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My sister-in-law Charlotte was recently loudly admonished by a flight attendant on an international flight for allowing her “breast to fall out” after she fell asleep while nursing her baby. A strong advocate for breastfeeding, Charlotte has shared with me her own discomfort with public breastfeeding because it is considered gross, matronly, and “unsexy.”

I heard this over and over again from women I have interviewed for my research:  Women who breastfed often feel they have to cover and hide while breastfeeding at family functions. As one mom noted, “Family members might be uncomfortable so I leave room to nurse—but miss out on socializing.”  This brings on feelings of isolation and alienation. Because of the “dirty looks” and clear discomfort by others, women reported not wanting to breastfeed in any situation that could be considered “public.”

Meanwhile, I flip through the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair and see this ad:


We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer. Yet, we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child on an overnight flight.

What’s happening here? These campaigns send contradictory messages to women about their breasts and the way women should use them, but they have something in common as well: both breastfeeding advocacy and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns tend to reduce women to body parts that reflect the social construction of gender and sexuality.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns explicitly adopt a sexual stance, focusing on men’s desire for breasts and women’s desire to have breasts to make them attractive to men. Breast milk advocates focus on the breast as essential for good motherhood. Breastfeeding mothers sit at the crossroads: Their breasts are both sexualized and essential for their babies, so they can either breastfeed and invoke disgust, or feed their child formula and attract the stigma of being a bad mother.

Both breastfeeding advocacy programs and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns demonstrate how socially constructed notions of ownership and power converge with the sexualization and objectification of women’s breasts. And, indeed, whether breast feeding or suffering breast cancer, women report feeling helpless and not in control of their bodies. As Jazmine Walker has written, efforts to “help” women actually “[pit] women against their own bodies.”

Instead, we need to shift away from a breast-centered approach to a women-centered approach for both types of campaigns. We need to, as Jazmine Walker advocates, “teach women and girls how to navigate and control their experiences with health care professionals,” instead of pushing pink garb and products and sexualizing attempts to raise awareness like “save the ta-tas.”  Likewise, we need to support women’s efforts to breastfeed, if they choose to, instead of labeling “bad moms” if they do not or cannot. Equipped with information and bolstered by real sources of support, women will be best able to empower themselves.

Jennifer Rothchild, PhD is in the sociology and gender, women, & sexuality studies departments at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She is the author of Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal and is currently doing research on the politics of breastfeeding.

One of the better things about social media is that if you manage to curate social feeds with just the right balance of entertaining spirits and brilliant intellects, it delivers unto you amazing content you would have otherwise missed.

I woke up one of these days — Sunday? Monday? I’m dissertating — to find dozens of messages from social media comrades about John Oliver’s take-down of for-profit colleges. You can watch it here:

It’s very satisfying.

It is particularly satisfying if you’ve experienced what education professor Kevin Kinser rightly points out is the oddly sporadic nature of public interest in a 100 year old institutional practice of selling education for profit. Oliver is one of the best in the entertainment-as-news genre. He reaches people that mainstream media does not. He makes difficult issues palatable for general, concerned audiences.

And if you think about debt, precarity, credentialism, and financial cronyism, like I do, it is gratifying to see someone like Oliver take on an issue most people could care less about until someone they care about borrows $50,000 for a veterinary assistant’s degree. Then they’re emailing you like the roof is on fire.

I do have a greater hope, though, than that something I study benefit from the spotlight of people like Oliver.

I wish we could talk about impoverished educations without ignoring impoverished conditions.

Here’s the thing, for-profit colleges have manipulated a system primed for manipulation. No doubt about that. But eliminating for-profit colleges does not eliminate the conditions that cause people to seek them out.

By and large, none of the people I have interviewed, observed or worked with is an idiot without agency. They have sometimes been lied to and led astray; occasionally they are bamboozled by sparkly advertising and aggressive sales tactics. They do sign documents they do not completely understand and they trust authority that has little incentive to counsel as opposed to sell. All of that is true.

But most students picked up the phone to “call today; start tomorrow” because they have been unemployed, underemployed, marginalized, and otherwise made vulnerable by socio-economic conditions.

So, by all means, crib Oliver’s letter. It’s a doozy.

