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Our mandatory breast-feeding fetish: Race, class, big business and the new politics of motherhood

Some reports suggest breast-feeding’s benefits can be overstated. So why such public and moral pressure behind it?


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Courtney Jung
November 27, 2015 8:00pm (UTC)

Yummy Mummy is a small store in the middle of a quietly commercial block of Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue. Flanked by a dog accessory store and a beauty salon, it is surrounded by expensive boutiques specializing in children. A quick glance reveals a children’s optician, a children’s photographer, a handful of children’s clothing stores, and a nanny agency. Tastefully decorated and brimming with designer apparel and accessories for nursing mothers, Yummy Mummy fits right in. Its plum brown awning greets customers and passers-by with a friendly, if pointed, message: happy breastfeeding.

Located on the Upper East Side, just one block away from the mansions and penthouses of Park Avenue, Yummy Mummy is a self-styled “breastfeeding emporium.” A steady stream of new mothers pushing state-of-the-art strollers flock here to buy everything from bottles and bras to “hip, stylish” nursing clothes and breastfeeding supplements like Lactation Cookies. As it happens, Lactation Cookies look just like ordinary chocolate-chip cookies, but they include ingredients such as oats, brewers’ yeast, and flax seed to boost breast-milk production. (Yummy Mummy also sells fenugreek for the same purpose, which at ten dollars a package, costs half the price.)

Still, Yummy Mummy’s main business is breast pumps, which it sells at the small Lexington Avenue store and through its bustling website. Although breast pump sales have been brisk ever since Amanda Cole opened her store in 2009, they soared dramatically in 2013. That year, President Obama made a bold intervention in the world of breastfeeding advocacy by reforming the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to require health insurance companies to cover the cost of breast pumps for new mothers. At first, Cole worried that making breast pumps free to anyone with health insurance would be bad for business. Even before the ACA reform went into effect, the United States accounted for 40 percent of the global market in breast pumps, with 2.3 million breast pumps sold in 2010 alone. After the reform, analysts predicted the breast pump market would expand by 50 percent, and Cole didn’t want to miss out on that burgeoning growth.

She moved quickly to make the new legislation work to her advantage. Insurance companies will only reimburse customers who purchase equipment through an accredited durable medical equipment (DME) supplier. These specialized stores normally sell institutional items like hospital beds and oxygen tanks; their no-nonsense aesthetic is light years away from the boutique-y world of Yummy Mummy. But, by deftly navigating the bureaucracy necessary to have Yummy Mummy accredited as a DME, Cole positioned her store to profit from the new plan almost immediately. Only months after the breast pump benefit went into effect, consumer demand had soared to the point that she hired an additional seventeen workers and rented space for a call center to handle the national orders coming through the store’s website.

Yummy Mummy now has established relationships with twenty-five different insurance plans and ships hundreds of pumps per week. Industry analysts expect this market to grow even more, as news of the benefit spreads. By the end of the decade, the American breast-pump market should reach almost one billion dollars—and the market for the other breastfeeding equipment Yummy Mummy sells, including clothes, bras, creams, and pillows, will be roughly double that.

With a little help from President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, breastfeeding has become very big business indeed.

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Like so many lifestyle companies today, from Whole Foods to the Arbor Collective skateboard company, Yummy Mummy is a compelling mixture of conscience and commerce, an enterprise dedicated to doing well by doing good. As a new mother in Manhattan, Cole was committed to breastfeeding but frustrated by the absence of good breastfeeding products and informed advice. Ultimately, that frustration exposed a market opportunity. Her neighborhood needed a place that would cater to, and support, nursing women. In 2009, Cole opened a store she envisioned as a one-stop shop for premium breastfeeding products and a community hub where expectant or new parents could consult well-informed sales associates—including Cole herself, who is now a certified lactation counselor. The store also offers a range of courses. There are standard offerings such as “Childbirth Preparation” and “Baby Safety & CPR” and less standard offerings such as “Eat, Drink, Doula.” Billed as a form of “speed dating,” “Eat, Drink, Doula” streamlines parents’ search for a labor coach by introducing them to five to ten prospective doulas in a single session.

