Why Is There So Much Shade Being Thrown About Breastfeeding?


"There is nothing worse than a mother that is judged for feeding her child in public," model Nicole Trunfio wrote in a May Instagram post. Though Trunfio wrote this in response to backlash from being featured breastfeeding on a mainstream magazine cover — a major victory in the fight to normalize breastfeeding — the breastfeeding-related judgment she references is still undeniably common.

In fact, 45% of U.S. adults say breastfeeding women are forced to give up their regular lifestyle in order to breastfeed, and that the practice is incongruous with normal social life, according to one National Center for Biotechnology Information report. It's an experience women anecdotally confirm.

"Women who breastfeed often feel they have to cover and hide while breastfeeding at family functions," Jennifer Rothchild wrote in a 2014 Pacific Standard article on the topic. Because they face "'dirty looks' and clear discomfort by others" when they attempt to breastfeed, several mothers told Rothchild they felt dissuaded from doing so "in any situation that could be considered 'public.'"

Nicole Trunfio/Instagram

So why is this basic act still considered shameful? Breastfeeding exists at the crux of multiple, persistent gendered double standards. It's about, well, breasts. The act forces others to recognize that they may be most commonly regarded as sexualized objects, but they also serve a biological function. 

The fact that until recently, Instagram banned photos of breastfeeding mothers, perceiving it as a violation of their nudity policies, reiterates this association between breasts and sex. Breastfeeding, especially public representations of it, makes it clear that images of breasts cannot be rigidly compartmentalized as such.

"The taboo some people feel against breastfeeding is related to people's difficulty accepting that breasts can both provide sexual pleasure and provide nourishment for an infant," Sari Locker, sex educator and psychologist at Columbia University, told Mic. "In our over-sexualized culture, women are given the message that their breasts are only meant to be ogled." 

Locker said many struggle to understand that "sexuality is often intertwined with nonsexual aspects of life" and that breasts function simultaneously as "a source of pleasure, food and comfort" and are "not just something to be gawked at in lingerie ads."

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Mom-on-mom shade: In addition to viewing women as sexualized objects, we often value women for their motherly duties above other attributes. Mothers are expected to sacrifice their needs, goals and even well-being for their children — and any decisions made for themselves over their children are seen as unforgivably selfish. 

Decisions surrounding breastfeeding play directly into this, which feminist writer Jessica Valenti learned through responses to writing about her decision to formula-feed her daughter.

"Breastfeeding has been the most challenging, and at times the most grueling, thing I have ever done in my life!" one Twitter user wrote, according to Valenti. "But the same way I chose to become a mother, I am choosing to make that sacrifice. Anything less is not an option. Being a mother is all about sacrifice, and if you aren't willing to make those sacrifices for the health and well-being of your child, then maybe you should think twice about becoming a mother." 

Intense. This shaming, Valenti notes, is commonly wielded against pro-formula mothers, and involves "the condescending attitude that women who formula-feed are somehow stupid or have been duped, the assumption that anyone who formula-feeds or supports women who do so isn't educated on the issue and, of course, the shaming inherent in suggesting that formula hurt women (and babies)." 

The majority of medical professionals agree that breastfeeding is ideal: Plenty of studies demonstrate that breastfeeding aids infants' development by lowering rates of childhood obesity, decreasing the incidence of asthma and even improving brain development. But plenty in the health community also recognize it is not a viable option for many mothers — and should not be a point of shame. 

Although registered nurse, author and president of Baby GooRoo Amy Spangler is a staunch supporter of breastfeeding and has devoted much of her career to promoting it, she also recognizes that "breastfeeding is not something that every mother will choose to do, and it's not something that every mother and baby may be able to do for whatever reason," she told Mic. "I'm not of that mindset that I would want formula to go away, because we need formula when we need it."

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Pediatrician Russell Saunders agrees. "There is a world of difference between 'best' and 'the only choice of right-thinking people,'" the doctor wrote in a 2014 Salon article about the decision to breastfeed. "And too many in the stridently pro-breastfeeding community don't seem to recognize that. Formula may not provide all of the benefits of breastfeeding, but it's not strychnine either. For families who either cannot or choose not to nurse their babies, it is a totally reasonable way of nourishing their children."

Breastfeeding should not be wielded as a method of evaluating, or shaming, another woman's value as a mother. "We need to deliver the message that every woman can do it all, have it all, but none of us can do it all at the same time," Spangler said. "We really are a community that should be supporting one another. Women have to feel they have the freedom to look at what their circumstances are and then make the decisions about what is best for them. And as a society, we need to support them rather than be critical because it seems less than a decision that another mother would have made."

Breastfeeding at work: In addition to all the social hand-wringing that comes from nursing, working mothers have a particular set of problems, which are clear with the United States' (lack of) policies supporting the reality of new mothers. Although President Barack Obama effectively required employers to provide reasonable breaks for breastfeeding employees when he signed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, for example, employers don't have to compensate employees for these breaks, nor are employers who have less than 50 employees required to provide it at all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Our lack of policies addressing this common experience among female employees "is probably the area where we lag behind horribly among all developed countries," Spangler said.

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Ultimately, this stigma doesn't just reiterate sexist double standards, but also destructively obscures crucial education about the health benefits of the practice. Research shows that Americans are still relatively uneducated about the actual act of breastfeeding and its benefits; obstetricians rarely provide women with information about breastfeeding and infant formula during prenatal visits, nor do they frequently teach them how to breastfeed, according to one NCBI compilation of research, and only five states have actually made proactive efforts to educate citizens about breastfeeding, according to the NCSL.

Normalizing breastfeeding, therefore, is crucial for our society's well-being, on medical, economic and social levels. Luckily, we're making progress: Women are pushing back on social media, in traditional media and even during a session of Argentinian Parliament. Hopefully, their efforts to normalize the practice will spark real change.

"If we value the contributions women make, then we need to identify what it is that makes them unique and that's that they become pregnant, they bear children and they breastfeed those children," Spangler said. "We need to develop a conscience that says to all of us, 'Women and children are important,' and maybe even beyond that, 'Women are an integral part of our society, of our culture, of our workplace.'"