Overselling Breastfeeding? How One Author Exploits The Majority To Silence Minority Advocacy.

Elizabeth Grattan
Photo from Documenting Delight.

It’s not a new thing. We see it every November when the War on Christmas gets pitched as if Santa’s being imprisoned. We see it in “Men’s Rights” movements that are just fronts for harassing “on the rag” feminists. We see it when “All Lives Matter” gets a hashtag and when the masses ignore that a Kentucky clerk violated our First Amendment. The majority has a long history of trying to silence policy and advocacy for the minority. The same is true for breastfeeding.

The latest attempt comes from a political science professor hawking her new book in a New York Times Op Ed.

The essay “Overselling Breast-Feeding” by Courtney Jung is one woman’s take on how advocacy for breastfeeding has crossed the line in our country. She cherry picks some data trying to convince her audience that “benefits” are no big thing. She shares anecdotes of crap medical care and annoyance with strangers who overshare. She even decides to open a dialogue positioning pumping as not really breastfeeding, while simultaneously taking a jab at women’s healthcare to try to prove profits are just driving the whole thing.

Jung isn’t alone in her cry of persecution. She’s joined by plenty of others who make it a point to crusade against breastfeeding support. Last year, the Washington Post put one of their journalists front and center with an argument that society actually expected a woman who lost her breasts to feed her children with her armpits. Just last week, Ms. Magazine offered up an essay describing breastfeeding as a cult. And one author has even gone as far as appropriating the nursing cover — as if that isn’t insulting to the multitudes of families who have had their legal rights violated in this country.

But what Jung has accomplished far exceeds those who came before her. She’s found the formula to exploit every woman who has ever come face to face with this reproductive choice. Jung’s brazen attempt to manipulate data, dismiss historical facts and ride the coat tails of an appeal to the masses can only be matched by the title of her book, hand picked to hijack and ensure optimal SEO so her target will write her a check.

Jung positions those who don’t breastfeed as the victims in society. She claims that “breastfeeding is a lifestyle choice the majority now make,” and she expects us to take her statements at face value and not care she contradicted herself one paragraph later. This lets her pander to the masses by convincing them that they are the ones more deserving of the attention. Again, this approach isn’t new, it’s quite common. This martyr complex is a well known deflect as a way for people to completely avoid social justice. By positioning advocacy for the minority as an attack, Jung played right into a common trope used for centuries to silence the oppressed.

Jung sets the stage with her own personal anecdotes, appealing to her experience as a breast-feeder as if that makes her a trusted authority in all she wants us to know. She’s been on that side but now she’s an ally, hoping her audience will thereby trust her as credible. It’s a transparent attempt to capitalize on campaigns already well established. Campaigns that feed the divide among parents with sexist references to “mommy wars”.

It is absolutely true that women facing this decision face unsolicited advice and shame. It’s also true that some white men get harassed for the color of their skin. It is true that some in favor of “traditional marriage” feel ostracized because the Constitution doesn’t side with them. Humanity is full of experiences in personal journeys that lead us to empathy on an individual level. But that gives us no right to pretend our personal anecdotes even compare to issues faced on an institutional level. It is not appropriate when the majority pushes back against minority advocacy. But that doesn’t seem to matter much to Jung, who treats both as pawns to gain her own notoriety.

Jung misrepresents data on almost every level in her Op Ed and from reading a few brief available excerpts of her forthcoming book.

Let’s start with false narrative that “breastfeeding is a choice the majority are now making”:

The CDC Breastfeeding Report Card shows initiation of infants on the breast at close to 80%. Never mind that infants aren’t capable of making a “lifestyle choice”, that number drops almost immediately after leaving the hospital. With dips at 12 weeks and again at 6 months. By the first year, most children are not consuming human milk. After that, the fraction of children that are usually get moved to cow’s milk. And as to the consumption through the full developmental wean? There aren’t a lot of studies, suffice it to say, it gets pitched as “extended” to shift burden while facing societal backlash unparalleled in this nation. Comparisons to sexual assault and indecency are actually argued as legitimate when a child extracts milk from a mammary gland. That alone ought to be the end of the conversation. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Breastfeeding families are in the minority in this country. A minority that faces obstacles at every level. Especially for WoC. Especially for families providing milk through the developmental wean. Especially for children who feed publicly. Especially for women who are searching for support and instead get told their choice doesn’t really matter, just “feed the babies”. Children who breastfeed are the minority in this country. Facing horrifying stigmas and violations of their right to just eat when they’re hungry. Breastfeeding families require advocacy. Because they face systemic injustice at every turn. If you ever needed to understand how oppressed this minority is, remember: breastfeeding families require federal and state statutes to feed their kids.

