Breastfeeding and the obsession with representation

Funny baby girl with mom make selfie on mobile phone

Yesterday I wrote about the role of class and race in natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy. Natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates, whether they realize it or not, define themselves in relation to poor women, often women of color.

One one hand, advocates claim to emulate poor indigenous women, whom they view as exotic, authentic and close to nature. On the other hand, they demonizing poor women (black and white) in their own countries whom they stigmatize as too ignorant to recognize the “truths” of natural childbirth and lactivism and too lazy to employ them when they learn of them.

I quoted from ‘The New Reproductive Regimes of Truth,’ a chapter in Alison Phipps book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age.

Phipps offers food for thought on a variety of issues including breastfeeding and the lactivist obsession with representation.

Phipps writes:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The central tenet of lactivism isn’t “breast is best”; it’s “breast-feeders are best.”[/pullquote]

The new reproductive politics is largely concerned with representations of birth and breastfeeding and attitudes towards them rather than how they are structurally framed. A key element of breastfeeding activism, or ‘lactivism’, is the general public’s reaction, with initiatives such as ‘nurse-ins’ … and campaigns to prevent social media sites such as Facebook from deleting pictures of mothers with their nurslings under obscenity rules.

The obsession with representation now extends to endless brelfies (breastfeeding selfies), as well as breastfeeding stunts wherein women breastfeed while wearing uniforms, etc. Lactivists refer approvingly to their obsession with representation by claiming they are “normalizing” breastfeeding.

But that’s not what’s really going on.

Such campaigns are an example of the politics of recognition, the identity-based activism in which issues around representation supplant those of structure and socio-economic redistribution.

If lactivists truly cared about what was best for babies and mothers, they’d spend far more time addressing economic barriers to breastfeeding, and no time at all posting pictures of themselves breastfeeding. But that’s hard, and in any case, it is far more enjoyable to coerce women, “for their own good,” into lactivist approved behaviors like rooming in (by closing well baby nurseries), then bemoan the purportedly ignorant and slothful poor who quit breastfeeding as soon as they are out the hospital door.

The project of “normalizing” breastfeeding,” encompassing brelfies, breastfeeding stunts and complaints about Facebook censoring, are forms of “virtue signaling.” What is virtue signaling?

[It] is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favor for certain political ideas [or] cultural happenings …

Virtue signaling is a form of personal micro-branding. As Phipps notes:

‘Natural’ birth and breastfeeding have become part of an identity package around organic or holistic parenting, while formula feeding and birth interventions (and in particular, caesarean sections) form aspects of a negative Other associated with other practices such as ‘cry-it-out’, vaccination and corporal punishment…

How does the lactivist obsession with representation intersect with the issue of class?

Lactivists represent poor indigenous women who have no choice to breastfeed as authentic and closer to nature, when the ugly reality is that there is no “authenticity” in a subsistence existence and the only thing they are closer to is death. They represent poor women who bottlefeed as ignorant and slothful, when the reality is that many work far harder for their children’s wellbeing (multiple low wage jobs) than privileged women who have husbands to support them, as well as a store of intellectual and social capital (e.g. college educations) paid for by their own privileged parents.

As Phipps explains, natural childbirth and lactivism:

… often play into broader class and ‘race’ antagonisms in which the white middle classes judge other social groups as ‘lacking’ and attempt, through education and occasionally through ridicule, to force them into the dominant mode.

The truth is that lactivism isn’t about what’s best for babies or mothers. It’s about what’s best for lactivists.

Lactivists themselves don’t have a clue to what lactivism really embodies. It isn’t about breastmilk, which in countries with clean water has only few benefits compared with formula. Lactivism reflects power relationships and philosophical beliefs about mothering, feminism and economic privilege.

The central tenet of lactivism isn’t “breast is best”; it’s “breast-feeders are best.”

The ancillary tenets are:

  • Ignore pain, inconvenience and  babies’ cries of hunger; if there’s no suffering, you aren’t really mothering.
  • Women can and should be judged by the function of their reproductive organs.
  • Institutions can and should violate women’s bodily autonomy to compel them to use their breasts to feed their babies.
  • The views and values of who don’t breastfeed can be ignored because these women have no moral agency; they are victims of formula marketing.

The lactivist obsession with representation is not an effort to normalize breastfeeding; it’s an effort to enforce a particular view of women while simultaneously ignoring the extraordinary privilege required to hold that view.

When I write in opposition to lactivism, many people — mothers, lactation consultants, some physicians — are incredulous. How can I be opposed to breastfeeding?

But I’m not opposed to breastfeeding; I breastfed my own four children. I’m opposed to the conceit that breastfeeders are better than other women, the beliefs that suffering is integral to mothering, that women have no right to control their own breasts, and that women who choose not to breastfeed are pawns of the formula industry, incapable of independent thought.

In short, I’m thoroughly opposed to the notion that breastfeeders are best.

I don’t want to normalize breastfeeding; I believe that we should normalize support for all mothers, regardless of how they feed their babies.