Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Breast Wars: Why Time Magazine is just part of a bigger problem

Oh, get over your misogynistic self, Time Magazine.

"Are you Mom enough?" screams the headline. And while it's a far cry from Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech before the battle of Agincourt (we band of brothers! er, sisters?), just that annoying headline is undoubtedly a bugle-cry for another round of what's become the U.S. 'mom wars' - between stay-at-homes and work-outside-the-house moms, between breast feeders and bottle feeders, between co-sleepers and sleep trainers.

But no, Time Magazine didn't want to stay with a mere rallying cry. It had to add on a ridiculous image - a svelte, defiant-faced blonde, white mother nursing what can only be optimistically described as a 'big boy' who's standing on a CHAIR to reach her rather than being cradled in any way in her arms. (Don't even get me started on why all four mothers apparently photographed for this article were white)

So that's it, huh, Time? Attachment parents are freaks? That's what you got for me? I think the article on (which I don't entirely agree with all parts of, but anyway) said it best:

...the cover is meant to incite both public ridicule and maternal anxiety — just in time for mother's day. "Look at that weirdo over-mothering her kid!" and "OMG, will my child grow up to be a maladjusted, angry a**h*** because I was a neglectful parent who weaned him before he learned to read!?" The issue has definitely kicked the "mommy wars" up a notch, but there's also an important debate happening right now: Is progressive motherhood an extension of go-getter feminism or is it just a misogynistic ploy to take women out of the workforce and rob them of their freedom?

As a pediatrician, a breast feeding advocate, and yes, an attachment parent (who breast fed my children until they were about two, thank you very much) I'm thoroughly disgusted by this Fox News type treatment of breastfeeding. No one makes this big a deal about sippy cups, or those cute little divided plates, or juice boxes - yet, breastfeeding, which is ostensibly a simple, economical and age-old way to FEED YOUR KIDS - has become twisted into a political battering ram to be used against women on both sides of the attachment parenting battlements.

I'm not going to rant about the benefits of breastfeeding - there are terrific organizations like La Leche league and the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine to do that. What I am going to rant about is that, yet again, women are being pitted against one another in ways that continue to distract us from the real issues hindering breastfeeding in this country - which are structural NOT individual:

1. The U.S. has wonky cultural attitudes towards breasts:  Come on, we all know this. Go to Europe, go to Asia - people are breastfeeding everywhere. Yet, in America, the sexualization of the breast is so pervasive, even breast cancer screening campaigns have become semi-pornographic (see my post on the "I heart Boobies" and other sexy-fying breast cancer campaigns at Adios, Barbie).

In 2010, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Katja Esson tackled U.S. cultural attitudes toward breastfeeding in her fantastic documentary "Latching On: The Politics of Breastfeeding in America." In fact, that was the motivating inspiration of the film itself:

After filmmaker Katja Esson’s sister gave birth in Germany, she was able to breastfeed her baby anywhere and at any time. Returning home to New York, Esson found that breastfeeding was rarely practiced and largely unseen. Academy Award® Nominee Esson (Ferry Tales) turned her quirky eye on the subject and set out to learn why this was so. Her wide-ranging, frequently funny documentary highlights the intersecting economic, social, and cultural forces that have helped replace mother’s milk with formula produced by a billion dollar industry, and reveals the challenges and rewards for women who buck the trend. 

I mean, do you think it's coincidence the Time cover shows a woman and her son (dressed in camoflage pants, nonetheless)? As if suggesting that there's something sexually inappropriate there? Rather than picturing the average breastfeeding mom - someone cradling and enjoying her time with her feeding child - by choosing this image, Time has chosen to paint breastfeeders as outliers, freaks, rather than as regular parents simply feeding their children.

