How Breast-Feeding Activists Attack the Wrong Targets

What Women Really Think
Oct. 6 2011 10:27 AM

How Breastfeeding Activists Attack the Wrong Targets

109029469
Women breastfeed their babies at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington on February 12, 2011 during a 'nurse-in.'

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Raise a (nonalcoholic, noncaffeinated) toast! This is World Breastfeeding Week—in Canada, at least, and in a handful of U.S. cities. The rest of the world celebrates with the World Health Organization, which holds its own official breastfeeding week in August, but some apparently prefer to fete lactation in the 40th week of the year, to honor the length of a pregnancy. Breastfeeding is motherhood to a certain group of believers, and they’re commemorating this week with plenty of public displays of lactation. In St. Louis, one group is encouraging women to march down a city block wearing “your favorite breastfeeding t-shirt. In North Carolina, a group of women planned a “synchronized latch.” In Canada, towns competed to see who could set a record for the most babies breastfeeding at once.

This is why it was hard for me to write a novel about the breastfeeding wars. Every time I’d think of something outrageous—say, a group of breastfeeding advocates called the BOOBs—someone in the real world would one-up me. As I was trying to mine my feeble imagination, Gisele Bundchen was telling Elle magazine that breastfeeding should be required by international law. A shop in England started selling breast-milk ice cream. And someone invented an infant’s hat that looks like a naked breast. (I finally dreamed up something that hasn’t happened yet: a nursing mother catapulted to Joe the Plumber status after her wardrobe malfunction becomes an election-year controversy.)

Advertisement

Meanwhile, as I wrote, the backlash grew. Countless mothers around me—largely college-educated, professional women who had researched infant health meticulously—were feeling beleaguered by pressure to breastfeed exclusively. We read up on "nipple confusion" and swore off broccoli, all while desperately hoping some lactivist would acknowledge what we knew in our guts: that if we were keeping our babies safe, clean, and secure, a little formula wouldn’t kill them, as Slate’s Hanna Rosin pointed out in her controversial Atlantic piece a few years ago.

This is not, in fact, the case everywhere in the world. In places where sanitation is less reliable and intestinal diseases are more rampant, breastfeeding really can reduce infant mortality. And the lactivists’ work isn’t done in the United States, where, among black and Latina women and all women of lower income, lack of awareness abounds, and the social pressure to avoid breastfeeding can still be overwhelming. For women conditioned to connect formula to beauty—like the ones portrayed in Black Sheep’s “Similak Child” it’s doubtful that a synchronized latch across town is going to cause a conversion.

In fairness, some World Breastfeeding Week activities are geared toward spreading the word to precisely those people. The La Leche League of Greater St. Louis is holding a daylong seminar at the zoo, aimed at women in WIC. But that’s not the sort of program that springs to mind when people talk about lactivists. To much of the population that’s actually listening—fairly or not—breastfeeding activists are cult members, purveyors of guilt.

Maybe guilt really was necessary, in the beginning, to convince an entire nation of women do something that starts off so hard. But these days, TV anchors talk openly about pumping. Angelina Jolie breastfed on the cover of W, and Posh Spice had her implants removed so she could nurse her daughter. So when lactivists make the news, it’s usually because they’re marching alongside the converted, or protesting the latest celebrity to balk at public breastfeeding, or wielding pictures of their breasts as weapons against the prurient.

It’s hard to argue against their cause—especially if the alternative is forcing nursing mothers to stay home, lest they offend someone. But it seems as if the common ground is obvious here. More lactation rooms. Good coverups. Next issue?

There are plenty of pressing issues for new mothers of all persuasions, such as better maternity and sick-leave standards. And if lactivists could join with mainstream moms—without the pugilistic rhetoric and mutual distrust—they could make a powerful force. But that sort of collaboration has no place in the mommy wars. It’s easier to glare at each other across the park. And then, for good measure, buy a T-shirt. Maybe two.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 2:44 PM Where Do I Start With Mystery Science Theater 3000?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.