Saturday, April 5, 2014

confessions of a dairy cow

Last week I was buttonholed in a cafe by a guy with time on his hands who wanted a chat. I was trying to breastfeed the baby at the time, and, frankly, just wanted to be left alone. The baby is easily distracted at the moment, so - while I am committed to trying to feed her in public - it is not always easy and unwanted attention at the wrong time doesn't help. 

This guy's son was playing with my elder daughter in the cafe's play area, which provided him with a licence to chat. During the course of this mostly one-sided conversation - my responses were mostly 'mms' and 'that must've been difficult' and 'reallys' (which, I was told, meant that I was 'shy'. Too 'shy' to tell him to just bugger off and leave me alone, I guess). Apparently, Mr Cafe was not an acute reader of high-context communication. During the course of his monologue, he told me about his son's mother - they are separated - and her struggles with breastfeeding. She had had a difficult time with it - for which she had my sympathies ... and not only for her breastfeeding woes. He then described her as a 'cystic cow'. 

I misheard him and thought he'd said a 'stink cow'. 'A what?' I said. 

'A cystic cow,' he repeated. 'Do you know what this is?'  Without waiting for my answer he told me that a cystic cow was one who can't be milked. 


Whatever may've happened between them, he referred to his ex-partner, who had clearly struggled with breastfeeding - and quite possibly because of mastitis given his choice of imagery - as a sick animal.

I was offended on her behalf and didn't even bother producing my half-hearted rejoinders after that. A passive response, to be sure, but then I was still sitting on the couch pinned in place by a nursing baby, while he was standing. Once again, having a baby made me acutely conscious of my physical vulnerability  ... and hers. 

He eventually got the message that I was no longer interested in listening to him, however, and left.

This encounter got me thinking about cows more generally.  

'Cow'' can be used a comparatively mild insult for a woman (as compared with, say, 'bitch', another animal insult). It has a variety of uses: it can refer to size, especially if someone is blocking your way, intelligence ('stupid cow') or unkindness ('mean or nasty cow'). It can even be used as a means of expressing pity for someone ('poor cow').

And, apparently, if you breastfeed it can just be straightforward term of description. 

I've never been referred to as a 'cystic cow', but I have been jokily likened to a dairy cow because I was breastfeeding more than once. 

Images of human female breasts and dairy cows are frequently conflated: just try to Google 'milkmaid' like I did to find an image for this post and see what you come up with. Believe me, my choice is at the very modest end of the spectrum. Images of buxom women with their breasts on display while milking cows were prevalent.

Or recall the character Nursie from Blackadder Two. Still present at Court as a blatant figure of ridicule (she is big and stupid, a stereotypically bovine woman), Queen Elizabeth 1's wet nurse is described as having an 'udder fixation' and every year dresses as a cow  'with lots of lovely udders' for the fancy dress ball. Whenever she tries to contribute to affairs of state, she is silenced - 'mouth is open Nursie, should be closed' - not least because she can remind the monarch of when she was young, vulnerable and dependent on an unlettered poor woman for sustenance. All of a sudden, she doesn't seem quite so funny.

But on examining my feeling of insult at being likened to a cow, I realised that I was also buying into the notion that cows are inferior.  Because actual cows, as opposed to women described as cows, are not stupid or unkind. They may be big, but that is the way their bodies are made. They do not raise or exploit another species of animal for the production of food and drink and they do not insult each other by calling each other 'humans.'

Animalising a human being is a way of seeing them as less than human, for sure, but it is also a way of reinscribing the supposed fact that humans are superior to other animals, of suppressing the fact that we are animals ourselves.

I began to feel empathy for actual dairy cows, whose calves are weaned early and who are kept artificially lactating so people can consume a vast array of dairy products. For a breastfeeding feminist, veganism seems a logical ethical choice, as these bloggers articulate (here and here). 

While I can intellectually relate to this call to abandon dairy products in solidarity with actual dairy cows, I have to confess that my dependency on cheese and yoghurt has meant that I have not yet put my money where my mouth is. It is salutary to reflect, however, that many people consume a dairy-laden diet, but there is a general squeamishness about products made with human breastmilk

I'm not suggesting that we all need to abandon ice-cream for breastmilk yoghurt, but thinking about the links between humans as animals - breastfeeding being an obvious link between humans and other mammals - and dairy cows shows up the contradictions and hypocrisies that drive industrial farming. And that's before we even get to artificial hormones, dodgy feed and other illegal practices. 

Regardless of my new appreciation of veganism as a feminist practice and my growing understanding of animal rights, I still don't like being described as a dairy cow because I'm breastfeeding.

Maybe I'm just a stubborn cow that way.