Dear White Women, How the #FedIsBest Movement Centers Us, Our Feelings, and Therefore Our Privilege
Note: Reading The Big Let Down by Kimberly Seals Allers will help explain and elaborate on some of the facts I’m referencing in this article.
Back in November I began my formal education to become a doula through the program, Mama Glow in Brooklyn, NY. Part of the rich coursework of teachings curated by the founder of the program, Latham Thomas, was a reading and lecture by Kimberly Seals Allers, author of The Big Letdown. I’d started reading the book the week prior to my flight to NYC and continued reading it on the plane, so I knew that this book wasn’t so much about the physical and hormonal mechanics of breastfeeding, not even about the benefits of it - this book, unlike any other I’d read so far, focused on the societal, structural, cultural, and economical intricacies at work that make the act of breastfeeding your baby sometimes difficult or impossible. This book lays out what we’re up against as new mothers, and centers the unique history and challenges of Black women and breastfeeding. This candid conversation felt like a breath of fresh air, it felt like a whole education, if felt like this would be the real and true start to dismantling the structures that prioritize women and their babies over corporate greed. And still, in the back of my mind, I had the voice of every (usually white) woman on Instagram, arguing that talking about the facts feels like judgement on them, shames them on their “choices,” or even that they’re sick of feeling “pressured” or “pushed” into breastfeeding. I grappled with this voice, the voice that has kept me from truly delving into my own frank and factual conversations about breastfeeding with what little social media platform I have, and during the Q&A portion of her lecture, Kimberly laid out her answer for me: “The ‘pressure’ conversation is often a white female privilege conversation. There’s no black mother in Detroit being pressured to breastfeed. So when white women tell me ‘somebody was pressuring me to breastfeed,’ I’m like ‘congratulations!’ […] When we get to this idea about shaming and judgement […] we have to stop treating women like infants. Either we’re strong and powerful, or we’re not. But if we’re strong and powerful, then you can deal with facts.”
You’re going to have to read her book yourself if you want to glean more of Kimberly’s shining bits of wisdom, and I’m not here to reiterate everything she already covered in the book. But there is a trend lately of utilizing Instagram and Facebook to spill our guts about our breastfeeding experiences (great!) that often devolves into something akin to Catholic confessional and ends in assuaging any potential guilt around how our own breastfeeding journeys unfolded (guilt we feel about how our “success” stories might be perceived by others who’s story was different, or guilt we feel because we don’t see our breastfeeding journeys as “successful,”) by way of publicly absolving ourselves and everyone else of our guilt, shame, and judgment (either really experienced judgement, or just expected and therefore perceived.) Usually these posts are clinched with the seemingly innocuous, but loaded #fedisbest.
All of those sentiments seem benign and nice enough, right? I’m all for telling our stories, dismantling the culture of enduring our experiences silently and compliantly, and I’m all for new parents feeling heard and supported in their unique experiences. Where these instagram breastfeeding confessions cross over into the territory of not cool, is when they end with unqualified or under-qualified advice, such as “fed is best.” “Best,” is dictionarily defined as “of the highest quality, excellence, or standing” and, “most advantageous, suitable, or desirable” is not merely being fed. My foster brother’s biological mom sold his government provided formula for cash, then fed him Kool-Aid and Pepsi in his bottles, all under the age of 1 – would you still tout that as “fed is best” in this case? He was “fed” after all. Fed is a necessity. Fed is a bare minimum requirement.
Am I equating formula feeding to Kool-aid feeding? Absolutely not. This extreme (and hopefully unlikely) scenario is simply to illustrate that we should have a higher standard for what is considered “best” than merely “fed.” My beef with this feel-good sentiment is that is asks us to hide legitimate, scientific, informational discourse around breastfeeding, because you might step on someone’s toes, making them feel bad if they chose not to breastfeed or if their plans to breastfeed didn’t work out. There’s a lot of readily available nutritional information and scientific studies on breastfeeding out there that I won’t belabor here. But some things you might not know:
- Breastmilk inoculates babies’ gut immediately after birth protecting baby from the onslaught of pathogens its confronted with earthside, and setting them up for a lifetime of optimal gastrointestinal and immune health.
- Whenever a breastfed baby gets sick, through a process called “baby backwash” the baby’s saliva is absorbed through the mother’s skin while feeding, and subsequently mother’s body produces a customized, ideal antibiotic to treat whatever sickness the baby is experiencing.
- Breastmilk tastes different every time based on what the mother eats, and studies suggest that this primes the baby’s palette to have more diverse and open dietary preferences.
- Many commercially available formulas available in the US contain high fructose corn syrup, and even contain sucralose – a type of sugar that has been banned in most European countries due to its connection with childhood obesity.
- Even though formula is available through WIC, it is not enough to feed a baby for the whole month, forcing already financially stressed parents to pay for formula they can’t afford - a product which has a 60% profit margin resulting in a billion dollar industry.
