How do privileged mothers display their status if they can’t breastfeed?


Breastfeeding is a signifier of social status.

In every society the privileged attempt to distance themselves from those less fortunate. Privileged women adopt status displays that are costly, and therefore difficult for less privileged women to emulate.

For example, when poor people were thin because they didn’t have enough to eat, being overweight was a status display. When economics change, status displays change. Now when achieving and maintaining a thin, muscular body requires access to healthy food and gym memberships, being thin is a status display.

European formula and donor breastmilk allow privileged women who can’t breastfeed to still display their status.

Infant feeding is no different.

It is not a coincidence that in wealthy, industrialized countries breastfeeding is more common among those with higher socio-economic status because it requires the leisure time to do it. Women either need a partner to support them so they can stay home and breastfeed or a high paying, high status job that allows them time to pump and access to places where they can pump.

In contrast, in poor countries, where many women lack the financial resources to purchase formula, formula feeding is a status display and breastfeeding is a sign of poverty.

So what happens when privileged women cannot or do not wish to breastfeed?

There are two status displays being marketed directly to them: European formula and donor breastmilk.

Both, of course, are prohibitively expensive.

According to Yahoo Finance, domestic infant formula costs range from 9-32 cents per ounce. But that’s a fraction of the cost of domestic organic brands at $1.15 per ounce.

But those seeking status displays have turned to Europe for extraordinarily expensive formula that — in a status bonus — is difficult to access. European formulas, at $1.75 per ounce, are designer formulas.

A recent story on Parents explains:

To access European formula, American parents either need to know someone traveling overseas or order through a formula dealer.

Sure, you may be formula feeding, but by importing Holle or HiPP, you can distinguish yourself from those using Similac or, worse, the truly unfortunate mothers who must make do with store-brand formula.

Is European formula any better for babies? Not by any pediatric metric. It’s just more expensive and that is the point. It’s a status display because poor women have neither the money nor the time to access it.

But the best status display always costs the most. By that measure, sourcing and purchasing donor breastmilk truly sets you apart. It’s the bespoke equivalent.

Critically ill infants and premature babies get priority at most milk banks, but many will sell surplus milk to families whose babies aren’t hospitalized. However, it’s expensive and not always covered by insurance. For example, some milk from the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank costs $4.50 per ounce, which adds up fast when babies eat as often as every two hours.

Yet there is no evidence that donor breastmilk provides ANY benefits for term babies.

The average baby drinks approximately 9000 ounces of milk in his or her first year.

Store-branded formula at 9 cents/ounce costs $820 for one year.
High end domestic formula at 32 cents/ounce costs $2,880 for one year.
Organic domestic formula at $1.15/ounce costs $10,350 for one year.
European formula t $1.75/ounce costs $15,750 for one year.
Donor breastmilk from a milk bank at $4.50/ounce costs $40,500 for one year.

There’s a price point for a broad range of status displays. Why pay $15,750 to import European infant formula for one year when you could pay $820 and get the exact same result? To display your status!

Infant feeding isn’t really about what’s best for babies; it’s about mothers and the curated image they present to their friends and on social media. Commiserating with other high status mothers over the laboriousness of importing European formula or accessing donor breastmilk is like fretting over the difficulty of finding good servants. It distinguishes you from those who are less well off and that is the point.