Thursday, January 12, 2006

Nipplephobia

Nipplephobia: "an acute mental disorder that is epidemic in North America. It causes irrational behavior and rudeness to mothers who are providing the best nourishment for their babies."

This definition was published in a 1998 piece by Debbie Friedman in The Birth Gazette. She goes on to write:
Ina May Gaskin, a widely-respected midwife of many years and editor of the Birth Gazette, coined the term and adds that nipplephobia is cured by visual stimulus overload. In lay lingo, this means watching great numbers of women breastfeed their children in public places.

It's not that Americans don't like to see breasts. Shove breasts in tight swim suits on Baywatch, and ratings, among other things, rise. Breasts are used successfully, with few, if any, complaints to sell everything from cars to vacations. Why is it that when a baby, or worse yet, a toddler, is put to its mothers breast many Americans get angry and offended?

The reasons are plentiful: a general lack of education and support, a shortage of Baby-Friendly hospitals and staff, confused and narrow ideas about sexuality, mixed up feminist ideology that equates breastfeeding with repression of women, and sophisticated and aggressive marketing of infant formula, to name only a few. Nipplephobia is as good a theory as anything else put forth, and maybe, just maybe, there are small signs of the cure creeping into our collective consciousness.
The author goes on to examine representations of breastfeeding in media, suggesting that the more images of breastfeeding women are visible, the less resistance mothers will experience.

There seem to be considerable misperceptions about breastfeeding in the United States, and I wonder if these also contribute to attitudes toward breastfeeding women. A 2002 study published in the Journal of Human Lactaction [18(3): 227-235] surveyed 2,351 U.S. residents, and found that:

  • 31% thought babies should be fed cereal or baby food by 3 months of age

  • 31% thought one-year-olds should not be breastfed.
    With regards to this and the previous point, according to the CDC, "the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfeeding continue for at least 12 months, and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond."

  • 27% thought it was embarrassing for a mother to breastfeed in front of others (if nearly 1/3 of people think breastfeeding is embarrassing, is it any wonder Gaskin came up with her "nipplephobia" description?) Less-educated, lower income, rural, and unemployed respondants were more likely to agree that breastfeeding was embarrassing.

    A similar study published in a 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association [104(7): 1162-1168] found that 43.1% of respondants believed women should have the right to breastfeed in public places, yet only 27.9% thought it was appropriate to show a breastfeeding woman on television. Finally, a 2005 article in the Journal of Human Lactaction [21(3): 284:288] found regional variation in support of breastfeeding women (and by extension, their babies), with survey participants in the East South Central region (TN, KY, MS, AL) having the least accurate responses to questions about how breastfeeding affects babies' health and the lowest levels of support for breastfeeding on tv and in public. We're conflicted, y'all. And in a lot of cases, we don't actually know what we're talking about.

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    MeSH Tags: Breast Feeding
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