The consumer culture that has grown up around breastfeeding says a great deal about its core demographic, its lifestyle priorities, and the resources it has to dedicate to breastfeeding. As its cheeky name suggests, Yummy Mummy’s mission is not confined to the worthy causes of infant and maternal health and environmental and economic well-being mentioned on its website. In contemporary slang, a yummy mummy is a sexy, glamorous mother—well dressed and, usually, well heeled too. Tabloids use the term to praise celebrity moms like Miranda Kerr and Angelina Jolie for refusing to let motherhood cramp their fabulous lifestyles—and wardrobes. Yummy Mummy too signals that breastfeeding is no longer just for the crunchy earth-mother crowd. Along with breast pumps and vitamins, the store offers all the trendy fashion items and accessories a mother needs to “nurse in style.” Breastfeeding is the new black.

At this moment in the long history of infant feeding, when maternity and breastfeeding boutiques with whimsical names—like The Pumping Station in Santa Monica or Manhattan’s Upper Breast Side—have multiplied in desirable zip codes around the country, it’s worth remembering that the very idea of “nursing in style” marks a dramatic cultural shift. Not very long ago, the idea of breastfeeding stylishly would have seemed patently absurd. Back in the 1970s, many of the women who revived the practice of breastfeeding in the US were making a political statement, not a fashion statement. They were taking a stand for women’s right to choose how to feed their babies, and against big businesses like Nestlé that were peddling formula in poor countries at the expense of babies’ lives. But the mainstreaming of breastfeeding has generated not only countless bad puns—a nursing pillow called My Breast Friend, a postpartum girdle called the Mother Tucker—it has also stimulated a booming market in luxury breastfeeding paraphernalia that the earlier generation of feminists, hippies, and countercultural mavericks could never have imagined.

One of the most popular electric pumps in the US, manufactured by the Swiss company Medela, is called the Pump in Style. Anyone even remotely familiar with the mechanics of breast pumping will find the idea of pumping in style amusing, at best. Naked from the waist up, with suction cups attached to each swollen nipple as the pump yanks loudly and rhythmically to coax milk into plastic cylinders, not even Heidi Klum could look stylish. But the name is telling nonetheless. It bespeaks an ideal of motherhood that is alluring to many women—and profitable to the many manufacturers and stores that promise ways of achieving it.

The trappings of contemporary breastfeeding culture—including breast pumps, designer apparel from companies with names like Boob and Glamourmom, and Lactation Cookies—reflect the tangled web of social, political, and commercial interests that sustain it. This new culture—at once wholesome and hip—is partly the result of a hard-won social pride. Many of those who revived breastfeeding in the twentieth century—feminists, hippies, and members of La Leche League included—encountered considerable resistance. And some still do. Sometimes these tensions are generational and subtle. New mothers who breastfeed often report that their own mothers, who didn’t, are critical and defensive. After all, you turned out all right, didn’t you?

Other times the resistance is not subtle at all. To this day, women are harassed for breastfeeding in public at places as diverse as Friendly’s Restaurant, Target, and Anthropologie clothing store. When seen in this light, the new generation of breastfeeding advocates’ emphasis on style can be seen as an important effort to show that breastfeeding and motherhood are compatible with having a life—a life that doesn’t rule out fitness, fashion, and fun. This is an undeniably good cause.

The many initiatives designed to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed in public represent a similarly worthy expression of female pride. In fact, this particular right has recently become, quite literally, a cause célèbre. Famous mothers like Kourtney Kardashian, Gwen Stefani, and Maggie Gyllenhaal have all made a point of being photographed nursing in public. As with gay rights and other identity-based political movements, their strategy is to embrace visibility as a way of refusing stigma and shame. In 2015, even Pope Francis weighed in, encouraging mothers to nurse their babies during a baptismal ceremony in the Sistine Chapel.

