Stop “normalizing” breastfeeding!


Apparently I hit a nerve.

I wrote a post last night comparing admonitions to breastfeed with admonitions to continue unwanted pregnancies.

I used the following images to illustrate my point:

Every drop don't abort

On Twitter, journalist Tara Haelle commented on the image on the left. She promoted it as “normalizing” public breastfeeding and I’m confident that she is entirely sincere in that belief. But I see it as promoting breastfeeding as “best.”

As I explained, I suspect that many women would be offended by a group that felt itself entitled to comment on women’s pregnancies and whether or not they choose to continue them. The not-so-subtle hectoring at the bottom, “every life counts,” reflects the group’s religious beliefs and the belief that they are entitled to police pregnant women’s bodies.

The piece generated dozens of tweets, many of them furious that I had dared to equate “pro breastfeeding” with “pro life.” However, not a single person could explain what was wrong with the analogy beyond the fact that they found it unflattering to their cause. Haelle herself emphasized once again that she was only trying to “normalize” public breastfeeding.

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#f9a42f”]Normalization is the construction of an idealized norm of conduct and then rewarding or punishing individuals for conforming to or deviating from the ideal.[/pullquote]

But we shouldn’t be trying to “normalize” breastfeeding (public or private) in the first place.

Why not? Because “normalization” is just a fancy way to discriminate and shame.


Uganda wants to “normalize” traditional sexuality, thereby marginalizing gay people.

Many residents of the Old South want to “normalize” the Confederate flag, sending sending subtle and not so subtle messages about race, slavery and citizenship.

Anti-choice advocates struggle to “normalize” continuing unwanted pregnancies because they oppose abortion.


When lactivists seek to “normalize” breastfeeding, they want to marginalize and shame formula feeders.

This harks back to the definition of “normalization.” As Wikipedia explains:

… The concept of normalization is found in the work of Michel Foucault … As Foucault used the term, normalization involved the construction of an idealized norm of conduct – for example, the way a proper soldier ideally should stand, march, present arms, and so on, as defined in minute detail – and then rewarding or punishing individuals for conforming to or deviating from this ideal. In Foucault’s account, normalization was one of an ensemble of tactics for exerting the maximum social control with the minimum expenditure of force …

Lactivists use the term normalization to construct an idealized norm of conduct – breastfeeding – and then rewarding or punishing individual women for conforming to or deviating from this ideal. Normalization is a tactic for exerting maximum social control with minimum effort.

Lactivists seek to make breastfeeding normative, meaning:

… an ideal standard of or model, or being based on what is considered to be the normal or correct way of doing something.

But in first world countries, where the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial, making breastfeeding normative means imposing some women’s norms on other women. It means telling women what they should be doing with their breasts, instead of leaving that decision to them.

Contrary to the claims of lactivists, women choose not to breastfeed or stop breastfeeding for a host of reasons that lactivists refuse to acknowledge: breastfeeding can be difficult, painful and inconvenient for mothers and it can lead to failure to thrive in some babies. It has nothing to do with formula marketing, nothing to do with lack of encouragement in hospitals, and nothing to do with lack of knowledge.

Simply put, women decide to not to breastfeed or to stop breastfeeding for intrinsic reasons, not extrinsic reasons. Normalizing breastfeeding makes as much sense as normalizing heterosexuality. There is not a gay person alive who isn’t aware that heterosexuality is normative and no marketing tactics or lack of education leads them to be gay. Similarly, there’s hardly an American woman alive who isn’t aware that breastfeeding is “best” and no marketing tactics or lack of education leads them to choose formula. It is extraordinarily demeaning to pretend otherwise.

When lactivists normalize breastfeeding, they are subtly and not so subtly sending the message that women who choose formula are abnormal. That’s what they intend to do.

There’s no reason for the rest of us to join them in their campaign of shame and intimidation.