But Jung ignores this reality. She spends several paragraphs trying to argue that a choice to breastfeed doesn’t really mean much of anything. She disregards health outcomes for women and chalks up the decision as trivial. She repeats the party line that any “benefits” are insignificant, cherry picking studies to feed her narrative. It’s a transparent attempt to minimize the decisions of these families while simultaneously placating the majority. But it’s a shift of burden fallacy that ignores basic biology. Remember, we didn’t always call it “breast” feeding. That we do now says everything.

The simple truth about being mammals is that reproduction involves producing milk for continued development of our offspring*. This milk is a physiological requirement for every single child standing on the globe. The infant in the arms of an impoverished woman in Kingston, Jamaica needs milk, as might the four year old boy playing Legos in a penthouse in Sacramento. The “benefits” of breastfeeding are quite literally brain food. They can’t be “oversold”. They can’t be reduced to “moral fervor”. Our infants, toddlers and in some cases grade school children all require milk.

So, the only time it is ever appropriate to debate whether or not there is benefit to milk consumption is after the development requirement ends- which usually takes place between the ages of two and seven. (Since, cheese is fucking fantastic, I imagine this debate will be a difficult one to have). Point being, onus is always on the necessary or chosen alternative to prove itself safe for consumption.

And in that regard, Jung does have a point on advancements. Our alternatives to human milk have come far and come far quickly. It wasn’t that long ago we were losing the lives of our infants. But here again, Jung deliberately stops short in assessing what changed things. It was better access to better alternatives paired with increasing breastfeeding rates that made the difference. It’s clear that Jung’s own fervor to disparage advocacy clouded her objective judgment by completely ignoring how vital these campaigns have been in saving the lives of children.

Jung, like others before, ignores the full record of history on how infants have been fed in society. They highlight the use of alternatives and the 15% of families who cannot breastfeed and completely disregard the choices stripped from women who wanted to keep lactating their own babies. Her arguments touch briefly on the knowledge we have on ancient wet nursing and bottle use but not once in her Op Ed or excerpts do we see any real acknowledgment that it wasn’t just medical need but that patriarchy forced many to wean.

Worse, Jung’s version of the breastfeeding culture in mid nineteen century Europe and the Americas is one of pocket pictures and badges of honor. She notes how “by the 1860’s women … could still hire a wet-nurse, as generations of women before them had done.” She talks of it “as a common practice for those who could afford [them].” What Jung fails to include in her picturesque privileged version of events is women of color and the ads that actually ran for them.

When Jung finally catches up to the twentieth century, she further dismisses the autonomous decisions stripped from women. She decides to relate to the majority of adults living in the United States by sharing her “I turned out great” story of being born into a culture where formula feeding was all the rage. She speaks of her mother’s empowered decision taking risky deadly medication but completely disregards every other women who never got a form for consent.

That kind of pandering can’t be helpful to any dialogue on whether or not to breastfeed. Because our history is rife with women being forced off or on their own bodies. We have evidence of women being forced to wean their offspring in order to produce an heir again more quickly. We have evidence of women being forced to nurse another woman’s babies. We have evidence of oppression of the lactating women as far back as we can read the markings on a cave and as recently as media stories last week, but to believe Jung’s claims, it’s time we pretend that’s all ancient history.

That’s Jung using another tactic of majority shut down: the argument “that was then, this is now”. She uses it most notably when she compares rates to other nations and pretends all the problems are solved since at least a few things have changed. Once she’s convinced her audience there’s no longer a need, that’s when she directly goes after healthcare policy.

