Why do lactivists portray anyone who is not an ally as an enemy?


Yesterday I wrote about the vicious treatment — the “Semmelweis treatment” — of the Fed Is Best Foundation. I explained that lactation professionals demonize Fed Is Best for the same reasons Semmelweis’ colleagues demonized him when he identified that doctors were spreading childbed fever. They can’t bear to acknowledge that they might be harming patients.

But why are lay lactivists often equally vicious in the way they interact with women who can’t or don’t wish to breastfeed? Instead of viewing all women as potential allies in the struggle to raise children, lactivists position women who make different choices as antagonists. They employ two primary rhetorical gambits: friend-enemy politics and “formula as poison.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivists’ favorite rhetorical gambits: friend-enemy politics and “formula as poison.”[/pullquote]


Because the issue of breastfeeding vs. bottlefeeding isn’t about food and it isn’t about babies. It’s about womanhood. For lactivists, that is a battle worth fighting to the emotional death.

A new paper, Formula for Success: Dueling Discourses in the Breastfeeding Battle, from the International Conference on Gender Research explains that lactivism promotes a “culture of true womanhood.”


… have essentialized womanhood to a degree that excludes the concept of maternal choice… [E]ssentializing womanhood in this manner reifies doctrines of motherhood as a dualistic construct formed by competing subjects of good and evil…

The cultural activism we analyze here continues to rely on an archetypal figurehead of natural motherhood— the True Woman … The breastfeeding mother emerges as the True Woman via hegemonic femininity … These Cult narratives employ the rhetorical strategy of definition by negation where the bottle feeding mother is portrayed as a “bad mother” who unnaturally puts herself before her children…

Both friend-enemy politics and “formula as poison” reflect the cultural and rhetorical touchstone of lactivism: the Nestle formula scandal. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Nestle marketed formula in Africa and babies died as a result. Of course formula was NEVER harmful to babies; it was the contaminated water used to make the formula that was dangerous. No matter. Forty years have passed, but that tragedy shapes lactivist rhetoric today.

The authors use The Alpha Parent and KellyMom as paradigmatic examples. They also investigate Jack Newman, MD and Darcia Narvaez, PhD.

The Alpha Parent supports its heavily pro-breastfeeding stance with articles like “Is Formula Feeding Worse than Smoking?” and tweets depicting breastfeeding mothers and captions that read “Tbe, Skinny on Mommy Guilt (those of a nervous or butthurt disposition, look away now) #breastfeeding”. As a whole, The Alpha Parent uses aggressive, friend-enemy rhetoric that valorizes breastfeeding mothers and creates a strong sense of identification amongst them, while concomitantly blaming bottle feeding mothers for their children’s ailments …

Framing women who make different choices as enemies is key.

The Alpha Parent engages in a game of debasement with a strategy of shaming “other” women (women who are not breast feeding). It valorizes the true woman via heuristics of the natural (“If you feel guilty of your choice, that is your internal accountability system being triggered”)…

What about KellyMom?

Specifically addressing whether or not it is appropriate to make bottle feeding mothers feel guilty, Jack Newmann, a contributor to KellyMom writes:

“Let’s look at real life… If [a woman] went to the office with her one-week old baby and told the physician that she was feeding her baby homogenized milk, what would be the reaction of her physician? Most would practically collapse and have a fit. And they would have no problem at all making that mother feel guilty for feeding her baby cow’s milk, and then pressuring her to feed the baby formula. (Not pressuring her to breastfeed, it should be noted, because “you wouldn’t want to make a woman feel guilty for not breastfeeding”.)”

Newman mobilizes the rhetorical strategy of “formula as poison.”

Newmann’s article demonstrates how women are disciplined when operating outside of traditional gender boundaries. Newmann strips women of their choices in performing motherhood and places control of motherhood in the hands of medical professionals…

It would be more accurate to say that Newmann places control of motherhood in the hands of lactivist medical professionals. All others can be ignored.

Darcia Narvaez, PhD draws on anti-corporatist bias:

Narvaez’s … employed an interesting tactic of associating breastfeeding and health with the capitalist ideology:

“When your fellow citizens are not breastfed, it costs you. If you were not breastfed, it is costing you. It is costly for all members of society, whether or not you are a parent or grandparent… People who are breastfed are less likely to be a host of mental and physical diseases throughout life and are less likely to end up in prison”… [I]n denying her child the breast, predetermined her or him to a life of crime. In contrast, the breastfeeding mother, quite literally passed her virtue on to her children through her milk and breast.

But why make enemies of women who, though they make the choice to bottlefeed, are actually sympathetic to the struggles of ALL mothers?

For the same reason that radical conservative political outlets portray liberals as enemies and liberalism as moral and political poison: to build a following.

These websites and biogs promote a strong sense of identification amongst users and allow women to engage in a heuristic of the natural when addressing infant health. Through high levels of interactivity (posting, replying, commenting, etc.) followers foster strong group identifications which provides a rationale for their beliefs, to the detriment of holistic discussions that engage professional research and outside opinions.

And just as the conservative political culture constructs compromise as betrayal and support for the “other” as anathema, contemporary lactivist culture constructs compromise on aggressive breastfeeding promotion as betrayal and support to the formula feeding “other” as anathema.

It’s a great strategy for boosting followers, but a harmful response to everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The authors don’t discuss the Fed Is Best movement, but the movement provides an antidote to toxic lactivist culture. Feeding safety advocates, myself included, promote CHOICE, not specific choices and try to support ALL women regardless of the way they choose to feed their babies. Because the truth is that formula is NOT poison and the benefits of breastfeeding term babies in industrialized countries are trivial. Babies don’t care whether they are breastfed or bottlefed so long as they are fed.

Breastfeeding and bottle feeding mothers could be allies in the struggle that is motherhood … but only if lactivists stop playing friend-enemy politics and drop the ugly rhetorical gambit of “formula as poison.”