More formally organized initiatives exist now too. Started several years ago in New Zealand, the Big Latch On has become a global event in which women come together to breastfeed in public, en masse, on a given day in the beginning of August, during World Breastfeeding Week. The advocacy organization Best for Babes runs a national hotline for mothers who are harassed for nursing in public. The phone number is 855-NIP-FREE. And then there’s one of the most colorful citizen initiatives, The Milk Truck, a big pink van with a three-foot-high fiberglass breast and flashing nipple on its roof that rescues women in Pittsburgh who are harassed for breastfeeding in public.

Initiatives like the Big Latch On and The Milk Truck strike me as positive examples of breastfeeding advocacy. Their goal is to protect women’s ability to choose how and where to feed their children. But as I’ve discovered again and again while writing this book, breastfeeding advocacy too often crosses the line into lactivism, including compulsory breastfeeding, breastfeeding as a moral crusade, and breastfeeding as a means of distinguishing good from bad parents. When it does, it limits rather than protects women’s choices. Some lactivists have in fact described “choice” as the language of the enemy. Their campaigns are specifically designed to undermine the idea that women can take into account their own individual circumstances—jobs, child-care options, and so on—when choosing how to feed their babies. At their most extreme, lactivists view breastfeeding as an end in itself—an activity to be defended at all costs, even when it threatens the health and well-being of babies and mothers.

Not long ago, the supermodel Gisele Bündchen displayed an unexpected flair for policy reform when she called for a “worldwide law” requiring women to breastfeed for six months. In Saudi Arabia, women are legally obligated to breastfeed—for two years. Here in the U S, politicians and policy makers have stopped short of legislating breastfeeding, but they have decided that breastfeeding should be viewed as a matter of public policy rather than a personal choice. Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC ), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the U S Surgeon General have all officially identified breastfeeding as “a public health issue.” This declaration places formula feeding on a par with smoking and unsafe sex as a form of risky behavior that threatens not only individual health but American society at large. As Dr. Richard Schanler, the chair of the AAP Section on Breastfeeding, explained in an interview, “This is a health issue for the better health of our infants, so why are we just leaving it up to the whim of the family to do whatever they feel like?”

In fact, so many people agree with Schanler and Bündchen these days that breastfeeding has become what political scientists like me identify as a consensus issue—an issue that unites people who otherwise disagree about pretty much everything else. Feminists and fundamentalists, yuppies and hippies, conservatives and liberals, the medical establishment and its alternative-medicine critics: for all their differences, they are all aligned on this particular issue. The problem is that these unlikely bedfellows not only believe in breastfeeding and practice it themselves; they often believe that everybody else should too. Breastfeeding is no longer just a way to feed a baby; it is a moral marker that distinguishes us from them—good parents from bad.

For many well-educated middle- and upper-middle-class parents, breastfeeding is an early foray into competitive parenting. They breastfeed because it promises to produce children who are healthier, more secure, and smarter. In these circles, breastfeeding is also an indicator of financial or professional success—only mothers who have the luxury of time or job flexibility can breastfeed long enough to claim the full health benefits. In the United States today, breastfeeding is undeniably a marker of class status, although not for everyone. For the Christian right, the value of breastfeeding is different. Fundamentalist Christians cite scripture to show that breastfeeding is part of God’s plan. It also offers proof of intelligent design—the theory that the universe was created by God’s design rather than the big bang and evolution—and it signals womanly submission to God’s will. Ironically, breastfeeding means just the opposite to feminists, for whom it is often a form of empowerment that offers evidence of the life-sustaining force of female bodies. For the hippie and hipster left, breastfeeding is also a moral imperative, though here too, for different reasons. Hipsters breastfeed because they are environmentalists, because they support the local food movement, and because they are critical of the huge multinationals that make formula. Breastfeeding is part of a package of lifestyle choices that will often include yoga, farmers’ markets, fair-trade coffee, cloth diapers, and homemade baby food. If you fi d yourself feeding your baby formula at the Food Co-op in Park Slope, you may as well be wearing a coat made of baby sealskins.

Excerpted with permission from "Lactivism: How Feminists and Fundamentalists, Hippies and Yuppies, and Physicians and Politicians Made Breastfeeding Big Business and Bad Policy" by Courtney Jung. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

 

 


Courtney Jung

Courtney Jung is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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