On June 9 of this year, Misty Deaugereaux enjoyed pool time with her children at the Nessler Park Family Aquatic Center in Texas City. As per normal, her ten-month old baby decided it was time to eat. Unable to leave her two sons and nephew unattended, Misty remained where she was and tried to discreetly breastfeed her baby. The manager along with a lifeguard quickly noticed, approached her, and informed her that breastfeeding violated the pool’s rules. The manager said, “[she] needed you cover up or leave” (Williams, 2019).
It’s no news to any American onlooker that freely breastfeeding in public still qualifies as taboo to many people; however, this taboo is receiving significant backlash. Misty’s story did not end with her respectfully leaving the pool, but with her snapping back to the manager and lifeguard. After refusing to leave, the police were called, and Misty was asked to leave the pool. Ironically, the state and pool authorities failed to uphold the new law protecting a mother’s right to breastfeed in public. Misty’s story exemplifies the many unheard motherly voices tired of nursing in a closet and frustrated about a potentially offended public. Misty’s experience at the pool demonstrates a way in which societal stigmas and distaste for public breastfeeding contribute toward the low levels of breastfeeding in the United States.
Most research demonstrates general public support for breastfeeding. But then, why don’t more women feel comfortable breastfeeding in public? In a 2002 study, 27 percent of the participants expressed that breastfeeding in public was embarrassing. Americans typically agree that breastfeeding is natural and healthy, but they do not want to see it in public (Foss, 2018). Why not? According to The Milky Way documentary, society has sexualized breasts making the act of breastfeeding intrusive, especially to men (Davidson, 2014). Women who breastfeed publicly are perceived as less attractive, lazy, bad parents or lacking in self-respect and privacy (Grant, 2016). One study conducted in 2017 argued that men view public breastfeeding less favorably than private breastfeeding which thereby affects women’s confidence to publicly breastfeed (Magnusson, 2017).
Within the culture of breastfeeding, various agents of socialization affect a woman’s confidence and desire to breastfeed in public. For example, male opinion, female opinion (especially the older generation), social media, formula companies, feminist groups, and even the federal law all act as agents of socialization in numerous ways. Agents of socialization can come in many forms; they educate society – either actively or passively – about how a man or woman (or mother in this case) should act. The recent U.S. federal law, for example, is an agent attempting to actively socialize the breastfeeding culture and teach society to accept public breastfeeding more. The breastfeeding culture in the United States actively and passively sends messages to women and creates the social construct of breastfeeding.
Based on the above information, it’s no surprise that the breastfeeding culture in the U.S. shows strong correlation with the low breastfeeding rates. Studies agree that breastfeeding behavior is closely tied with the cultural and social norms of the region. In fact, social norms affect breastfeeding habits more than a woman’s knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding affects her breastfeeding habits (Scott, 2014). Unique to the United States, only 25 percent of Americans exclusively breastfeed for at least six months (CDC, 2018). Additionally, the U.S. is one of the only four countries in the world that does not require a mandatory paid parental leave (Davidson, 2014).
The negative stigmas with public breastfeeding are starkly contrasted with the positive views toward breastfeeding in the home (Grant, 2016). This social expectation pressures women to stay at home if they want to breastfeed comfortably. However, being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t fit many women’s lifestyles, and if it does, a typical stay-at-home mother’s lifestyle is not conducive to remaining home at all times. Thus, the remaining options are to find a nursing room/closet or don’t nurse at all, i.e., use formula. It’s no surprise that breastfeeding is linked to the MeToo movement and why women breastfeeding levels are exceptionally low in the United States (Fitzgerald, 2014).
Associated Press. “Breastfeeding Report Card.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Updated 2018. Accessed November 25, 2019. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/ breastfeeding/data/reportcard.htm#:~:targetText=What%20Do%20the%20Numbers%20Tell,were%20breastfeeding%20at%2012%20months.
Davidson, Jennifer, Jon Fitzgerald, Chantal Molnar, Meredith Perry, Amy Rosner. The Milky
Way. Directed by Jon Fitzgerald. Released in the US April 2014. In France October 2016. Accessed 11/22/19. Available at https://byu.kanopy.com/video/milky-way 0?fbclid=IwAR2THFwMPuTh9YgDgX KxDHPYAClub_y7KLUOOtvnGRw5GgerkjiMHFhqU24
Foss, Katherine. 2018. “It’s Natural and Healthy, but I don’t Want to See It.: Using
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Magnusson, Brianna, Callie Thackeray, Sarah Wagenen. 2017. “Perceptions of Public
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Rouwei, Li, Fred Fridinger, Laurence Grummer-Strawn. 2002. “Public Perceptions on
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Scott, Jane, Yin Kwok, Kate Synnott, Joe Bogue, Sergio Amarri, Elizabeth Norin, Angel Gil,
Christine Edwards, other Members of the INFABIO Project Team. 2014. “A Comparison of Maternal Attitudes to Breastfeeding in Public and the Association with Breastfeeding Duration in Four European Countries: Results of a Cohort Study.” Journal of Birth: Issues in Preinatal Care vol. 42 no. 1: 1-96.
Williams, David. “A Texas Mom Says She was Kicked Out of a City Pool for Breastfeeding Her
Baby.” Published June 11, 2019. Accessed November 22, 2019. Available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/11/health/texas-breastfeeding-pool-trnd/index.html