But maybe keep in mind that moving inequality around isn’t exactly the same as addressing inequality.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.  Her doctoral research is a comparative study of the expansion of for-profit colleges.  You can follow her on twitter and at her blog, where this post originally appeared.

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Last year Lynne Grumet set the internet a-flutter when she appeared on the cover of TIME magazine breastfeeding her toddler. Reactions were largely negative, often reflecting unease at the open display of a sexualized body part being used to feed a child older than the age we generally find acceptable. Others objected to what they saw as the sensationalism of the photo. Grumet later posed on the cover of another magazine in a pose that focused on bonding and intimacy, commonly cited as benefits by breastfeeding advocates. The entire episode tapped into larger cultural anxieties about appropriate mothering.

And as Jill Lepore explains in The Mansion of Happiness, it’s just the latest round in the changing discourse about breastfeeding; in the mid-1800s, images of breastfeeding mothers became a fad in the U.S. The use of wet nurses had never been as common in the U.S. as in Europe, and it became even less popular by the early 1800s; breastfeeding your own child became a central measure of your worth as a mother.  Cultural constructions of femininity became highly centered on motherhood and the special bond between a mother and her children in the Victorian era.

As daguerreotypes became available, women began to pose breastfeeding their infants, capturing them in this most essential of maternal roles:




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Cosetra has created a Pinterest board of vintage photos and paintings of breastfeeding that has more examples.

Within decades, American women suddenly seemed to lose the ability to adequately feed their babies, just as infant formula hit the market. Doctors continued to push breastfeeding, but cultural perceptions changed, and with them the social construction of femininity. Rather than being a symbol of maternalism, breastfeeding seemed incompatible with femininity — or, specifically, with white upper-class femininity. Breastfeeding didn’t mesh well with ideas of delicate, refined white women; it was too animal-like, too uncivilized. As Lepore relates, by the early 1900s, a study in Boston found that 9 out of 10 poor mothers breastfed, but only 17% of wealthy mothers did.

By the 1950s, only 20% of mothers nursed their children. Then, ideas about motherhood changed once again; suddenly comparatively privileged, white women were drawn to movements that advocated breastfeeding. Formula came under increased scrutiny. And so continued the ongoing cultural debate over breastfeeding, motherhood, and proper femininity.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.  Sources: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University (direct link to daguerreotypes here); Marvelous Kiddoliveauctioneers.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Along with “work/life balance” and other tired topics, an evergreen issue in the media remains the controversies surrounding breastfeeding.  Less than six months ago, Jamie Lynne Grumet lit up the blogosphere by posing for the cover of TIME Magazine while breastfeeding her standing toddler.  Outcry included pronouncements that the image was almost pornographic, psychologically damaging to her child, and exploitative of her white, twenty-something good looks.  The drama of the image worked as the magazine flew off shelves and was named one of the top ten most controversial covers by the New York Daily News.

Within the “lactivist” community there seemed to be double-edged concern — on one hand, glee that an image of a breastfeeding woman was so publicly displayed — on the other, anger that the image so clearly did not depict the intimacy and bonding between mother and child that they insist breastfeeding promotes.

Sensing an opportunity to “set the record straight” as well as launch their own uptick in cover attention, the nonprofit quarterly magazine Pathways to Family Wellness persuaded Grumet to pose for them, this time surrounded by her husband, adopted son, and cradling her nursing naked now 4-year-old child in her lap.  The inclusion of other family members changes the image from one of solo defiance to a message about her family system.  On the cover, Grumet still looks directly at the camera, not at her feeding child, but her glance is far from defiant.

Grumet agreed to pose again in order to send a different message about breastfeeding, one she preferred.  Grumet has said that this image portrays toddler breastfeeding more realistically, “incorporating the husband and siblings.” Yet, the multicultural family portrait has its own sense of staging.   The idyllic family pile-on seems hardly part of everyday life, much less every feeding.  Both images – part of the wider debate over breastfeeding — are carefully crafted to tell a particular story.

Some critics have mentioned that while Grumet’s intention may have been to reframe the image of breastfeeding, perhaps unwittingly again, she has contributed to the fanning of the flames around this issue. Others have accused her of “milking the moment.”   The breastfeeding support website KellyMom tracked down the three other mothers who were all photographed for the TIME cover. KellyMom interviewed them about their experiences during the shoot, then reaction to, and fallout from the cover.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the debate, individual women can often seem like pawns in these ever-intermittent media storms.