- Powdered infant formula itself is not a sterile product, a fact which in and of itself is not a problem, but there is a lack of education around this fact and the proper, safe preparation of powdered formula because a doctor will often tell mothers to go by the directions on the canister, and the canister tells mothers to consult their doctor.
Those are just a brief sampling of some of the lesser known facts related to breastfeeding and formula, that I’m pointing out for this article’s purposes solely to illustrate how saying #breastisbest shouldn’t be a controversial thing – it’s simply factually obvious.
You may or may not be surprised to discover that, among many other sinister underpinnings of the child nutrition industry, the #fedisbest hashtag and subsequent movement is a formula company created and perpetuated hashtag created to subversively inflate the perceived risks of babies starving while mothers try to figure breastfeeding out. Their labels seem to benignly admit that breastmilk is most optimally nutritious and appropriate for human infants, but that their product is here for you “just in case,” while in reality their actual marketing promotes cultural perceptions and fears that continue to necessitate the usage of their product. Formula is even at times touted as life-saving for when conditions (that formula companies often had a heavy hand in manufacturing) prevent a baby from being able to effectively breastfeed – yet lactation consultants that provide support to ensure the success of breastfeeding, and donated breastmilk are not equally touted as the lifesaving resources that they are. There is a reason for that, and it should be obvious that it’s one rooted in money. No one is building a billion dollar industry off of donor milk and lactation consultants. The “mommy wars,” are even a formula company-manufactured phenomenon with a specific agenda to further the divide and shut down informational discourse among mothers, and the hashtag #fedisbest works dually to perpetuate that too.
I don’t come to all of these conclusions and information solely by way of personal experience and my own scientific research, I come to it by listening to, learning from, and being led by Black women, and believing them when they advise on what steps need to be taken next. Much of what I’ve learned about the social, cultural, and historical factors impacting breastfeeding was learned from Black doulas, Black midwives, #BlackBreastfeedingWeek, and one of its founders, Kimberly Seals Allers’ book, The Big Let Down. What I want to speak on specifically, is how I see my fellow privileged, white women constantly derail important conversations to center ourselves, our privileged experiences, and our feelings, at the steep cost of shutting down important, factual, life-saving discourse on the topic of infant nutrition – a topic which we know to have far reaching public health implications. The (relatively) great equalizer of social media has the power to educate us on these topics in a way that just one generation ago you’d have to be a scholar or a scientist to learn about, and those conversations are happening, and could go even further, even deeper, priming us for real change - if only we would get our hurt feelings out of the way.
I decided to lend my voice on this topic, not because I am an expert on breastfeeding, or an expert of the specific and unique challenges that Black women face with breastfeeding, but because I am an expert on white women, because I am one (though I’m embarrassed to say that, even that enlightening also came from the emotional and intellectual labor of what women of color, who have taught me more about myself as a white woman than I could ever see from my own inner view point.) And knowing that, I know that I may have lost many of you at the moment I decided to address us white women specifically in the title. We’ve had the luxury of being the default race for centuries, and don’t take kindly to being categorized, even if it’s just by the benign naming of our skin color. I can hear it now, “Why are you making this about race? Breastfeeding difficulties are something that all mothers face.” While physiologically, yes, Black women are just as capable of breastfeeding their babies as white women and face similar physiological challenges too - socially, culturally, and historically our struggles have been very different; different in ways that still inform the lower breastfeeding rates among the Black community today. We often learn what we know and are most supported by our mothers and our elders in whether or not we are encouraged to and supported in our breastfeeding efforts, and our mothers and elders were informed even more heavily by their mothers and elders (since they didn’t have the internet) so on and so back in time. And when it was only four and a half generations ago that enslaved Black women were forced to breastfeed their masters’ white babies, often to the detriment of being forced to neglect their own, there is intergenerational trauma to be considered around the act of breastfeeding. There is the culturally perceived notion that breastfeeding means you can’t afford formula, and therefore it is for poor people. Then there’s racial bias in the medical communities that effect how support and resources are doled out - and all those things are just to name a few factors. Lactation consultants employed through the hospitals have success quotas they need to meet, making giving their time to the low hanging fruit the most sensible option, and racial bias tells them that white women are that low hanging fruit. In short, Black mothers have all the plethora of physiological and societal challenges that white women do when it comes to breastfeeding, and then a LOT more, so I’m not “bringing race into it,” race is already in it, playing a role whether we like to acknowledge it or not.
If you need more help understanding how racial bias and privilege play a role in the support and subsequent success of breastfeeding in the U.S., again,I highly suggest reading The Big Letdown by Kimberly Seals Allers, and doing more research beyond that in regards to the history of breastfeeding, as the full depth of that conversation is beyond the scope of my knowledge, and it’s not what I’m directly addressing in this article.
