Breastfeeding and the glorification of victimhood

Victim Rubber Stamp

Is support a zero sum game?

If I offer support to the victims of an earthquake in South America does that mean I can’t offer support the victims of a typhoon in South East Asia, too?

If I express support for those who lost their homes in a hurricane does that mean I can’t express support for those who lost their homes in a wildfire, too?

If I support women who have breast cancer, does that mean I can’t support women who have ovarian cancer, too?

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#1212b2″]Why can’t I support formula feeding mothers AND support breastfeeding mothers?[/pullquote]

Sounds ridiculous, right?

So why can’t I support formula feeding mothers AND support breastfeeding mothers?

Because lactivism embraces victimhood as central to its understanding of breastfeeding and the women who choose it.

In the world of lactivism, support is a zero sum game and any support offered to women who choose formula feeding is viewed as support that is deliberately stolen from breastfeeding mothers.

At their heart, the “breastfeeding wars” aren’t about breastfeeding. They’re about whether lactivists are entitled to the moral superiority of victimhood. That’s how lactivists justify the fact that their claims of minority status are unmoored from reality, their claims of the benefits of breastfeeding are unmoored from the scientific evidence, and their viciousness expressed in efforts to lock up formula, force new mothers to sign releases proclaiming that breastfeeding is superior, and programs to promote breastfeeding designated as “baby friendly,” (as if those who breastfeed care more about their babies than those who don’t) is unwarranted.

The celebration of their victimization serves several important roles in the lactivist cosmology. First, and foremost, it guarantees moral superiority. As Sommer and Baumeister explained in the book The human quest for meaning:

…[C]laiming the victim status provides a sort of moral immunity. The victim role carries with it the advantage of receiving sympathy from others and thereby prevents [one’s own behavior] from impugning one’s character…

Never mind that women who try breastfeeding represent the overwhelming majority of women, lactivists insist breastfeeders are a tiny minority, oppressed by the formula industry, and ceaselessly harassed by formula feeders. They’re victims dammit and that means that nothing they do to promote breastfeeding is ever wrong.

Second, the insistence on victimization serves to simplify the world by creating a false dichotomy. For lactivists, the world is divided into diametrically opposed camps of breastfeeders and formula feeders. It seems never to have occurred to them that combining breastfeeding and formula feeding is not merely possible, but common. Since the world is divided into diametrically opposed camps, in the lactivist cosmology everyone is either with them or against them. Or, paraphrasing one of my blog commentors, lactivists make it clear to new mothers that “you’re either with us or we’re against you.”

When you are a breastfeeding victim, the fact anyone others don’t agree with you, or at least validate your feelings of victimization, is viewed as a form of re-victimization.

Other women choose formula? They are victimizing you by refusing to validate your decision to breastfeed by mirroring it back to you.

Formula feeders want to be able to choose formula without being harassed by hospital lactation consultants, vilified by breastfeeders, or told that they aren’t “baby friendly”? They’re victimizing you.

Dr. Amy (or anyone else) point out that the benefits of breastfeeding in first world have been massively exaggerated and are, in reality, limited to a few less infant colds and episodes of diarrheal illness in the first year? She is most definitely victimizing you; she hates breastfeeding, bathes daily in Similac and dries off using hundred dollar bills sent to her by Nestle as payment for services rendered.

Third, their status as self-proclaimed victims has been instrumental in allowing lactivists (particularly professional lactivists like La Leche League) to take control of public health messages and discussion in the public sphere. Breastfeeding rates were low purportedly because of the victimization of breastfeeders. That was the justification behind massive public and private initiatives to support breastfeeders and thereby promote breastfeeding. How has it worked out?

As a society, we have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting breastfeeding in order to improve child health and save on medical costs. Where’s our return on investment? Where is the evidence that overall infant health has improved as a result of breastfeeding rates tripling in the past 50 years? There isn’t any. Where are the billions of dollars in healthcare savings we were promised as a result of increasing breastfeeding rates? No one seems to be able to find them.

Yet lactivists continue promoting these programs and initiatives on the grounds that breastfeeding mothers are being victimized.

Interestingly, the goalposts of lactivist victimization are always moving. Fifty years ago the evidence of breastfeeders’ victimization was that hospitals did not support their efforts. In 2015, when hospitals do everything humanly (and inhumanely) possible to increase breastfeeding rates and when even cans of formula proclaim “breast is best,” failure to wholeheartedly embrace and praise public breastfeeding is viewed as … you guessed it … evidence of victimization.

Indeed, the goalposts have moved so far, basic civility to women who choose formula feeding as best for their babies is routinely criticized as victimization of women who breastfeed.

It’s time for lactivists to grow up and stop bleating endlessly about their victimization. Breastfeeding is just one of two excellent ways to nourish an infant, nothing more and nothing less. Breastfeeders aren’t morally superior, aren’t better mothers, and certainly aren’t being victimized. They’re no different from formula feeding mothers, both trying to do what is best for their babies, their families and themselves.

Support is not a zero sum game.

I can offer support to the victims of an earthquake in South America AND offer support to the victims of a typhoon in South East Asia.

I can express support for those who lost their homes in hurricanes AND express support for those who lost their homes in a wildfires.

I can support women who have breast cancer AND support women who have ovarian cancer.

In exactly same way, I can support women who breastfeed AND women who formula feed. I don’t have to choose between them and society does not have to choose … no matter how much lactivists insist otherwise.