When popular equals dominant. Emily B. Anzicek’s study on the “Boob-Swinging Derelicts” and women’s lifestyle blogs, adapted from a chapter in Advancing Breastfeeding: Forging Partnerships for a Better Tomorrow
According to Internet data analytic firm comScore, North American women spent an average of 37.6 hours per month online in 2010. During those hours, 33.6% of women visited a “lifestyle” website (Abraham, Mörn, & Vollman, 2010). These websites are most often marketed to women and include coverage of a wide range of topics including:
A subset of lifestyle blogs is geared toward younger women, particularly those 18 to 35 years old. This study examines four of these blogs that cater to younger women, Jezebel, xoJane, The Hairpin, and The Gloss, to explore what ideologies of breastfeeding are espoused by each.
Popular = dominant
The methodology of this study is situated in cultural studies. These are value-laden, normalizing particular ideologies. In cultural studies, popular texts are important because they constitute so much of a person’s everyday life. We can see online texts as perhaps even more dominant than any others now, since the Internet is such an all-consuming form of media. In their discussion of the importance of the popular, Durham and Kellner argue that popular texts are prejudicial of difference (from the dominant), and have the power to influence how people think and act (Durham & Kellner, 2001). In the scope of this study, I argue that currently, breastfeeding is not the ideologically dominant approach to infant feeding, so therefore, popular texts are prejudicial against breastfeeding. As such, breastfeeding rates in the United States could be affected by this prejudicial approach. Furthermore, Durham and Kellner argue that popular texts reinforce dominant ideologies, naturalizing dominant values. In terms of breastfeeding, within popular texts, formula-feeding becomes the “natural” approach to infant feeding.
Social norms, or ideologies, are the biggest barriers to breastfeeding that American women experience. Breastfeeding activist group, Best for Babes, refers to these as “cultural booby traps,” or cultural barriers to breastfeeding success (“What are the Booby Traps,” n.d.). Some of the cultural barriers Best for Babes identifies include:
- horror stories told by friends about breastfeeding
- overzealous or “militant” breastfeeding advocates
- large amounts of misinformation online.
The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2011) also identifies social norms and lack of social support as major barriers to breastfeeding success. Many scholars and activists have noted that breastfeeding is not perceived as normal, or typical, in the United States. As a result, women experience problems breastfeeding in public:
- expressing milk at work is frequently made difficult
- women are rarely allowed to bring babies to work to feed at the breast
- media images show babies drinking from bottles and breastfeeding as difficult.
For the purposes of this study, I define women’s lifestyle blogs as those marketed towards and framed for young women that focus on a wide range of information and topics, including:
I selected this wider range of topics because I am interested in how ideology affects women’s perspectives on breastfeeding before they are pregnant or nursing because I believe that this affects breastfeeding success as well. Parenting websites or mommy blogs would likely not reach pre-parenting young women, and would therefore give more of a perspective on ideologies among mothers, not young women in general.
I selected xoJane, The Hairpin, The Gloss, and Jezebel because they are particularly popular with women 18 to 35 in the United States (Quantcast ranks Jezebel as the 139th most visited website in the U.S.). We can look at demographics for these via Quantcast, a leading digital advertising company that specializes in audience measurement.
xoJane does not allow Quantcast to provide its numbers to the public, and they did not respond to my request to access their data. So their information comes from their ownership group, Say Media. Unfortunately, that means we can’t get as specific with them. According to Say Media, xoJane averages 4 million monthly readers. As of March 2014, the website’s Facebook page notes more than 42,000 “fans,” and xoJane’s Twitter lists more than 31,000 followers [As of August 2017, the website’s Facebook page notes more than 95,000 “Likes,” and xoJane’s Twitter lists more than 40,000 followers.]
TheHairpin.com is owned by Federated Media Network, which also includes websites The Awl (general interest), Splitsider (humor), The Billfold (personal finance), and Wirecutter (tech). The Hairpin reaches 600,000 to 700,000 unique visitors (known in industry parlance as “uniques”) monthly: 73% of the users are female, 47% are 18 to 34 years old (15% below 18, so 62% fall in that most likely pre-parent group), and 76% of their readers do not have children.
Jezebel.com is owned by Gawker Media, which also includes websites like Gawker (New York and Media gossip and info), Deadspin (sports and men’s general interest), and Gizmodo (tech). Jezebel reaches about 12,500,000 uniques per month. Its readers are 66% female, 48% 18 to 34 years old (15% under 18), and 74% do not have children.
TheGloss.com is owned by Alloy Media, which also owns Crushable (entertainment), Smosh (comedy), and The Escapist (gaming). This website reaches about 1.3 million uniques per month. Its readers are 70% female, 46% 18 to 25 years old (15% below 18), and 72% have no children.
