Monday, April 4, 2011

Breastfeeding and societal views of women

Emily's note:  I added my husband Evan as a contributor to this blog.  Here's his first post.  Although he's not a woman (uh, thankfully), he sure gets me thinking sometimes about women's issues.  Don't mind his organization; he just defended his master's research.

I was recently directed to a blog post entitled "Most Think Breastfeeding Moms Are Stupid." The article talks about some studies that have been done about what people think of breastfeeding mothers. In the studies, people are told stories about women who bottlefeed and women who breastfeed.  Then, the people were questioned about their attitudes toward the women in these scenarios. The answers to these questions are used to measure societal attitudes toward breastfeeding. The blog warns that if you breastfeed, that people will think you are stupid.

The mothers that commented on the post were almost universally shocked and offended that others would be so ignorant of the benefit of breastfeeding and would judge breastfeeders so harshly. After reviewing the article linked by the blog post and thinking about people's reaction to the article, I've come to view the results of the studies in a slightly different light. I also believe that people's reactions to the studies may be more instructive on societal attitudes than the studies themselves.

While I am not completely settled in my thoughts on this matter, I though I'd share my current thinking with the hope of understanding it better. I'll first share what I think the studies reflect about societal attitudes. I'll then discuss the further insight I think we can gain from people's reaction to the studies.

The Study
While the title of the blog post seemed to focus (and sensationalize) on the aspect of the studies that showed that women in stories who breastfeed were perceived as less competent in general and especially less competent in math, it failed to mention some of the other findings of the studies. For example, the study showed that when a story about a woman in a strapless bra was told she was also perceived as less competent like the woman in the stories about breastfeeding. The studies also indicated that stories of women in both groups (breastfeeders and strapless bra wearers) were more likely to be perceived as being significantly more warm and friendly than stories of women who bottle fed.

A possible explanation for the perception of less competence in these two groups is that society holds two separate prejudices, one against breastfeeders and another against women in strapless bras. While this is possible, I think a more likely explanation is simply that when the person's female gender is emphasized in the story, people tend to perceive the her as less competent.

In western society, warmth and friendliness are labeled as "feminine" and so it should not be surprising that people would strongly associate those attributes with a person who's female gender has been emphasized by drawing attention to the breast. It should also not be surprising that people would de-emphasize intelligence (especially mathematics) which are labeled as "masculine" in western society. Please note that I am not defending or justifying these placement of the "masculine" and "feminine" labels, but simply asserting that these labels exist and I am, therefore, not surprised by these results. I think the results of the studies say more about current societal views of the "feminine" and the "masculine" than on society's view of breastfeeding.

The Reaction
While I believe the study does emphasize what attributes society labels as "masculine" and "feminine," I think the reactions to the study shows how society values the "masculine" and "feminine." As mentioned before, the study found that stronger associations with warmth and friendliness and weaker associations with competence and mathematical ability. People's reaction to these results were almost universally negative. Why would people in general, and mothers specifically, react so harshly to being considered warm, friendly, less competent, and having less mathematical ability?

It could be that our "quick to be offended" culture leads people to focus on the negative (less competent) and overlook the positive (warm and friendly). It could also be that many feel that motherhood and breastfeeding are under constant attack and so people have become sensitized to additional attacks. While I think that both these explanations likely contributed to the negative reaction to these studies, I think there is another element involved. In addition to the false dichotomy of the masculine and feminine labels that are established by western culture, the culture also values the masculine and de-values the feminine.

Evidence of the valuing of the masculine and de-valuing of the feminine can be seen in the reaction to these studies. Being perceived as warm and friendly are not highly valued because they are associated with the feminine. Being competent and good with mathematics are highly valued because they are associated with the masculine. Members of a culture that had a high regard for friendliness and warmth would have likely had a positive reaction to this study. Likewise I suspect that the reaction to these studies would have been less harsh had the results been that those that breastfeed were considered more competent and able in mathematics, but less warm and friendly.

If we want to change society's view of motherhood, womanhood, and breastfeeding, it is not enough to change what attributes receive the "feminine" label and what attributes receive the "masculine" label, but we must also must learn to value the feminine. We must value the "feminine" attributes like "nurturing," "warmth," "kindness," "meekness," and "emotional" as equal in value to their "masculine" counterparts of "competence, "logical," "strength," and "assertiveness." I suspect that people from cultures that honor and value motherhood and the feminine would be equally bewildered by the harsh reactions to the studies as they would be to the results of the studies themselves.

No comments: