Monday, April 11, 2011


The recent release of "Spoiled Milk:An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed", Montana State University's studies in attitudes to breastfeeding, published in the "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin", seemed to have found their way into the press both here in New Zealand and internationally.
Background from which the studies were set up ~
"In 2008, Facebook ...... forbade photographs of breastfeeding mothers if any part of the areola was showing. Facebook declared such photos "obscene, pornographic, and offensive" and removed them from websites. ....... Moreover, empirical evidence suggests that people feel offended by and less comfortable with a woman who nurses in public compared to one who nurses privately. ....... As a cause or consequence of this sexualization of the maternal breast, mothers who breastfeed often go to great lengths to avoid the public 'male gaze' and being 'misread as sexual'. ........ "
"Given that a woman's breast is highly sexualized in Western cultures, it follows that to the extent that sexualized women are devalued and mothers are devalued, the breastfeeding mother may be particularly prone to experiencing bias. ....."
Tests by Montana State University were set up with the "hypothesis that breastfeeding mothers are the victims of bias."
The experimental studies involved student participants with the average age of twenty years.
Findings ~
"These results (from all three studies) confirm that knowledge that a woman who is lactating serves as a source of bias in how observers perceive her level of competence." ......
" ...... an unwillingness to hire the breastfeeding mother. This behavioral intention, coupled with the consistently low ratings of workplace capabilities ...... suggests that the probability of workplace discrimination is high for nursing mothers. ....."
"We speculate that this somewhat more negative view of the maternal breast is because a mother's breasts are viewed as instruments (objects) meant to be handled by her lover or her infant and that sexual conflation (putting together two variant elements, the combination possibly producing confusion) of the maternal breast resulted in the negative views of the breastfeeding mother. This link, however remains for future research to determine."

"Spoiled Milk:An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed" : Jessi Smith, Kristin Hawkinson, Kelli Paull of Montana State University,  published March 18 2011.

The findings of the Montana State University study was that the public perceived a breastfeeding mother to be less competent, less likely to get a job and less competent mathematically, than a woman who bottle fed her baby.
Journalists and parents alike have reacted to these studies and their conclusions. David Berreby in "Proof That People are Prejudice Against Breast-Feeding Women? Not So Fast." at says, "I noticed that not one media report about this article took a step back to ask about the path from experiment to conclusion.... If we want to understand what the behavioral sciences can tell us about ourselves, we're going to have to do better than that."
The Auckland Sunday Star-Times readers' panel said, "Perhaps this panelist summed it up best: 'It's time we taught all our sons that breasts have a practical use beyond giving them a subject for crass jokes'. "
Lisa Belkin at the New York Times site Motherlode, linked the Montana University studies with the recent Durham University research, "that the longer a mother is pregnant and the longer she nurses, the larger her baby's brain." (This was in fact more to do with the comparison of varied lengths of gestation and mothers feeding between different species, rather than the varied length of human pregnancies and feeding) Then Lisa asked the question, "Still, more breast feeding more brain growth - reason to encourage nursing no matter what the perceived competence, right?"
May be you are gasping and gaping to hear this is how three American sample groups of students view breastfeeding mothers. The researchers particularly made the point that this age group "of childbearing age", were appropriate to be the sample groups. A separate groups of students was used for each of the three studies. The researchers also stated that they believed the perceptions of this age group were an accurate measure of the views held by the general public. They believed the general public's attitude to the competence of breastfeeding mothers would be far lower than the students' perception. But possibly, as David Berreby writes, there is too much surmising going on between experiment and conclusions.
The fact that the research used Brooke Shields as the identity of motherhood in the first study, caused some to immediately push the study 'out the window'. But on reading the study she was used identically in all categories for breastfeeding and bottle feeding. Their reasons for their choice was that they believed Brooke to be both well known and popular and respected by the age group of the participants in the experiment. I personally was surprised and still think other identities would have better filled the 'well known, well respected' criteria.
Large amounts of the study material discussed the "objectification theory" which the researchers believed to be prevalent in Western culture. "....individuals - particularly women - are subject to experiences that highlight body parts as 'things' to be used or looked at by others ..... This compartmentalization of a woman's body reduces her value to that of an object rather than a whole embodied person...."  ( You may wish to read my post WEEK 24 QUOTE 24 on "Modesty", which looks into this area)
As an example, they spoke of larger breasted women "under male gaze" as being interpreted with low worth and value. From here the Montana team moved onto say ".... assuming the sexualization of the maternal breast, objectification theory would predict that not only will women who are high in self-objectification feel more shame and embarrassment with public breastfeeding, ...... but onlookers should prejudge women who breastfeed with the same negative bias they use to judge sexualized women."
If you live here in New Zealand, I am told that the view towards mothers who breastfeed is not so severe or biased. Are we 'behind' in the trend, or could we be the new trend-setters? I am also told that the American view is equally held by those in Britain and that Australians are currently somewhere in between the American and New Zealand mindset.
The Montana State University study encouraged as did a number of writers, that the present American attitude could and should be influenced, even changed, by what present and future mothers do.
Therefore I intend to write two more posts on Breastfeeding ~ one on the public call for discretion by mothers who breastfeed, and ~ another, an interview with a long-term friend who has an incredibly impressive career practicing as a midwife.

THISWEEKWITHTHEKIDS ~ If you're presently a breastfeeding mum or one from the past, publicly educate your community by expressing YOUR thoughts on the Montana State University findings. It may begin that needed influence for change in the mindset of our communities.


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