It’s at this point Jung declares that pumping isn’t really breastfeeding. Let me be very clear: any argument that suggests pumping breast milk is not actually breastfeeding is an affront to multitudes of lactating women (and trans-men) and thousands of families who have struggled through medical complications, financial hardships and a long list of personal and private reasons for not latching a child to their breast. Jung’s dismissal of pumping as “not breast-feeding” is privileged, bigoted and void of intersectionality and empathy.

And her jab the A.C.A. mandate might as well be a talking point of the GOP. Does she actually have an issue with our healthcare system providing this necessity? Would she rather lactating individuals forced back into the workplace not have coverage for their medical needs? Should they just suck up the pain from engorged breasts until mastitis develops because god forbid a pump manufacturer might make a profit? Is that really what she’s arguing? Because good news for Jung, most desiring to don’t even get to take advantage of these provisions.

Profits are a huge crux of Jung’s attempts. She takes aim at not only the A.C.A mandate that insurance providers cover the cost of pumps for lactating women, but she isn’t a fan of profits driven by what she calls breastfeeding “accessories”. So, maternity wear is cool when it comes to pregnancy, but it’s somehow inappropriate to offer amenities to lactating families? Plus, I’m not sure how much Jung gets to the local market but you could take a trip to any store accessible in any neighborhood in the United States, from the wealthiest to most impoverished, and be hard pressed to find one “breast milk based supplement”. You can find infant formula and cow’s milk readily available on a shelf, but will you find nursing pumps or parts? No. No, you won’t. At least not very easily. And definitely not cheap. (Yes, Jung, supply/demand economics is part of the point of advocacy and normalizing the decisions to breastfeed).

And if profits that manipulate and coerce women are a concern of Jung, why didn’t she include a balanced spreadsheet? Maybe because that would have highlighted just how far Jung was willing to go with her intellectual dishonesty.

If Jung’s got a problem with a projected one to two billion in the next five years, how does she feel about the last three? In 2012, the United States infant formula market generated 70% of the total $5.7 billion baby food industry. Abbot Laboratories, the makers of Similac, with a 43% share of the formula market, reported earnings of 1.73 billion. (That’s quarterly earnings and includes all products and medical devices manufactured, distributed and sold worldwide). Mead Johnson, maker of Enfamil and holder of 40% of the market share, reported quarterly earnings of $1,111.1 million. Nestlé, with 15% of the market reported annual earnings of 92.2 billion for 2013 (This includes all products and services offered by the company). Those figures keep climbing. And do I even need to address the billions in profits going to the dairy industry?

Jung’s omission of evidence readily available is another common tactic used when minority advocacy gets slammed. We see it when rap sheets get brought up denying racist incarceration. We see it when marriage is falsely cited as always only being about one man and one woman. We see it when wage gaps get dismissed because someone thinks it matters if it’s a quarter or five cents. And Jung feeds this fallacy to a tee when she neglects to address the tactics of the Infant Formula Council specifically targeting breastfeeding families. Evidenced by decades of data on illegal and unethical marketing strategies that make her not so supportive prenatal group look like cheer-leading practice for the homecoming queen.

Probably one of the bigger offenses in Jung’s Op Ed is her placating reference to initiation of breastfeeding among WoC. Jung completely ignores the cultural stigma and inherent racism in healthcare systems these women face in this reproductive decisions — realities most women won’t ever comprehend. But in the Op Ed, Jung only draws a correlation to poverty in an effort to pretend that breastfeeding is positioned as the white woman’s mark of good parenting. For a political science professor, it’s unconscionable how incredibly inherently racist that suggestion is. Because “the breastfeeding imperative” actually includes devoted times to focus on the specific needs of WoC. An imperative Jung disregards because she’s only focused on the anecdotal shaming of the white elite.

Like any good appeal to the masses argument, Jung justifies the martyr complex by taking aim at government policy. She turns her attention towards initiatives and subsidies and entirely misrepresents both in order to pretend the majority of women choosing alternatives are actually being “punished” when they don’t breastfeed.

Her argument begins by asserting that hospitals are denying or limiting access to infant formula. It’s simply not true. The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative is not actually hindering access to infant formula. This myth has been debunked for several years but continues to gain traction every time one of these essays gets circulated.

