How lactivists use language to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed

shut up girl

A political pollster once said, “If you frame the problem, you own it.”

He meant that if you could convince others to refer to the problem in your terms, you are almost assured of having control over an issue. For example, consider the way people frame abortion. Those who think women should be allowed to control their own reproductive organs refer to themselves as “pro-choice.” Abortion opponents recognized early on that “anti-choice” would not make a good moniker, so they refer to themselves as “pro-life,” despite the fact that restricting abortion leads to maternal deaths. Language can be used to signal views and to attempt to persuade others to those views.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Breast Is Best frames women who can’t or don’t breastfeed as inferior, abnormal, lazy liars; Fed Is Best frames them as loving mothers.[/pullquote]

Lactivists have attempted to use language in this way and not merely to signal their views or to persuade others to those views. They also use language to marginalize any woman who does not share their views. That is both anti-feminist and unethical.


Lactivists frame breastfeeding as “best” despite the fact that for many babies and mothers it isn’t best at all. “Breast is Best” is arguably the most powerful frame that lactivists have employed. While it is theoretically meant to refer to the relative merits of breastmilk and infant formula, its secondary purpose is to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed. What kind of mother gives her infant “second best”? Only a bad mother. In three simple words, lactivists have labeled women who use formula as bad mothers.

Never mind that breastmilk is NOT best for all babies. Never mind that many women cannot make enough breastmilk to fully nourish an infant. Lactivists have language to erase those facts.

For many years, lactivists have framed insufficient breastmilk as rare. That’s not what the scientific evidence shows, but lactivists have told that falsehood so many times that many of them now believe it themselves. It’s a falsehood with a specific purpose; it is meant to characterize women who report low supply as liars. It’s hard to think of a more effective way to silence women who can’t breastfeed then to imply that they are liars who are only trying to justify the fact that they are bad mothers.

Lactivists frame all breastfeeding problems as due to “lack of support.” This serves two purposes. One: to marginalize and silence women who don’t want to use their breasts to nourish their babies. It is basically an accusation of false consciousness. The second purpose is economic. If successful breastfeeding is simply a matter of support, the reasoning goes, we should just hire more breastfeeding support people.

Lactivists have framed promoting breastfeeding as “normalizing” breastfeeding. The implication is not subtle: women who can’t or don’t breastfeed are abnormal.

Social media have become an important components in an all out effort to marginalize and silence women who can’t or don’t breastfeed. They intensively mediate breastfeeding discourse, allowing only that discourse that supports the preferred frames.

Lactivists frame breastfeeding supportive websites and Facebook pages as islands within a culture that is not supportive of breastfeeding. That’s a convenient fiction; fiction because it’s hard to imagine a society that has ever been more supportive of breastfeeding than this one and convenient because it allows for the literal silencing of women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed by deleting their posts and comments. There’s no better way to promote the frame that breastfeeding problems are rare than by literally erasing women’s attempts to share those problems.

Lactivist allow the mention of breastfeeding difficulties if they can frame them as surmountable. Women are allowed to present their problems on social media if they are asking for the guidance of the group, blame themselves, acknowledge that with enough effort they can fix the problem, and continue breastfeeding regardless of whether their babies are dehydrated, jaundiced and starving to death.

Lactivists frame pediatricians and any other providers who are not explicitly commmitted to the agreed upon frames as “uneducated.” This serves a variety of purposes. It frames lactation professionals as having knowledge that others do not have (even though many pediatricians and obstetricians are women who have breastfed). It allows breastfeeding professionals to advise women to ignore pediatricians when they dare to value the health of the baby above the act of breastfeeding and it allows lactivists to silence women who fear for their baby’s health as gullible for believing other providers.

Lactivists frame breastfeeding as both natural (implying ease and an absence of problems) and hypermedicalized: requiring books, classes, coaches, mechanical breast pumps, herbs and pharmaceutical galactologues to increase supply, elimination diets, surgery on babies tongues to correct latch and a raft of expensive consumer goods like breastfeeding pillows, clothing, salves and foods. This double framing means that though breastfeeding is touted as natural, women who aren’t successful at breastfeeding can be portrayed as unwilling to do the hard work and spend the money to succeed.

Lactivists frames are anti-feminist. The frames are deliberately intended to deprive women of choice in infant feeding. The frames are deliberately intended to marginalize women who can’t or don’t breastfeed as inferior, abnormal, lazy and victims of false consciousness.

Lactivists frames are unethical because they put the brains and lives of infants at risk. A substantial proportion of mothers (as many as 1 in 7) cannnot produce enough milk to fully nourish an infant; those babies brains and lives are at risk from hypoglycemia, dehydration, and severe jaundice. The frame that insufficient breastmilk is “rare” is nothing more than a bald-faced lie. The frame that formula supplementation is harmful ignores the science that show judicious formula supplementation increases the odds of extended breastfeeding. The frame that pacifiers interfere with breastfeeding ignores the science that shows that they save infant lives. When lactivists lie, babies die.

The intensive lactivist efforts at framing explain the rabid hatred directed at the Fed Is Best Foundation. With three little words, “Fed Is Best,” Christie del Castillo Hegyi, MD and Jody Segrave Daly RN, IBCLC have blown apart lactivst frames with a more accurate frame, one that doesn’t marginalize and silence women who can’t or don’t breastfeed.

Instead of framing these mothers as inferior, abnormal, lazy liars, Fed Is Best frames them as loving.

Instead of framing them as women who are avoiding their most important responsibility, they frame them as bucking a tide of hostility and abuse to protect their babies above all.

Most importantly, instead of protecting breastfeeding, they protect babies from brain damage and death.

That’s why lactivists save a special frame just for them; Christie and Jody (both of whom breastfed) are framed as anti-breastfeeding when they are really pro babies and mothers.