women talk of the difficulty (by which I also mean the idea you are to feed the baby as it wants not on a schedule), pressure, guilt and crazy logistics (if the woman works outside the home which she often does and from the first weeks as in the US there is no help from employers), distress at the amount of laundry (and changing several times a day), isolation and the completel dependency of the child on one person (with stories of chlidren not thriving and yet more guilt; one of the advantages of bottle-feeding is the baby’s father can feed once a day too so you can get 8 hours rest when the baby is first born; he can do one of the feedings at the time you really have to feed the baby every 4 hours). Rousseau was an early advocate of breast-feeding: it was central to his vision of women as devoted baby-makers and sexual objects for men.

    I’m not against breast-feeding. I do deplore the intense pressure which I see as connected to the sexual emphasis on women’s breasts when not nursing mothers. And I’ve noticed again and again how the least reference to deploring the pressure (sometimes in a long email about other things) will elicit some protest.

    And one reply was allowed through by a woman who identified herself as having a Ph.D

    "When talking to students about the female body/ breasts or breast-feeding, I think it is important to bring in issues of race and class as well as the psychological manipulation. Some women do feel enormous pressure from hospitals to breast-feed and feel horribly guilty when they don’t, can’t or stop early. Yet there are other hospitals that stress the need for early baby feeding (perhaps more than necessary?) to such an extent that women feel overwhelmed, inadequate and unable to perform that task with competence. They feel pressured to stop and offer bottles.

    My own mother and women in her circle still hold the belief that anyone who can afford formula should buy it and that only poor white women and black women nurse their (own) babies. They were raised in a culture that used wet nurses and the incongruity of this thinking still escapes them.

    Stephanie C."

    I didn't mention how it's a lie that bottle feeding take more time. Breast-feeding does because it's done on demand. If you have the money you buy the formula ready-to-pour, and plastic inserts for cylinder like bottles. You have only to boil the rubber nipples. This takes 10 minutes once a day. An alternative is formula nearly ready-to-pour where you add boiled water to the formula. The second procedure takes the extra time to boil the water and pour into the plastic inserts in the bottle. And there's no extra wash at all.

    I'm not surprised the pressure is on from women who did breast-feed.

    Why do women want to punish other women and make them sacrifice too? To justify themselves?

    Centrally in the US it's a class issue: the women who suffer a great deal are those who have to go to work quickly afterwards because they are confronted with endless guilt and a demand for sacrifice they can't meet and rightly don't want to.

    chava    May 14, 10:44am    #
  8. I’m happy to say that the moderators of WMST-l put my posting on their list. It got as one reply an absurd connection between the need of a breastfeed baby to use its neck and teaching it initiative:

    "In breastfeeding, the mouth reaches for the food, drawing the head with it. Consequent movement resonates from the temporomandibular joint down the spine. As the action of the jaw is stabilized against he mother’s breast, the head itself moves. Try holding your own jaw and move your head "up and down" to feel how different this is from opening and shutting your jaw on your head. When the breastfed baby is engaged by sucking, the levered skull sends movement down to the tail, an action that underlies the subsequent push patterns from the head. When the head closes on the jaw, the spine is released and lengthened…..As adults, the bottle fed child is more likely to initiate a turning of the head with muscle of the neck rather than the mouth and face.

    The result is a more frequent disconnection of the head from the spine/body, and we experience these results as tension in the neck and shoulder areas."

    To which someone replied:

    "Is this substantiated by research, or is it theory? I have always been given to understand that no meaningful correlation between any attribute of adults and having been breast- or bottle-fed as babies has been established. I would be perfectly open to learning that this is incorrect.


    A better reply would be that to chain a dog and make it stretch its neck to reach for its food is the analogy. We don’t assume we are teaching the dog an admirable cultural behavior when we do this.

    chava    May 16, 7:57am    #
  9. To my original which was repeated someone else wrote:

    "I don’t think I’ve seen the book by Linda Blum "At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States (1999, Beacon Press) mentioned yet. It’s a wonderful book – first chapter is a great historical overview of breastfeeding ideologies, and subsequent chapters include an ethnography/interview study of a LaLeche chapter. It clearly delineates issues of class, race, medicalization, and the current moral imperative for ‘all’ women, despite structural constraints, to breastfeed. I actually assign the history chapter of it to my Body classes, and am going to include an abridged version of that chapter an upcoming anthology on the Body that I’m editing for Oxford.

    I heartily recommend it.

    chava    May 16, 7:59am    #
  10. So I wrote and hope this is put onto WMST-l:

    "I’m astonished but also gratified that in the response I had to my comments I got the reaction that someone preaches to her class about "the current imperative for all women to breast feed, despite stuctural constraints" -- was it?

    What an abstract phrase. How it erases reality. I remember someone saying to me when I queried whether voting for the Equal Rights Amendment might deprive me of my husband’s pension. She said, "well there’s got to be some dislocation." Right.

