Most People Have Bias Against Breastfeeding Mothers

Japanese Breastfeeding 1800Sometimes, I think I sing the praises of breastfeeding too loudly. After all, everyone I know prefers breastfeeding, even the ones who ended up formula-feeding or supplementing (like me). Every time I do a post like this, there are 900 pro-breastfeeding “lactivists” (like me!) who get more and more starry-eyed and evangelical as the comment-list grows longer, with a few people saying things like “but sometimes you CAN’T breastfeed!” and a few of “us” saying, “Fine, but ZOMG BOOBAGE YAY!!!”

So I think, “Meh, maybe I should tone it down.” But then I see that outside of my little mommy-bubble, the wider world still finds breastfeeding moms disgusting, weird, and even dumb. Seriously.

So I’m sticking with my song, and it’s about to get loud.


Social scientists have proven, in the past, that perceptions of women change when we become moms. For instance, mothers who work -- especially ones who work because they have to, out of financial necessity -- are judged more harshly, considered “bad moms,” than stay-at-home moms.

There are other perceptions that you would think would work in our favor -- for instance, moms are considered kinder and warmer. But they are also considered less competent. This is backed up by a study called called "Spoiled Milk." Psychologists call this “paternalistic prejudice,” and not for nothing, but every time we complain about “placenta brain” or any kind of absent-mindedness, we’re feeding into it. (Even when it feels true!) This is why I try to keep this kind of complaining to myself. I had a boss once who would loudly joke in meetings about how tired I looked when I was pregnant. I was puffy, not tired, but you can’t argue with your boss.

Are you hearing me, lactivists? Breastfeeding mothers were perceived as less competent than non-breastfeeding women. Incompetent and emotionally cold. The scientists aren’t sure why, but they think it might be that breastfeeding women are perceived as only nurturing to their babies, and cold to anyone else (like, say, their husbands). We are also thought to be more aggressive.

These perceptions came from both men and women -- it wasn’t just men who subconsciously devalue breastfeeding moms. And nobody had to be seen breastfeeding for this to be the case, either. In all three studies, the breastfeeding was mentioned, but not done in front of the person being tested.

These deeply-held negative feelings toward breastfeeding moms have a serious effect on society. The researchers cite a lot of studies that just break my heart -- for instance, in one, women who were asked why they didn’t breastfeed worried that it would make them less sexy, and therefore less valuable as a woman. Working moms fret that asking for time to breastfeed or a place to pump will stop them from getting ahead in the workplace.

So what can we do? Just knowing this bias exists is a big help, the researchers say, because when we feel crappy (about looking sloppy or feeling cow-like or just generally feeling no-reason blue), we can give ourselves a pep talk, calling out the bias that might be making us feel rotten.

And we can continue to praise breastfeeding and breastfeeders to the skies. This is a good thing we’re doing. We’re still women, whether we look like Angelina Jolie or not. There are many ways to look and feel sexy. And we can still juggle myriad tasks when we’re mothering.

Do you feel like people think less of you, or patronize you, because you breastfeed? Have you seen this bias in action?

Image via cea/Flickr

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