The facts are that of the 10,000+ hospitals and birthing centers in the United States, less than 300 are designated Breastfeed or Baby Friendly. While a BFI designation calls for an end to default distribution of a manufacturer’s product to women, close to 65% of birthing facilities in the United States still distribute infant formula to new mothers upon discharge from the hospital. Quite frankly, less than 3% of facilities requesting the end of free distribution of a product proven to influence consumer habits and evidenced to sabotage women’s reproductive decisions is hardly denial of access. It’s more like not wanting medical personnel to function as product reps. There is no evidence that hospitals in the United States keep infant formula under lock and key. In addition, BFI specifically states family/patient-centered education and that a mother’s request to use formula exclusively or supplement should be honored.

As to the voucher program instituted by WIC (Women, Infants & Children) where Jung insists poor women are punished or coerced when it comes to using their bodies to breastfeed? Jung complains that it’s simply not fair that WIC offers different vouchers to breastfeeding families than those who choose formula for their babies. There are a few points to break down in her argument. First, lactating women have entirely different nutritional requirements than those not producing milk. Much like postpartum women differ from those who are pregnant. The physiological maternal investment in supplying the food to sustain the life of offspring is immense. Breastfed infants and infants fed formula also differ in their diets. Any suggestion that nutritional assistance programs shouldn’t account for these facts is absurd beyond comprehension. Finally, it’s actually about allocation of funds. Additional food vouchers for nursing families were implemented to balance the bias towards non breastfeeding families.

But regardless, WIC isn’t actually successful at incentivizing anything. Most families on the program wean early. As of 2012, close to 8 million participated in this program, 76% were children, with close to half being a year or younger. The median duration of breastfeeding was 12 weeks. And since Jung was so keen on mentioning profits tied to advocacy, I’m surprised she didn’t go over the readily available data showing that the major purchaser of infant formula in the United States is, in fact, WIC. Profits are precisely why infant formula manufacturers fight for the bid, sometimes rebating the product to 15% wholesale cost. Because whoever wins the bid, wins the market: 92% of grocery market sales and over half of other retailers. Exactly who is targeting these poor families again?

The fact is that Jung decided she could capitalize on perpetuating myths. She knew it was easier to align with the norm and squash the needs of the oppressed than to actually strive for any real difference. If Jung can convince enough people that they are the victims of policy changes and adjustments in norms in systems, she will have an ever growing audience of like minded privileged people validating the arguments. Sadly, this is the exact opposite of empathy and social justice.

And that brings me to Jung’s final point, one that shows most clearly that any research she did was cursory. Jung insists that breastfeeding advocacy is dismissive of autonomy, that choice isn’t relevant in culture for this minority. Let’s see:

La Leche League was founded to give information and encouragement, mainly through personal help, to all mothers who want to breastfeed their babies.” ~ La Leche League Purpose (emphasis mine). 197k+(U.S.) social media community.

We are mostly concerned with supporting the 86% of women who want to breastfeed to get through the 6–8 week learning curve so they can go on to nurse for as long as they desire.” ~ Best for Babes, What We Believe (emphasis mine). 91k+ social media community.

Respecting that their journey will be their own.” ~ The Leaky Boob, “What I Want My Daughters To Know About Motherhood — Feeding Babies”. 200k+ social media community.

“My passion [is] for defending a woman’s right to [breastfeed] however, wherever, and for however long she chooses.” ~ Breastfeeding Mama Talk “Meet Our Team/Kristy” (emphasis mine). 400k+ social media community.

“It does not matter how long you breastfed or even if you used alternative feeding methods at some point, your story is welcome. This is a judgment-free zone.” ~ Black Women Do Breastfeed. 100k+ social media community

“I believe that modern society is too complicated to say that there is one way for all mothers to do things.” ~ The Badass Breastfeeder, “What I Believe”. 200k+ social media community.

Those are some of the most notable advocacy groups serving the United States (and the globe). They join multitudes of others who share the sentiment that empowering women includes supporting this reproductive choice. Perhaps Jung doesn’t view a decision to breastfeed as worthy, even though Jung said herself she was able to make that choice effortlessly?

That reeks of hypocrisy.

