Every day in America, a breastfeeding mom is kicked out of a public place, asked to go nurse in a closet or bathroom, or otherwise shamed simply for doing what her body biologically does as part of the normal course of childbirth. Call me crazy, but policing how women can use their bodies used to be something feminists got riled up about. Whether you choose to breastfeed or formula feed, every woman deserves the same protections when exercising that choice in public.
Instead, because breasts are viewed as the sexual objects of men or the marketing tools of the beer and burger industries, when they are used for their normal biological purpose, women are told that is unacceptable. Worse, too many women have drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid, often serving as the the most judgmental actors and harshest critics of other women.
How exactly is this supporting womanhood?
To be fair, historically mainstream feminist ideology has resisted breastfeeding advocacy because of feminism’s aim to reject cultural norms that use guilt and coercion to label women’s behavior as “good” or “bad,” and that is often the perception around most breastfeeding awareness campaigns. But taking a position to resist breastfeeding advocacy without looking at who is peddling guilt among mothers or at the public health consequence does a great disservice to all women. If you look closely, you will see that it has been commercial interests—which often derive their power and purse from a woman’s need for identity and the vulnerability of the transition to motherhood—that have been peddling dangerous messages and making millions from the so-called mommy wars. Pitting women against each other distracts us from focusing on the unfair, systemic barriers, policy gaps, and profit motives, and this keeps us in a simplistic, individualized conversation. When breastfeeding is framed as a personal choice, it need not have anything to do with greedy corporations, body politics, employer practices, or the lack of a federal maternity leave policy.
And speaking of all women, building a broad-based women’s movement that doesn’t include all the roles women will play throughout their lives will never get us to the “Promised Land.” Statistics report that almost 80% of women will become mothers at some point in their lives. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of American women in their mid-40s who are childless is now at its lowest point in 20 years. So, if the reproductive rights movement is only focused on preventing pregnancy and terminating unwanted pregnancies (all very important rights), but it doesn’t fight for women if they actually choose to use their reproductive organs and take on mothering work, then we will not have a true women’s movement that represents all the protections women need for their life continuum. We need feminist voices supporting the right to feed and pushing for women’s rights post-pregnancy. And that means talking about breastfeeding. After all, breastfeeding completes the reproductive cycle by feeding that which our reproductive organs produced.
The ultimate connection between breastfeeding and feminism is that in a truly equitable society, women would have the capacity to pursue both their productive and reproductive work without penalty. This brings me to a “truth bomb,” and it’s a sobering acknowledgement that often gets me in trouble. It is time to fully admit that in our very earnest and necessary effort to be viewed as equal to men, that we forgot to advocate for the things that make us uniquely women, such as birth and lactation. This was an unintended consequence, but the realities cannot be ignored. Women are forced into male work patterns, expected to return to work just two weeks after giving childbirth as if nothing happened. And if you do lactate, please go hide in another room. Sorry, but society does not want to see your breasts doing womanly things. However, please feel free to keep jiggling them, adorning them, and pushing them up as much as you like.
As women, we have to wake up to the ways we are told and sold what are acceptable uses of our bodies or acceptable pursuits. If we sweat for hours in the gym, use painful waist trainers, pop diet pills, dedicate time to counting nuts in color-coded containers, and sacrifice foods we love all for the sake of a perfect body, then people will cheer us on for our commitment. The minute that we express any effort, time commitment, or temporary discomfort with breastfeeding, we are told to quit. Women who have endured painful beauty treatments, tattoos, and piercings will turn around and say they won’t breastfeed because it hurts, and they say thus because we’ve been told that it is socially acceptable to be temporarily uncomfortable for beauty or for art, but never for our infants.
This is not about whether you breastfeed or formula feed. My own infant was given formula when she needed it. But this is about staying woke to the systems and social norms that put profits before infant and maternal health and undermine women when they become mothers. We all deserve better.
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist and nationally recognized infant health advocate. A former writer at Fortune and senior editor at Essence, she is the author of The Big Letdown—How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding (St. Martin’s Press). Follow her on Twitter at @iamKSealsAllers