Since August is National Breastfeeding Month, celebrities took to social media to commemorate the occasion.
Mandy Moore shared a black and white photo on Instagram with her husband and son Gus, writing that “breastfeeding doesn’t always go smoothly… rewarding experience that I will cherish forever.”
Iskra Lawrence became equally vulnerable, admitting that her 13-month breastfeeding journey was “challenging,” but she “cherished every second of it.”
Other famous moms have also opened up, including Ashley Graham, Ashley Tisdale, Shawn Johnson and Coco Austin, who is still breastfeeding 5-year-old Chanel Nicole.
While popular figures who are candid about breastfeeding are admirable, making the subject less taboo and demystifying the practice, there’s still something missing from the conversation: black women.
So why aren’t black women participating in — or being left out — of the stigma-breaking internet discourse? The answer is not simple.
By the numbers
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), black women have the lowest percentage of breastfeeding of all racial groups, just under 70 percent, compared with 85 percent of white mothers and 82 percent of women overall.
There is also the high black maternal and infant mortality (which, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, was 10.8 percent compared to 4.6 percent of white infants) in this country,
Tracie Collins, CEO and founder of the National Black Doulas Association, which provides a national list of black doulas and resources, noted the dark history behind black women and breastfeeding, dating back to slavery.
“We Came In America” [being told] “You can’t breastfeed your own baby, but ours can.” So there’s still that stigma that black culture faces,” she explains. “Black babies [weren’t] being breastfed because we were nurses. So our ancestors were like, ‘No, we don’t. We don’t breastfeed our babies and then bottle feeding became the right choice. And this is what you do. And in a way it became more sought after or glorified.”
Hypersexualization of black women’s bodies similarly predates slavery, which has deepened stigma and discourages initiation of breastfeeding.
Other challenges black mothers face when it comes to breastfeeding include the lack of access to the support and resources they need.
“I was very excited about breastfeeding,” Kimberly Seales Allers, co-founder of Black Breastfeeding Week, held August 25-31, recalls becoming a mother. “But I had a lot of challenges. In the hospital they gave my baby food against my will. I remember having to travel far to find a breastfeeding support group because there was none in my area and my own family, who are typically my biggest cheerleaders through life and even graduating students said things like, “breastfeeding is for poor people.” So I didn’t have much support in my own family and social network.”
What can be done to destigmatize breastfeeding among black women?
Seales Allers recognizes that food is the best, but prides itself on enduring adversity, as breastfeeding has shaped her journey as a mother. However, she believes that much needs to be done to ensure that others can have similar experiences.
“We need a federal paid leave policy that makes sense,” said Seales Allers. “We live in the only industrialized country that doesn’t have a federal paid leave policy that would really view motherhood as important work, with paid time off that would also allow time to breastfeed. Studies show that 25 percent of mothers in the US go back to work 10 days after giving birth. This is disgusting and unacceptable!”
Collins agrees that resources are important and puts an emphasis on doulas, which is what more black women are turning to. “When it comes to breastfeeding, it’s more about letting them know what their options are, where resources are available to them,” she says. “It’s important that they are matched with people who are like them and can understand their culture. That way they can feel more relaxed because we understand the representation issues. There are plenty of resources. … but if resources are not easily known If there’s no opportunity, we’re the last on the totem pole to hear, but always the first to be taken advantage of,” Collins says.
Change the conversation
In order for black women to even consider posting about breastfeeding on Instagram, Seales Allers believes breastfeeding conversations need to be normalized within the community first. She also suggests a change of perspective: “Stop hypersexualizing breasts so mommies can feel free to use them for their biological purpose. Think of breastfeeding as black recovery and liberation. They’ve taken something from us and we’re taking it back.” !”