Lactivism and disciplining women’s bodies


With the possible exception of the author Courtney Jung, no one could be more thrilled about attention her book “Lactivism” is receiving than I am. The book has opened the door to the conversation that we need to have about the ways that natural parenting industries manipulate women into buying their products.

As everyone has undoubtedly heard by now, Lactivism rehearses the same arguments advanced by Joan Wolf in Is Breast Best? and Hanna Rosin in her Atlantic piece The Case Against Breast-feeding that the scientific evidence about the benefits of breastfeeding in industrialized countries is weak, conflicting and riddled with confounders. In fact, the only definitive benefits of breastfeeding are a few less colds and gastro-intestinal upsets across the population of infants in their first year.

[pullquote align=”right” color=”#F9B9D4″]Lactivism constricts the shape of mothering just as surely as the corset constricted the shape of women’s bodies.[/pullquote]

Lactivism has been reviewed by the NYTimes as a:

… riveting exposé of the forces that have turned the simple act of feeding one’s baby into a veritable battlefield, “to breast-feed or not to breast-feed” has become a question with far-reaching implications spanning medicine, politics, religion, feminism, commerce, race and social class.

Jung blames the lactation industry, including lactation consultants and breast pump manufacturers, for the moralization of breastfeeding. Indeed, as I have remarked in the past, the moralization of breastfeeding parallels the monetization of breastfeeding.

But there’s more going on here than merely an industry seeking profits. The unfortunate fact is that lactivism is just the New Age iteration of an age old tendency toward controlling women by disciplining their bodies. Lactivism, in conjunction with the philosophies of natural childbirth and attachment parenting, is the 21st Century equivalent of the corset. They constrict the shape of mothering just as surely as the corset constricts the shape of women’s bodies.

It is a sad fact of history that men have spent a tremendous amount of time policing women’s bodies. And an even sadder fact is that women have often been the prime enforcers in this effort. Natural childbirth was conjured by Grantly Dick-Read to convince white women of the “better” classes to drop efforts for political and economic equality and return home to have more children; La Leche League was created by a group of devout Catholic women who believed that mothers should not work outside the home and that convincing them to breastfeed was a way of keeping them there; and attachment parenting has been aggressively promoted by Bill and Martha Sears as “God’s plan” for ordering the family with the husband at its head and the wife as subservient.

The political, intellectual and economic emancipation of women that occurred in industrialized countries was one of the pivotal developments of the 20th Century. It brought with it tremendous social change, and tremendous social change rarely occurs without backlash. In my view, that backlash has been expressed on the political Right as the rise of religious fundamentalism that automatically relegates women to the home. It’s been expressed on the political Left as the rise of natural parenting (natural childbirth, lactivism, attachment parenting) that, though ostensibly about children and how they are raised, is really about women and what they are supposed to sacrifice when they have them. Lactivism, in company with natural childbirth and attachment parenting, renders women’s needs invisible, and when practiced with full adherence to its principles renders women invisible in the public sphere.

Jung is absolutely correct that lactivists grossly exaggerate the benefits of breastfeeding, and she is also correct that the moralization of breastfeeding has been promoted by the lactivism industry. In so doing, she has started a national conversation about whether a big business has promoted bad policy (it has!). But, in my judgment, that is just the beginning of the conversation we need to have. The real issue at stake is NOT how infants are fed; the real issue is how mothers of infants are supposed to behave in order to qualify for the designation “good mother.”

There is nothing wrong with breastfeeding or unmedicated childbirth or attachment parenting if those are the choices that work best for individual women and their families; I chose to do all of them with my own children. But there is something very wrong with philosophical movements devoted to forcing those choices on other women, essentially disciplining their bodies for every moment of the 9 months of pregnancy, the hours of labor and childbirth, and the years of parenting beyond.

It constricts the shape of mothering and while it may be big business, it is bad for women.