Black Breastfeeding Advocacy: It Takes All Styles

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stereotypes within the African American community can marginalize some would-be breastfeeding mothers. Kimberly Seals Allers says health benefits should be the all-important focus; not personal styles in dressing, eating or caring for your hair.

(WOMENSENEWS)--There is a pervasive and damaging stereotype among African Americans about what a black breastfeeding mother looks like and by extension, who can legitimately represent our community in breastfeeding advocacy.

This can undermine the important work of saving black women and ensuring healthy, thriving black babies.

Among white mothers, the prevailing stereotype is that women such as Angelina Jolie, Gisele Bundchen and Gwen Stefani breastfeed. These women are affluent, successful, fabulous, stylish and very much to be envied and emulated. They impart cachet to breastfeeding, and often a "bad mother" judgment if you don't.

Bookmark and Share

This is a marked change from the early 1900s, when white, wealthy women led the march to formula feeding. People of color followed. But when white elites backtracked to the breast, not so many African-Americans followed. But the bridge had been built joining white women of different lifestyles in the breastfeeding cause.

This bridge still feels broken in my community. Among African Americans, the stereotype is that "Earth Mothers" breastfeed. You know the Erykah Badu's, the sisters with beautiful African print cloth head wraps, who wear their hair in its natural state, eat raw foods or a vegan diet and delivered their babies "naturally" at home or in birthing tubs. I adore these black women.

I, on the other hand, am rarely seen without three-to-four-inch heels and a designer handbag. My hair is chemically relaxed and I'm not afraid to weave in a few tracks when I want to feel fabulous. I often prefer (organic) meat with my meal. I don't wear Kente cloth or cowry shells. Oh and hold on to your uteruses, because, even though I ended up having two C-sections, my original birth plan said one thing: Epidural, please. In bold letters.

Yet, I enthusiastically breastfed both of my children for 15- and 13-months respectively. I struggled, laughed, cried, sacrificed, ooh and aahhh-ed through those months even when my well-intentioned mother said, "Breastfeeding is for poor people," and I had minimal social support and zero multi-generational support.

The nuanced challenges of breastfeeding while black persist regardless of your hair, wardrobe or lifestyle choices. In my work, I have seen women of all walks, looks, shapes and sizes passionately embrace breastfeeding.

Despite my own lack of support around breastfeeding, I am committed to working to increase awareness of breastfeeding in our vulnerable communities and to thinking about innovative ways to address the 40-year racial disparity in breastfeeding rates that transcends socio-economic lines.

Black babies are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white infants before their first birthday; a disparity the Centers for Disease Control estimates could shrink by 50 percent simply by increasing breastfeeding rates among their moms.

Does my bling mean a thing, when respiratory infections, asthma and childhood obesity run rampant among our infants and children and studies show that exclusive breastfeeding can significantly reduce these risks? When our neighborhoods are virtual deserts when it comes to meaningful breastfeeding resources and support while they are simultaneously flooded with aggressive infant formula marketing?

Does the state of our hair really matter when black women are dying from childbirth-related complications at four times the rate of white women?

In New York City, the problem is particularly acute--black women are nearly eight times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than whites. In California, black women accounted for only 6 percent of births in the state, but they represented 22 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in 2002 and 2003. Breastfeeding has health benefits for the mother too.

Unfortunately, oftentimes when Jimmy Choo and I walk into a room of other breastfeeding black women to learn from them and exchange ideas, I often sense more side-eye glances because of my appearance and background. The supportive, let's roll-up-our-sleeves together love often escapes me. I am finding that the stereotypes about what a black woman breastfeeding advocate should look like are becoming an unwelcome obstacle to my intent and purpose. I feel isolated and much like an interloper in a room of brown faces.

2 COMMENTS | Login or Sign Up to post comments


Reproductive Health

When 'Breast is Best' Is Not Enough


Breastfeeding Moms Found to Have Vitamin D Deficiency, Study Finds

This article speaks directly to me! I too am a professional educated black woman who loves her designer bags and shoes and (gasp) straightens her hair. But I also breastfed my son for 12 months and am currently breastfeeding my 5 month old daughter. I love breastfeeding and believe that it's one of the best choices a mother can make for her child. Many of my college friends who had children refused to even try to breastfeed, which made me wonder how well they educated themselves about the benefits of breastfeeding.

I wonder how we could fix this issue in our community, because it seems that even the "educated" black women are completely clueless about breastfeeding and its many benefits.

I think you have really hit the ball out the park with your summary of breastfeeding in the African American Community.I hope we can use this informative tool to help others think about the stereotype and boxes we put each other in innocently,not maliciously.We sometimes find it hard to except pure honest love affection and concern.Let me start by thanking you for even caring enough about us to share this information.The word is getting out we are slowly getting back to breastfeeding but we need all of us in our community to help.Yea it would be nice to hear MRS.JaZ or Halle speak up but we have our intelligent first lady Michelle Obama and there are black breastfeeding advocates all over this nation trying to reach out. So all is not lost we are getting there.
Yes it does take all styles and I like yours.

Terry Jo Curtis IBCLC
Indiana Black Breastfeeding Coalition