Alternating the Breast for the Chest? Heterosexual men and ‘chestfeeding’

In October 2018 an article in ‘Men’s Health’ magazine online suggested that a new tool and associated drug regime was being developed which would allow men the opportunity to fully participate in the parenting practices of ‘chestfeeding’ their (or others) infants. The hormone kit, which is currently in development by Marie- Claire Springham from Central Saint Martin’s University of the Arts London, would allow cis men and transgender women to support their partners in providing nutrition for their child and enable greater participation in the practice of care particularly in the early months of their children’s lives.

Recent decades have seen a concerted effort by Public Health England and other organisations and agencies to encourage more women in the UK to breastfeed. Indeed, the UK has long had one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world (Public Health England, 2018) with only 1 in 10 women undertaking the practice for six months (Health and Social Care Information Centre and IFF Research, 2012) compared to 1 in 4 in the United States (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). While greater encouragement and uptake of breastfeeding practices has benefits for mother and infant, women have reported feeling under pressure to breastfeed which can result in internal and external stigmatisation if the woman fails to do what she believes is her natural ‘duty’. (Williamson, Leeming, Lyttle, Johnson, 2012). The male ‘chestfeeding kit’ in development is being marketed as an ‘empathy tool’, which would allow men the opportunity to share, or take responsibility for, providing their infant with the benefits of ‘chest’ milk. For the kit to be effective men would take progestin daily to develop milk glands during their partners’ pregnancy. Then, six weeks before the baby’s due date men would start taking domperidone, which increases prolactin, aiding in the production of milk. Male partners would then continue to take domperidone, which would result in chest growth, during the duration of ‘chestfeeding’.

The Springham ‘chest feeding kit’ is similar to the pharmaceutical advancements that provide transwomen the ability to breastfeed. Indeed, the term ‘chestfeeding’ originates from the trans community, which was developed to avoid the word breastfeeding which could be considered exclusive or emotionally triggering. However, the term ‘chestfeeding’ remains contested in the trans and non-binary community with some individuals preferring to use the word breastfeeding regardless of gender (La Leche League GB, 2019). Questions also remain about whether the decision to call the kit a ‘chestfeeding kit’ is preferred by the targeted users of Springham’s invention, which are heterosexual men.

The piece in men’s health piqued my academic interest, so I began to look for other articles and research on such an intervention. The more I read the more I noticed a preliminary discourse emerging which shared many similarities to my previous work around a male contraceptive pill (see Wilson, 2018). Several of the articles I read suggested that men should be concerned about how the pills may feminise them and impact their testosterone if choosing to ‘chestfeed’. Indeed, heteronormative magazines, like Men’s Health, are known for re-creating a traditional masculine discourse which may be likely to reject the development of non-traditional or effeminate physical characteristics in men such as the growth of breast tissue (Stibbe, 2004, Crenshaw, 2007). Whether male readers internalise dominant, traditional masculine discourse from the media is debated. The internalisation of identity is after all a complex process as it is suggested that men both reject and accept simultaneously the identity they are presented (Wailing, 2017).

The preliminary discourse around ‘chestfeeding’ which I identified may not yet be fully developed, may shift, and may not be fully internalised but nevertheless, requires further scrutiny. The topic of chestfeeding has resonated with me as an academic researcher not only because of its provocative nature, but also because it raises so many questions. I can’t help wondering, how is ‘chestfeeding’ shaped and constricted by modern discourse? Will heterosexual men even want to use a ‘chestfeeding kit’? If a male partner does not want to ‘chestfeed’, would he then expect his female partner to breastfeed? Is using the term ‘chestfeeding’ just another way to reproduce masculine and feminine identities? More importantly, is society ready to change traditional norms to create more meaningful discourses around men and reproduction?

It is certain that research exploring heterosexual men’s understanding of ‘chestfeeding’ as a parental practice is no doubt warranted. Hopefully, the clinical trials that are being conducted in the development of this kit will incorporate qualitative research methods such as interviews with the male participants to further understand their experience of ‘chestfeeding’ and how they would like to be engaged. Applied discursive research may also be fruitful in co-creating an alternative construction to the biomedical discourse that reproductive hormones are exclusively for women or transgender women. But regardless of whether it will be the breast or the chest that infants turn to in the future, it is imperative to provide men with the option to be more engaged in reproductive practices.

Dr Amanda D Wilson, MBPsS, AFBPsS
Lecturer in Psychology

References

Crawshaw, P. (2007). Governing the healthy male citizen: Men, masculinity and popular health in Men’s Health magazine. Social Science & Medicine, 65(8), 1606-1618.
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). National Immunization Survey: Results: Breastfeeding Rates [website]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/nis_data/results.html
Health and Social Care Information Centre & IFF Research (2012). Infant Feeding Survey 2010: Summary. Retrieved from https://www.nct.org.uk/sites/default/files/related_documents/Infant%20Feeding%20Survey_uk_2010_summary.pdf
La Leche League GB. (2019). Support for Transgender & Nonbinary Parents [website]. Retrieved from https://www.laleche.org.uk/support-transgender-non-binary-parents/
Men’s Health. (24th, Oct 2018). Hormone kit that lets men breastfeed could be available soon: ‘Chestfeeding’ is an ‘empathy tool’ for fathers to use, but side effects include breast growth. [online magazine] Retrieved from https://www.menshealth.com/uk/health/a759648/in-5-years-you-could-buy-a-mens-breast-feeding-kit/
Public Health England. (2018, March 1st). Latest technology supports new mums to breastfeed [Press release]. Retrieved from https://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2010/09/how-to-cite-a-press-release-in-apa-style.html
Stibbe, A. (2004). Health and the social construction of masculinity in Men’s Health magazine. Men and Masculinities, 7(1), 31-51.
Waling, A. (2017). “We Are So Pumped Full of Shit by the Media” Masculinity, Magazines, and the Lack of Self-identification. Men and Masculinities, 20(4), 427-452.
Williamson, I., Leeming, D., Lyttle, S., & Johnson, S. (2012). ‘It should be the most natural thing in the world’: exploring first‐time mothers’ breastfeeding difficulties in the UK using audio‐diaries and interviews. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 8(4), 434-447.
Wilson, A. D. (2018). “Put It in Your Shoe It Will Make You Limp”: British Men’s Online Responses to a Male Pill. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 26(3), 247-265.

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