The truth is that we aren’t going to see the changes in systems most all families agree we need if we decide to silence that very support by slamming advocacy. Obviously systems are imperfect. Obviously learning curves hurt. Obviously there’s got to be a point where we don’t allow people like Jung to further divide if the goal is support.

It’s on that note it’s important to come back to exactly how destructive these types of arguments are for humanity. I appreciate that women experience uncomfortable intrusion. I appreciate that many facilities instituting BFI are failing women in the efforts to offer help and education. I appreciate that initiatives from the government are usually flawed in execution. I appreciate that many many people are hurting. I absolutely fight for autonomy and empathy and do not dismiss the very real experiences of women harmed repeatedly by healthcare in our country. The difference is, none of these issues are exclusive to breastfeeding advocacy. Every woman has a story of being disillusioned, disappointed and outright failed by medical personnel and facilities. But unlike those targeting to blame one specific area of care, I’d rather be objective enough to understand precisely how we got here.

We were not even studying the heart of a female body until recent history. To this day, we still don’t take women’s complaints of pain seriously. We spend thousands of tax dollars fighting to shut down reproductive health options and we think pink cleats on football players in October makes some sort of difference in cancer awareness. (It doesn’t). Women are facing systemic bias in their care all across this nation. Tell me, when we place such little priority in society on fighting off the number one killers of women, are we really so surprised we have piss poor care in lactation counseling?

Part of advocacy is addressing the larger systemic issues that impact families on the individual level. If our answer is to shut down activism as it pertains to all areas in this reproductive decision, then we’re suggesting we’re okay with the status quo, which for many women might mean being man handled and for others might mean being misinformed. There are solutions to how we approach the healthcare people receive. But they don’t include pretending “lactivism” is the enemy. And they certainly don’t include the families who are covered by the social status of the majority norm telling those who are struggling to reach their own personal goals that their decisions don’t really matter in the long run.

Don’t take Jung’s bait. Advocacy isn’t about “overselling breastfeeding”. It’s about taking steps to eradicate decades and centuries of squashing autonomy. It’s telling women they have a right to education, empowerment and encouragement in this reproductive decision. It’s telling families that if they choose to keep lactating as part of reproducing, they will have available a support system to keep them going. Because we know that at every turn society will be telling them differently.

Jung’s push back to silence that support with a martyr cry from the majority isn’t original or revolutionary. She joins a long line of journalists, authors and bloggers who claim they are tired of the conversation on breastfeeding. She joins a long line of people exploiting experiences for individual gain. It’s not a new trope. It’s not that surprising. But it isn’t going to work. Because for those of us who care about autonomy and true reproductive choice, advocacy for this minority is a conversation we are going to keep having.

Don’t let Jung’s decision to shill her book convince you she really cares. There are far too many inaccuracies and fallacies in her argument to help any family anywhere. Don’t buy into the hype that supporting someone else equals unfair. Because regardless of Jung’s characterization, advocacy for breastfeeding families is necessary and isn’t going anywhere. No matter how many Op Eds get printed or how many books hit the shelves, nothing will stop the life changing efforts to lift these families up.


*Reproduction has a long history of imperfect. The expectation that conception, pregnancy, delivery or lactating is fail safe is false.

A footnote: I do not advocate for breastfeeding. I advocate for autonomy. I advocate for the change of systemic injustice against individuals and families at a societal level. I will fight for your right to make a choice with your body for any reason you deem acceptable. I will not, however, equalize individual anecdotes as comparable. There are no fewer than fifty incidents of violations of legal rights and discrimination against breastfeeding families in the press this year alone, many including harassment from our government — including law enforcement. That is just the United States and does not account for additional incidents reported/unreported that we’ll never know. And when those incidents hit the press, “indecency” censors and public opinion polls go up. That data alone trumps any argument that regardless of how we feed our children, we’re all fighting an equal battle. “Just feed the babies” is not as easy as that sentiment suggests for many many families.

This piece originally published at elizabethgrattan.com on October 20,2015

Elizabeth Grattan is a broadcast talent and writer who has covered current events, human interest and social justice for over twenty-five years. Her loves are the strong, gentle arms of her best friend, reasonably priced blended reds and her dream come true little man. Find & friend Elizabeth on FB or follow along on Twitter.

Elizabeth Grattan

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