Over the past couple of days, the interwebs have been all atwitter about the promotion of this breastfeeding doll:
The doll simulates suckling at a woman’s breast when it is positioned near the accompanying flowering halter top. When I first saw an advertisement for it, I was completely unmoved. I don’t mean in a negative or dismissive way. I mean, the flowers on the halter top are a little strange, but the doll seemed kinda normal that I didn’t even think of blogging about it.
…that was until the maelstrom of criticisms about it began streaming on my facebook and twitter feeds.
I’m no breastfeeding expert or lactation consultant, so I’ll kindly re-direct you to Jeanine from it’s better at home or Elita at Blacktating for consultations and resources on where to the latest studies and find support. Then, there’s also the book that Jeanine and I are working on (Liquid Gold: Black Mother’s Breastfeeding)…but, I digress.
First, a dear friend from high school posted the video on facebook and initiated a conversation centered around how “inappropriate” she feels the doll is. Everyone who responded supported her position. Why, you ask? Well, one mother expressed concern that such a doll encourages young girls to become mothers at too young of an age. Huh? Correct me if I’m off base here, but how does a breastfeeding doll encourage parenthood any more than a regular doll – or one that cries, poops, pees…or drinks from a bottle. Never once do I hear or read these same women complaining that dolls as a category of toys promotes early parenting – nevermind the common language of calling children by parenting titles like “mama” or “papa.” I make no judgment about whether or not these titles are appropriate, but I think there is some inconsistency in this line of thinking. Let’s be real about this, this doll puts a spotlight on a female’s potential capacity to bear and feed children from her own body.
This last point is significant to me because the other major criticism I’ve heard does focus on the physiological process of breastfeeding. A writer from the Crunk Feminist Collective wrote a lengthy response. Her piece does lots of things from raising concern that the doll socializes girls about breastfeeding too early, suggests that the government is leaning towards compulsory breastfeeding (???), and implies that breastfeeding is “uncompensated bodily labor.” Let me qualify my response to this with the admission that I know too little about feminist theory and thought to debate its edges, but I am a thinking woman and find myself utterly confused here. If feminism is about a woman having the ability to choose, I’m all for women being being prepared with experiences and information (to the extent possible) to make decisions from a place of empowerment.
As parents, we want to maintain some control over our children’s exposure to certain acts and topics – far be it from me to decide for any family what those should be. However, just because we WANT to, doesn’t mean that we will. When it comes to socializing our children around what babies eat, all of us may be many, many years behind the curve if we wait until our children are teens to introduce breastfeeding as normal, healthy, or beautiful. At least where I live, I can go months without seeing breastfeeeding occur outside of the crunchy circles, but formula and bottles damn near have movie product placement in real life. The reality is that though breastfeeding is the physiological default for our species, it is not the norm in our society. Virtually every mother I know at least attempted to breastfeed, however, almost all of us receive(d) free free formula offers on a daily basis. However, I rarely see any mention, promotion, or praise of breastfeeding in the real world unless I seek it out.
To the CFC author’s other points, there’s a vast difference between the government promoting on a billboard or pamphlet and seeing babies drink bottles of formula all day, every day in your life context. Other than the recent allowance of tax deductions for breastfeeding items and a commitment to enforce workplace support of nursing mothers, I don’t know what the author is using to deduce that the government is headed toward “compelling” breastfeeding. Furthermore, the perspective that mothers are unjustly denied compensation for lactating and breastfeeding is a bit provocative. In general, I think this country is doing a piss-poor job of supporting families as they care for newborns and infants. Maternity leave, paternity leave, and FMLA are a joke unless you happen to work for an organization that goes above and beyond government mandates. I’m assuming that the compensation the author means is monetary and in that case, I wonder why there is the assumption that any activity a person engages in should be framed as a financial transaction. We don’t ask why sex, laughter, or eating aren’t monetarily compensated and they involve bodily labor as well.
Anyhow, whenever we frame the discussion in a formula vs. breastfeeding way, we almost inevitably end up on the topic of how breastfeeding is hard for lots of women or how someone wasn’t able to for any number of reasons. I really try to empathize with the emotional position of women who want to breastfeed, but find themselves unable. The recurrence of this response in forums where breastfeeding is promoted make me believe that more needs to be done to support those women’s choices. This is why I think we should be promoting more breastfeeding resources and exposure, rather than condemning them. Before the advent of formula, breastfeeding would not have been as taboo or hidden and we would all have had more exposure to the spectrum of experiences women can have with it just by virtue of being around mothers. And, since there is no biological difference between women’s breasts pre-formula and post-, I’m comfortable assuming that most of us (who want to) actually can breastfeed with support. When we as women and supporters of breastfeeding are able to pass on knowledge, tips, and encouragement, we can help normalize breastfeeding and equip women to make the relationship successful and satisfying. For breastfeeding rates among African-American women to be as low as they are, a much more productive use of our time would be to present breastfeeding as normal long before girls become women and to promote the resources (books, classes, videos, magazines, lactation consultants, midwives…come on, there are so many!) that can actually help women who want to have breastfeeding experiences that they seek regardless of their income and race.
And, where the doll comes in, if you don’t want your child to play with it, just don’t buy it.
I wonder if this doll will be available for brown babies.