Maternal Bodies, Breast-Feeding, and Consumer Desire in Urban China


Urban Chinese women in the 1990s formulated their infant-feeding decisions in the context of a society undergoing radical transformation as the nation moved from a centrally planned socialist economy to a global, market-oriented one. Narratives of new mothers in Beijing in the 1990s provide insights into the multiple forces that shaped their infant-feeding practices. These personal histories also illustrate the limitations of multilateral breast-feeding programs that emphasize breast-feeding as a natural interaction between mother and infant. The cases I present here demonstrate instead that the material, bodily manifestations of breast-feeding require nursing mothers to continually renegotiate relations with husbands, coworkers, and family. Chinese women’s accounts also add insight to theoretical deliberations on gender and the body, for they demonstrate that cultural expectations and the demands of the lactating body must be considered to understand fully the process of women’s decisions in a social and not strictly reproductive context. On a larger scale, the data also illustrate how global intervention, in the form of the WHO–UNICEF-sponsored Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, promotes breast-feeding as a woman’s primary duty at the same time that market forces counter this message as women redefine their individual expectations and social relationships.

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