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This past September, a new initiative went into effect in NYC. The initiative, called Latch On NYC, is intended to support women’s right to exclusively breastfeed their infants, and to support women in that endeavor. To achieve its goal, the project involves a breastfeeding awareness campaign, and some voluntary limitations on hospitals—specifically, they are to limit new mothers’ access to formula.  The initiative emerges out of an increased understanding of breastfeeding’s benefits to infant health, among other things.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge the feminist quagmire that I’m entering by talking about breastfeeding. It is a contentious issue, and rightfully so. Even though feminist communities may not agree, at the core of their arguments is an acknowledgement of the social conditions that shape women’s experiences of child bearing and rearing, and the necessity of empowering women to live meaningful, autonomous lives. On the one hand, breastfeeding is often seen as part of a patriarchal essentialism that ties women inextricably and completely to their reproductive capacity (this article at Jezebel touches on this kind of feminist argument). Freeing women from these types of expectations (even from the requirement to be a mother) has been a primary goal of mainstream feminism in the US for decades. Formula gave many (predominantly white, middle class) women the ability to nurture careers and babies simultaneously. On the other hand, for many women, breastfeeding is a luxury that they have continually been denied. Working class and poor women, often women of color and immigrant women, face major barriers to breastfeeding—long work hours or multiple jobs, caretaking jobs that require women to be away from home for extended times, nutrient-poor food, health concerns and lack of access to medical consultation, etc. As documented by Dorothy Roberts and others, American society has long impeded the reproductive autonomy of women of color and poor women. And regardless of class status, the social stigma against public breastfeeding has, itself, been very restrictive.

Where exactly does Latch On NYC fit in this imbroglio? Well, it addresses some concerns and overlooks others. For example, the public awareness campaign—posters which feature angelic babes from varying racial/ethnic groups, and the slogan “Breast milk is best for your baby. It’s your right to feed your baby only breast milk and get the support you need”—may help dispel some of the social stigma. Additionally, by encouraging hospitals to develop better breastfeeding programs, we may be able to provide better information to new mothers, especially those who might not have had access to lactation consultants in the past.

But its emphasis on “you” individualizes what is actually a social (set of) problem(s). Like much of the public discourse on breastfeeding, the focus tends to be on women’s choices—in this case, to breastfeed or to use formula—and how their choices impact children. Sure, there is recognition that hospitals contribute in important ways to this choice, but the campaign still emphasizes the mother’s ultimate role in doing what is best for her baby. Just under the surface lurks a problematic sense of responsibility, a space to use guilt and blame to force a mother’s hand (see Sutherland, 2010 for more on mothering and guilt/shame). And more than that, this emphasis on the mother’s choice renders invisible those structural conditions that feminists from all backgrounds have questioned. The campaign does nothing to get employers to provide safe and hygienic spaces for women to feed or pump when necessary. It does not address the conditions poor women face—for example, it does nothing to longstanding structures of inequality (lower quality health care facilities in lower class neighborhoods, racial inequities in occupational and educational settings) that interfere with women’s reproductive and childrearing choices. Nor does it address the essentialist beliefs that many women want to reject.

To top it off, I don’t think that this campaign is even really about women and enabling their choices or rights. If the failure to address the many conditions that enable or constrain breastfeeding doesn’t convince you, perhaps the posters will. The priority, the person who matters, is the baby; the mom, the “you,” is implicit. Just like the famous fetal images that appeared in Time Magazine and were later appropriated by the anti-abortion movement, which seem to depict the fetus as independent from its mother’s body (see a short comment here), the breastfeeding mother and her body are all but erased by the Latch On campaign. I’m sure there are other ways to interpret the images—and I’m open to hearing them—but I am nervous about a campaign “for women” that seems so uninformed by feminist theory or the long, problematic history of infringements on women’s reproductive rights, and that literally leaves women out of the picture.

Further Reading

Roberts, Dorothy. 1999. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books.

Sutherland, Jean-Anne. 2010. Mothering, Guilt and Shame. Sociology Compass 4(5):310-321.

Taylor, Tiffany. 2011. Re-examining Cultural Contradictions: Mothering Ideology and the Intersections of Class, Gender, and Race. Sociology Compass 5(10): 898-907.

Woman and a baby (Wikimedia)

Mothering has been in the news lately. TIME Magazine’s cover story on breastfeeding in May caused quite a stir; so did Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece for the Atlantic, which discussed the difficulty women face when trying to balance work and family. TIME’s piece points to the increasing pressure on women to do everything right when it comes to being a mom: The rise in attachment parenting (even in a watered-down form) places great responsibility on women to do all they can, and more, to take care of their children, even as their presence in the workforce grows. Slaughter explains how the current structure of the American economy prevents mothers from being able to invest fully in child-rearing. This is an important point. As a society that claims to hold strong family values, we don’t do much to support families. But despite some good points, these articles leave much to be desired. The numerous responses that have appeared all over the Internet have tried to address these gaps, but there are a few points that I’d like bring up here.


Amanda (at age 18) with her 2 moms

An article in Social Science Research is causing quite a stir among sociologists, and is sure to fuel the flames of the debate surrounding gay marriage. Mark Regenerus, sociologist at UT Austin, has just published results from the New Family Structure Study (also see his Slate article). He suggests that children raised in heterosexual intact families fare better than children raised by gays and lesbians. This goes against previous research which indicated the opposite: that children of gay and lesbian parents had the same or better outcomes as those raised by heterosexual parents (one study, for example, showed fewer behavioral problems among children raised by lesbians). The responses critiquing Regenerus’ work emerged quickly (for example, see a critique here). In fact, many notable sociologists who study families, parenting, and sexualities spoke out against its method and findings.


By Rachael Liberman

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, titled “The Fat Trap,” Contributing Writer Peggy Orenstein problematizes the role that parenting has on daughters, eating habits and body image. She writes, “Parents, then, are left in quandary, worrying about both the perils of obesity and those of anorexia. How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body?” Orenstein then admits that when she knew she was having a daughter, she suggested that her husband take control of the feeding regiment. She confesses, “It’s not that I’m extreme; it’s just that like most – heck all – of the women I know, my relationship to food, to my weight, to my body is … complicated. I did not want to pass that pathology on to my daughter.” After citing statistics on the increasing condition of child obesity (Centers for Disease Control) as well as the presence of girls and disordered behavior while trying to lose weight (The Journal of Adolescent Health), Orenstein stresses that, “At best, weight is a delicate territory between mothers and their girls.”

In the end, Orenstein tells readers that she decided to actively “model” healthy eating habits and exercise instead of police her daughter’s behavior. However, the article ends with an abrupt reminder that parenting is not the only source of knowledge production regarding eating and body image. She writes, “Still, my daughter lives in the world. She watches Disney movies. She plays with Barbies. So although I was saddened, I was hardly surprised one day when, at six years old, she looked at me, frowned and said, ‘Mama, don’t get f-a-t, O.K.? At least, I thought, she didn’t hear it from me.” Where are we to go from here? Is Orenstein content with body image messages as long as she isn’t the culprit? Is the troubled, fear-based relationship between mothers and daughters the real story here? How do gender politics factor into this discussion? Interestingly, Orenstein opens up an encouraging discussion on eating, body image and the relationship between mothers and daughters only to ultimately surrender to commercial pop culture (including television, advertising, etc.) as a force that will undoubtedly undo her modeling technique. more...