We’re creating a culture where our stories, and factual information can’t stand alone, it must be qualified with a feelings-saving, and simply untrue statement. A common theme among the social media breastfeeding confessions is that of choice – “however you choose to feed your baby is your choice, mama!” “Don’t let anybody shame you for your choice!” Anecdotally, I only know one woman who actually, out the gate, chose formula as her first choice when it came time to plan how she would feed her baby. More commonly, I know women who planned to breastfeed, then faced such social, medical, or physiological adversity with the endeavor that without enough support, they eventually stopped breastfeeding all together, or didn’t get to do it as much as they would have liked. But being forced into a decision out of desperation or lack of support isn’t what anyone would call a “choice.” Most of these social media confessionals I see end with something essentially like this, “So, don’t worry, mama, you’re doing great. No matter how you choose to feed your baby. #fedisbest,” effectively negating the fact that all of the adversity they came up against was not at all their choice or their plan, and it’s ignoring that their story played out the way it did because of systemic problems. Problems that require drastic, immediate change. And as we know, change doesn’t happen without us talking it. Only as of 2018 did it become legal to breastfeed in public in all 50 states, and I have to think that the awareness that social media and the internet creates space for played a role in that legislation. And even with that legislation being passed, in reality we still have women being harassed in Target for feeding their children. So why aren’t we railing against the system that didn’t support us enough for us to meet our goals for our children’s health? Why aren’t we railing against the multibillion dollar industry that played an intentional part in that? Why are we #fedistbest-ing each other into being satisfied with systemic medical and supportive failures?
I also know that, as a white woman, doing the best, most right thing is of paramount importance to us (at least in philosophy,) so when we see #breastisbest, and if that is a hashtag that doesn’t jive with and affirm our experiences or our choices as “best,” then we must publicly denounce the existence of that hashtag to preserve our rightness. When we see #normalizebreastfeeding or #worldbreastfeedingweek, or #blackbreastfeedingweek, and that doesn’t center our experience, we feel the need to return the conversation to something that includes us, always. In doing this, we’re asking for the conversation to ditch facts and ditch necessary culture-shifting dialogue to center US and our experiences and accommodate OUR feelings about the topic of breastfeeding. Or, if those hashtags DO jive with our breastfeeding experiences, and we aren’t personally offended by them, but we perceive that other women might be, we’ll still throw in a #fedisbest at the end too, because another thing that is of paramount importance to us white women is being nice. Or at least appearing that way. That’s another reason why many of my fellow white women will be closed off to what this article has to say – because it feels “not nice.” It’s not nice to point out the ways in which racism effects Black women’s breastfeeding rates and therefore effects the health of Black babies, because that inherently points to our own privileges and the privileges that our children will enjoy from a system designed for us and designed to support us in our endeavors to the furthest extent that it supports any woman. It’s not nice that I’m effectively saying that no one needs another, “I had to supplement with formula and I personally carry guilt and shame about it so I’m going to publicly denounce any overt factual promotion of breastfeeding because it makes me feel bad, and you should too!” post. Being who I am, I actually do care deeply about what your breastfeeding journey is or was, if you had one. I want to know how you were or weren’t supported, by whom, and how the world could’ve showed up for you better if things didn’t go how you’d planned. But if you’re going to clinch your story and the information to be gleaned from it in a way that centers unchecked privilege, doesn’t invite deeper informational discourse, and doesn’t even touch on the systematic and cultural factors that make breastfeeding so damn hard for us and even harder for Black women still, then why are you really adding your story out into the social media ether? I’ll say it now, maybe so that it can be said once and for all, the validation that you’re really seeking in the comments of your #fedisbestconfessional – I trust that you did the best you could with whatever information and support was available to you at the time. You’re a good mother. There.
And for any white women who did actually choose to formula feed their babies right out the gate, and you had the financial means to do so, the answer is, “no.” No, this is not a judgment on you and your actual choice. In fact, I’m glad you had the financial ability to make the choice that is most culturally promoted and systematically supported. You may perceive judgement from other mothers for your choice, and of course I can’t speak to whether or not that’s real or just expected and therefore perceived, but I know you’ve never been harassed in public while being told to “put that bottle away,” or, “go bottle feed that baby in the bathroom!” while you simply try to feed your child when they became hungry. So frankly, my time is not needed for women who made a choice, had the resources to support that choice, enjoyed societal norms that allowed that choice, and were therefore successful in carrying out that choice. If that’s you, you’re all good, you don’t require advocacy or amplification. What I’m here for, what this article exists for, is to call and make space for the necessary, candid conversation on breastfeeding as a part of reproductive rights too, a conversation rooted in facts, informed by history and anti-racist advocacy, a conversation that is beautifully being led by Black women if we would only de-center ourselves long enough to listen.