2.  Formula Companies got the money, honey: Although World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) sponsored Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative is working to make hospitals pro-breast feeding, the truth of the matter is, formula companies still have a stranglehold on maternity wards throughout this country. Those convenient, free packets of formula? Those tote bags and other accoutremonts? What do you think those are about? How about the fact that even as a pediatrician, I had to fight to get the nurses from giving my newborns formula in the hospital?

In the U.S. the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Suggests the following 10 steps to supporting successful breastfeeding:

1 - Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
2 - Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
3 - Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
4 - Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth.
5 - Show mothers how to breastfeed and how to maintain lactation, even if they are separated from their infants.
6 - Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, unless medically indicated.
7 - Practice “rooming in”-- allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
8 - Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
9 - Give no pacifiers or artificial nipples to breastfeeding infants.
10 - Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or clinic

3. Working parents need on-site childcare, flextime and longer leave:  Without these fundamental structural changes to support mothers and fathers of young children, the U.S. continues to show that we are not a 'family-centered' culture or country at all.

Time Magazine, please stop adding to the cultural demonization of breastfeeding and parenting in general in this country. We're on to you. Let's stop making the conversation around breastfeeding about individual women's choices - 'good moms' vs. 'bad moms'/'freak moms' vs. 'feminist moms' -- and focus on the real structural impediments to all our families' health and wellbeing.

(Ok, I think that's it, off soapbox now. I reserve the right to return soon, though.)

POST-BLOG ADDITION: See this nice NYT oped on formula company "maternity swag" in hospitals that came out later this week, very relevant to my points about structural undermining of breastfeeding.


  1. Wow, I'm shocked. I have four kids and worked while they were all young and - I also breastfed each until they were 24 months. I pumped and nursed. It wasn't easy to do while working but I did it. And it was my choice but to make it look almost like child abuse -which is what that ad hints at makes me ill. In some countries children are nursed for much longer than we find acceptable in 'polite' society but it still is ridiculous to poke fun at this.

  2. Thanks for your comment - LM - I too found my hair on fire after looking at this image. Can't women simply feed their children (in the way they see fit, can manage) without it becoming fodder for some bizarre cultural war?

  3. I was not able to breast feed. I wish I could have. I have no issue with breastfeeding, although it would not have been my choice to breastfeed my child past the age of speech. I find Time's handling of this topic horrendous. I don't like the timing of it, Mother's Day being this weekend. But most of all I want mothers to stick up for other mothers. More opinion at my blog:

  4. Thanks for your comment writerhughes - looking forward to reading your post! I agree - and I too think that mothers need to stick up for other mothers! That's why this 'dividing of women' stuff around breastfeeding makes me furious. All mothers want to do best by their children and obviously trying to divide us around this central issue - right around mothers day - is just awful...

  5. TIME's cover seems to insult EVERY mom. If you are an AP parent, feeding your toddler, you are "extreme".

    If you aren't, then let's question if you are "mom enough".

    I blogged about this as well - I'd love to see us stop turning mommying into a competition.

  6. Hi Sayantani! Just found your blog- ditty sent me a link! I miss learning from you at narr med rounds... Great analysis!

  7. Thanks Miriam! Lovely to hear from you! Hope you're well!

  8. Doing great! Loving medical school! Boston is wonderful. Also, I have a baby..... Make that toddler, he's definitely out of the little baby stage now :)

  9. Just came over from SheWrites. What an absurd cover shot. I breast fed all my kids - except the one I adopted when he was seven! I love breast feeding. But please, live and let live -- if another mom chooses to bottle feed -- let's just respect her choice and move on.

  10. Thanks for the visit and the comment Dana! I agree - I too love breast feeding but hate mommy wars! My problem with this photo is while it ostensibly is supporting BF moms, the posing of it, the combative stance, and certainly the "are you mom enough" headline actually undermines breast feeding, I think, while still pitting women against each other. I think as breastfeeding advocates, if we're trying to increase breastfeeding in this country, it's not about "convincing" individual moms but about creating circumstances of institutional/cultural/political support that hopefully allow all families to make more supported choices... :)