I was born in 1951. My mother wanted to breastfeed me, but breastfeeding was completely out of fashion among affluent white people. Her doctor said, “Well, go ahead, I guess, but I can’t help you. I don’t know anything about it.” So when she ran into issues, she asked the the Black women at the bus stop, waiting to go home from their jobs as cleaning ladies and maids in the Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore where I was born. They apparently thought she was kind of dumb, but were very helpful. (I never asked her why she didn’t ask her mother …)
Photo by Paolo Patruno.
Things change. Now breastfeeding is what affluent White mothers do, and harder for working, unemployed, or impoverished Black mothers. And bearing in mind that not every mother can breastfeed, and not every mother wants to breastfeed, there’s no doubt that parents and babies are well served by having breastfeeding as an option.
According to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, one of the leading experts
on the current state of breastfeeding in the U.S., breastfeeding is the “most effective
global public health intervention for child survival.” Breast milk provides critical
nutrients to babies when they need them the most, supporting a variety of early
developments in the body, including brain development. It also transfers necessary
antibodies from mother to child that protect against disease, and wards off other early
childhood dangers such as SIDS and asthma.
The Center for Social Inclusion has released a long, detailed report
in .pdf form, detailing the issues that contribute to making breastfeeding challenging. Two things make this report especially important: first, the focus on structural
Often, when we think about racism, we focus on individual attitudes or behaviors,
which is important. Sometimes, we look at how particular institutions treat people of
different races differently, which is also important. But to truly understand the root
causes of racial inequity and thereby produce solutions that work for everyone, we
need to take a structural race approach. That means looking at the First Food system
through the lens of policies, institutions, and people—together.
and second, the storytelling style, focusing on three fictional mothers:
Sarah is White and lives in a suburb of Detroit. Her husband is a doctor at the nearby
hospital, and she volunteers full-time for a local nonprofit. Nicole is Black and lives in a
small town in Alabama. She is a teacher at the middle school and her husband is earning
his MSW through online classes at the University of Alabama. Lara is Latina and lives in
Los Angeles with her husband and mother. She and her husband both work for (and met
through) the city’s transit agency; her mother runs the home and receives Social Security.
The report follows all three women through their breastfeeding journey, interlacing their stories with statistics and information about breastfeeding in their various communities. The information is detailed, clear, and excellent, and the conclusions are convincing.
At each stage, smart policy interventions with robust implementation can make it easier
for all women to choose to breastfeed if they want to.
We seek policy interventions that truly address the root causes that are linked to
breastfeeding outcomes, especially lower rates for women of color. We know that
no single policy alone can dismantle structural inequity. This takes reform, including
diversification of the medical sector and those providing services, as well as changes to
and better implementation and promotion of existing policies like the ACA breastfeeding
provisions. But it also takes transformation, including directing funding streams to
challenge all barriers at the neighborhood level. We therefore need a variety of policy
and practice interventions that support women and communities of color to truly achieve
higher breastfeeding rates for all mothers.
The report goes on to detail these interventions; read the whole thing.
Why is breastfeeding a body image issue? For me, it’s because breasts have been fetishized, banned, turned into objects of the male gaze, commodified, judged, and generally objectified, often at the expense of remembering their biological function. So it’s important to me to remember what breasts do and more important that anyone who wants to be able to provide food for their babies from their breasts should be supported in doing so.