Gender and Terminology: A Message to Birth Professionals

As a birth-worker dedicated to equality and access to quality care, is important to mention some key points about language and inclusion.

Bringing awareness to the terminology we choose to use about the people we serve, is something we must bring to the front of our minds. For instance, “breast massage” is an important treatment that I offer my clients. “Breast” is a word laden with social and emotional implications as well as historically gender-specific meaning. The truth is, breast tissue is not limited to women.

Not all people who give birth and lactate identify as female. Not all people who lactate identify with having breasts.

In a cursory google search of the term “breast” the first page showed results pertaining to females and lactation. Our clients are flooded with “mamma this” and “mother that” on the internet, birth groups on Facebook, and even in clinics and perinatal massage therapy offices. In a female-dominated space, birth givers who identify as trans, non-binary, or gender queer may not feel safe or empowered, let alone included in the birth experience.

Let’s talk about gender inclusive language rather than gender neutral language.

We want to avoid erasure because we don’t want to neutralize experiences. We are not erasing women by using gender inclusive terminology. We are not changing the fact that birth and breastfeeding can be powerful for women and an important part of the female identity. Our goal as compassionate professionals is to open the circle to create safe spaces for our trans, non-binary, and gender queer friends to also have empowered birth and postpartum experiences.

It is important to know your audience and not make assumptions about gender based on looks. Something that has helped my own practice is a section on my intake form that asks about my clients’ pronouns. This gives my client the space to identify themselves, if they choose. It also lets them know that I have awareness about gender as a social construct.

We CAN change our language to better communicate with each client, to establish rapport and trust, and to provide better care. Does your client prefer the terms lactation, breastfeeding, or chestfeeding? We won’t know unless we ask. Does your client prefer calling their appendages breasts or chest? There are a variety of types of lactating people. In Washington state, the law regarding massage to this chest area calls it “Breast massage” and applies to all people.  

Universally calling this area the chest and referring to lactation strictly as “Chest feeding,” while including people who do not identify with breasts, is also extremely limiting because it can negate the lived experience of women who identify with having breasts, which in my experience is the majority of my clientele. I think that having this awareness in the back of your mind, continuing your personal education on the topic of inclusion, and communicating one-on-one with each client about the terminology that empowers them are all helpful steps toward progress.

Know that at some point you are going to mess up. That is ok. Let’s all be willing to apologize and try again.

Chelsey Swan