For the purposes of this study, I examined every article from these websites that featured breastfeeding as the main topic (not those that mentioned breastfeeding in passing, or did not report any in-depth information about the topic), dating back to 2011. I looked for major themes about breastfeeding, the type of language used to describe it, and how particular writers from each site framed breastfeeding.
Results and discussion
The blogs analyzed for this study were largely unsupportive of and negative towards breastfeeding. Several themes emerged from this analysis. The first of these themes is that breastfeeding activists and supporters are the enemy. Labeled with such loaded terms as:
- “Gestapo” (Morrissey, 2012, April),
- “lactivist c***s” (Morrissey, 2012, December),
- “d**k-measurers” (Westervelt, 2013)
and other rude terms. Breastfeeding supporters and activists are situated as being against the mother, making her life more difficult, and making her feel guilty and inadequate, rather than helping her succeed. These supporters are accused of pressuring mothers and guilt-tripping them by throwing statistics and research, and by pointing out problems with formula.
Another theme is that breastfeeding itself is portrayed as negative, but not the cultural, social, and economic pressures that make breastfeeding difficult for American women. A mother’s story that discusses her struggles with breastfeeding can be empowering and beneficial to breastfeeding moms. The problem comes when the act of breastfeeding is framed as the problem:
- destructive to marriages,
as it is in many articles across the analyzed blogs, instead of the “booby traps” that make it hard for women, for example:
- lack of exposure to breastfeeding
- highly sexualised attitude to the female body and the breasts in particular
- lack of paid maternity leave
- lack of policies in the workplace to allow women to feed their babies or express milk.
A final theme is that women who breastfeed will be:
- socially ostracised
- seen as weird by the majority of the world around them.
This theme is clearly illustrated by an xoJane article by Thériault, in which the author notes that—
People are f***ing weird about breastfeeding (2013).
When so many articles portray breastfeeding women as non-normative and different, they are situated as the “other.” Seeing breastfeeding as not the norm can make it more difficult for young women to even consider breastfeeding. Breastfeeding past the age of one year is portrayed as even more unusual, with multiple articles implying that people find “extended breastfeeding” to be “creepy,” “weird,” and “not normal” (Morrissey, 2013; Nelson, 2011; Peck, 2012; Thériault, 2013).
The blogs analyzed here are commercial, for-profit entities that rely on advertising and page views. Breastfeeding articles tend to be controversial in the current climate, and therefore attract large numbers of page views, particularly when discourse becomes heated in the comments sections, which are very important and active parts of many of these sites.
Breastfeeding activists, scholars, and supporters who use these websites can influence editors to accept more voices on breastfeeding, particularly more positive voices. Jezebel, in particular, has a very strong and thriving community of commentators. While it is very difficult to get a pro-breastfeeding comment, any attention can make a difference, and potentially elevate the discourse among users. Breastfeeding supporters who write about breastfeeding can submit work to these mainstream sites in an attempt to get more positive and supportive voices heard on these issues, rather than simply contributing to sites that are already supportive. Social media can be a powerful tool to question and critique the arguments presented on lifestyle blogs. Supporters and activists should seek to talk to young women about the information they are getting about breastfeeding, and how it affects them.
With so many pre-parental users, these websites serve as a powerful source of information about motherhood and breastfeeding. Be aware of their ideologies, and how those may be impacting what their young female users believe to be true and normal about infant feeding.
Abraham, L. B., Mörn, M. P., & Vollman, A. (2010). Women on the Web: How women are shaping the Internet. Reston, VA: comScore.
Durham, M. G., & Kellner, D. (2001). Adventures in media and cultural studies: Introducing the key works. Media and Cultural Studies: Key works, 1-29. Malden, MA: Blackwell. doi:10.1108/rr.2001.15.5.13.261
Morrissey, T. E. (2012, April 11). Breastfeeding Gestapo moves to ban free formula samples from hospitals.
Morrissey, T. E. (2012, December 17). Fuck you, breastfeeding.
Morrissey, T. E. (2013, May 23). Sorry lactation mafia: Neanderthals breastfed for only about a year.
Nelson, E. (2011, October 18). It happened to me: I breast-fed my child until she was 4.
Peck, J. (2012, May 10). America shows its weird relationship with boobs by “ew-ing” Time breastfeeding cover. TheHairpin.com. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.quantcast.com/ thehairpin.com
Thériault, A. (2013, February 25). I am breastfeeding a two-year-old and it’s not gross (I promise).
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General.
Westervelt, A. (2013, December 7). Let’s stop making breastfeeding the female version of dick measuring.
Emily Anzicek, PhD, in Communication, Wayne State University, 2007, is the Director of Introduction to Public Speaking and an instructor in the Department of Communication at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Her current research explores the potential role of media in normalizing breastfeeding in American culture. Her doctoral dissertation explored the representations of teen sex and its consequences in four television shows that aired on the former WB television network.