Elline Lipkin, PhD, is a Research Scholar with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women.  She is the author of Girls’ Studies and The Errant Thread, recipient of the Kore Press First Book Award for Poetry. She tweets at @girlsstudies.

A couple of years ago I posted a segment from Sesame Street featuring Jesse Jackson leading kids in a chant of “I am somebody,” including the lines “I may be poor” and “I maybe on welfare.” I wrote about the changes in public discourse about welfare since the 1970s, and how surprising the segment seems now.

Aliyah C. sent in two more Sesame Street videos that illustrate changing norms, particularly regarding what we think it’s acceptable to expose children to. In both cases, a woman is breastfeeding her child in public (in the first case, openly; in the second, covered by a blanket) and explains to an onlooker that the baby is drinking milk from her breast:

Despite the fact that breastfeeding is widely hailed now as the ideal method of feeding babies, Aliyah said it was hard for her to imagine the topic being treated so casually on a children’s show now, or a woman using the word “breast” on Sesame Street without the show facing a lot of outrage.

Chloe L. sent along an analysis of a post-Thanksgiving advertisement she received in the mail:

The ad, Chloe points out, manages to cover quite a bit of ground.   The tag line at the very top (“Keep feeding yourself with shoes, not food!”) tells women to forgo eating in favor of figurative consumption. This resonates with the cultural expectation that women’s primary purpose is to be, as Chloe puts it, “aesthetically pleasing for others.” She is also presented as a sexualized object. Chloe again:

Though we cannot see more than legs, we know that it is a woman by her feminine high-heeled booties and shaved legs… [she] is presumably naked with her bra hanging on the door knob.

The image, then, harmonizes nicely with the copy; both suggest that women should make strong efforts to shape and display their bodies in ways that conform to cultural expectations.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Prolific sender-inner Dmitriy T.M. found a fascinating PSA from the New York State Department of Health aimed at encouraging women to breastfeed (via the NYT). What’s their angle? Why, breastfeeding as a diet plan, of course! See for yourself:

They certainly  manage to get the tone of a diet commercial down perfectly. And don’t ever forget, ladies: one of your main responsibilities as a new mom is to lose the weight as quickly as possible.

As Lauren Feeney points out at The Daily Need, getting women to increase rates of breastfeeding will likely require more than efforts to change individual behaviors — it requires changes in the workplace and family leave policies that make it possible for women to realistically combine breastfeeding with the demands of their jobs.

Breastfeeding is widely believed to carry significant health advantages for infants and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would like to see all mothers breastfeed their children for at least 12 months, with no supplemental food for the first six.

Breastfeeding, however, is a big job.  Even if a newborn takes to breastfeeding without any problems (some mothers struggle mightily with less-than-cooperative infants), mothers must feed their children around the clock (they now recommend every two hours, 24-hours a day for newborns).  If it takes a half hour to settle the baby down and fill it up, you’ve got an hour and a half before the next feeding time.

Mothers who have the privilege to stay home with their babies — for three, six, or even twelve months — then, are going to find it much easier to follow the AAP guidelines.  For mothers who return to work, those who work in flexible positions that award some degree of autonomy and respect will also be more likely to continue breastfeeding.   In other words, a lawyer with a private office and a work schedule under her own control can stop several times a day and express milk to bring home to her child; in contrast, a woman working the cash register at McDonald’s with a boss hovering over her doesn’t have the same autonomy or privacy and may be forced to give up breastfeeding.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that breastfeeding rates are higher among more educated women and White and Asian women.  Both of these variables tend to correlate with class privilege:

There are some interesting things, however, that don’t correlate with this class thesis.  First Hispanic women are more likely to breastfeed than White women and people with less than a high school education are more likely to breastfeed, especially at six and 12 months, than people with a high school education.

I can think of some reasons why… I’ll let you discuss it in the comments.

Borrowed from Philip Cohen’s Family Inequality Blog.  For more data on rates of breastfeeding, including U.S. state comparisons and changes in rates over time, see here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.