    Why not the current imperative for all women to never have an abortion? Or some other demand. And this in a classroom that purports to teach women to think for themselves and seek what is in their best interests.

    Here made visible before us all is using a classroom to teach authoritarianism and loss of autonomy for women. The issue here suddenly widens well beyond "the current imperative" to sacrifice. Yes sacrifice is what it’s all about. That as a woman you are answerable with your body. How different is this from what was done to women found pregnant outside of marriage before the 20th century in villages in the west; what is done to them in some Muslim countries today.

    I wonder what the young women in such a classroom feel? Like the women herded into a room to watch a film demanding they breastfeed, just after they’ve given birth?"

    chava    May 16, 8:01am    #
  11. My message was not posted. Instead two more which assumed that there can be only one "good" decision (to breastfeed no matter what) were. One of them had these passages:

    "For example, a student in a social change course did a project about the lack of pumping rooms in the hospital where she worked. She was both responsible for helping to promote breastfeeding to new mothers and lacked the time/space to breastfeed her own newborn. Despite her efforts, she was unable to create a true lactation room for workers in the hospital … many of my friends weaned before they otherwise wanted to because of their work demands …

    The only concession to women’s realities made was this:

    "However, I definitely find that the combination of exhaustion, emotion and isolation makes it hard to always engage the material while in the throes of early motherhood …"

    I did learn that another element here is an idea of what is natural. The natural is the sacred even if the natural must be taught. There is only one way to be a mother and that is sacrifice. The woman is to be answerable with her body utterly.

    And in the classroom authoritarianism over this issue rules the day in feminist classrooms in the US.

    chava    May 17, 7:10am    #
  12. Dr Diana came onto to WMST-l and defended her decision to put photos of her breasts naked on flickr.com. Apparently she gave a lecture at her university where she screened these pictures of herself. It seems to me that one source of her decision is to put out before the public breasts which do not conform to the western idea of non-long breasts. Mr Drake said hers were of the "long" variety after he looked. She wrote "I used to feel uncomfortable with my large areolae as well but have changed the way I view my body and can even embrace it today without shame." So some of this comes fron her having breasts which are not the culturally admired type.

    She also said she’s glad to show off and wants to make others so. Here I’d say women are being taught to show off their breasts all the time in the media. Women’s fashions are set up to do this.

    The logic is on her side, but not the politics or most people’s responses.

    chava    May 17, 7:17am    #
  13. My posting was not sent through to WMST-l, but instead the moderator sent it to a woman who told me this was done because "I'm so involved with this subject."

    She headed her message "mommy milk," and then attempted to see the issue simply from the point of view of an imagined and/or helpless baby and to insist that formula is dangerous for children. The argument is intended to throw us back to before 1880 when there were no other options. Then too mothers died in great numbers. That’s natural too.

    She wrote that "The World Heath Organization recommends that all babies receive a minimum of 2 years of their mother’s milk. This is a baby’s birthright …" And then went on to dismiss any constraints the mother may have; all must be dismissed in favor of two years doing nothing else (which is what breastfeeding on demand requires).

    After assertions about how all women want healthy babies where it’s implied that formula feeding must be unhealthy, I was told this was "about empowering women."

    Right. Doublespeak is often resorted to in political arguments.

    She offered the "fact" (here she was unsure of a particular "fact") that in France at one point some agency in the French government offered a stipend to breastfeed.

    I regret not knowing what percentage of women actually breastfeed who have given birth each year in a particular country.

    Thinking more about the connections I've made in the blog itself, I would like to free women who would like to have, or need and can afford these freedoms: to be free from being ogled and targeted as objects for male wet dreams and from being turned into conflicted and isolated sacrificial cows.

    chava    May 17, 1:30pm    #
  14. Katha P on WMST-l said what I’ve been trying to say:

    "I breastfed for seven months and really enjoyed it after the first painful month or so. However, I just don’t believe it makes much difference in middle-class America, where we mix formula with clean water, unlike in the developing world, and babies see doctors, are vaccinated etc. Probably most of us on this list were bottle-fed (by mothers who drank and smoked while pregnant), and here we are. I have many friends who didn’t breast feed and were made to feel bad about it. Their children are healthy and happy and smart. To me, bf is just another area where Americans swing wildly from one health and childraising extreme to another and are just incredibly judgmental.

    Eventually business will market breast milk (NPR had a story on this earlier this week) and then you’ll see ‘science" discovering that only the mother’s own milk delivered from her own personal breast is ‘best."

    The standards of motherhood get higher and higher. Nobody can meet them all. So why not just assume that the mother who doesn’t breastfeed is probably making up for it in another area—for example by giving her child the benefit of the income she has decided not to forgo, or giving her baby more father-involvement in feeding. Or even just the benefit of a mother who feels free to make this choice either way and is therefore enjoying motherhood more. Society should accomodate both choices.

    Katha P"
    chava    May 20, 11:42pm    #

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