Biased against breastfeeding

Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune writes about a study out of Oxford University that shows that, while breast-fed babies fare better at school, the number of American women who choose to breastfeed is “stagnant and low.”

The reason? Apparently, breastfeeding women are judged more harshly:

Research just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reports mothers who breastfeed are widely viewed as less competent than otherwise identical females. This disturbing finding was obtained in three separate studies, one of which also found breastfeeding is a handicap for women hoping to be hired for a job.

“Importantly, we did not find evidence that gender of the participant influenced perceptions of the breastfeeding mother,” notes the research team led by Montana State University psychologist Jessi L. Smith.

The experiments that Smith and her colleagues conducted are interesting. Their results show it isn’t parenting per se that colors views of competency:

Rather, the culprit seems to be the mental image of her breasts, whether they’re being used as instruments of sexual allure or infant nutrition. “A woman may not breastfeed because of worry over how she will be evaluated by other people,” the researchers conclude. “Data from the current project suggest this worry may be warranted, to the extent that breastfeeding is a devalued social category.”

So what’s the solution? Smith and her colleagues say health professionals should “teach pregnant women about the sexism they might encounter” when they breastfeed. They also argue that the only way this bias will diminish is if more women choose to breastfeed openly:

“More visible breastfeeding mothers should prompt people to wrestle with and debate the issues,” they write. “With time, greater numbers of women who breastfeed translates to less prejudice.”

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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