“Black Female Identity and Breastfeeding”
Theresa Thompson, Contributor
May 16, 2013
Black female identity is situated between socially constructed concepts of race and gender. The burden lay on Black women in terms of morbidity and mortality has been well established. But we must remember that there is a struggle African American women endure in order to define “self “ in mainstream society. This struggle also arises within the Black community. Intrapersonal factors – such as social class, upbringing, religion, and health can make navigating health difficult for some. For this reason it is important to understand the black female identity as an interconnected whole (also known by the cushy label of intersectionality). In a previous Orgcomplexity blog, The Heavy Load of Agency and Health: Anna Julia Cooper, Race and Gender, Ms. Battle-Fisher (2013) uses the work of Anna Julia Cooper as an allegory of the gendered woman (http://wp.me/p32X8n-q). Though complex the notions of cultural and gender identity are necessary for wellness, Battle-Fisher (2013) conveys the question of how complete wellness can be achieved for black women when the space may not be provided an authentic voice. Battle-Fisher (2013) states that the “issue of embodiment is a precursor that must not be ignored when exploring the failures and less frequent successes of understanding health.” While much progress has been made in understanding the determinants of health, often the ‘barriers’ to health behaviors can be elusive. It is important that social, cultural, and structural factors not be discounted.
How does the composition of black female identity even relate or link to the public health and further the issue of breastfeeding? While there is no disputing the strong medical evidence that breast milk is best for infants, this has not translated to an acceptable level of adoption among Black mothers. It may be that such black women have perceptions of their body that may prevent such adoption. Mass media outlets as well as the blogosphere have taken to this issue. ‘Why Don’t Black Women Want To Breast Feed?’ by Toya Sharee (2012) wrote that women may perceive that breast were for sex and that breastfeeding just was not something Black women did. While anecdotal, these are sentiments that gain traction and proliferate on Twitter. They become viral, but not in a good way. Black mothers do not see other black mothers breastfeeding. There lies the interdependency- new black mothers will then also not breastfeed unless something or someone intervenes.
One of the leading health indicators for African Americans in the U.S. that conveys a poor health report is infant mortality. Research has shown a relationship between breastfeeding and infant mortality. African American women have the lowest breastfeeding rates of any other racial group in the U.S. followed with the highest rates of alternative infant food supplementation rates. According to UNICEF (2008) breastfeeding alone has the potential to save more lives than any other prevention intervention. An easy to read report published by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Health Studies Institute and written by Barbara L. Philipp and Sheina Jean-Marie (2007), accounts to how breastfeeding saves infant lives. Breastfeeding could save or delay about 720 post-neonatal deaths each year (Chen & Rogan, 2004). Game changer!!!
One new resource has been created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called It’s Only Natural: mother’s love, mother’s milk, specifically in support of African American mothers breastfeeding and the benefits for their babies as well as the mothers. Spread the word! It’s Only Natural uses online media in the form of pictures, videos, links, commentary, information and literature, testimonials, quick facts, planning tools and partner resources to help support African American mothers in their journey to breastfeeding successfully (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2013). All representations of mothers and babies, video commentary, and testimonials for viewing on the website depict a diverse portrayal of African American mothers and their thoughts or advice for other mothers on the topic. This is a significant accomplishment as It’s Only Natural is one of the first all-encompassing resources targeting social and cultural barriers to breastfeeding African American mothers face. African American mothers can access this resource online and find it is designed not merely with them in mind but specifically for them. Another section of the website addresses and breakdowns the common myths and mistruths about breastfeeding in the African American community and also has videos by African American mothers discussing the topic and their views. Having a great resource like It’s Only Natural, has the potential to helping to spread the knowledge and benefits to African American mothers about breastfeeding not only for their babies but also for themselves more successfully as this resource has placed breastfeeding in a social-cultural context. This resource should be a Tweet before the latest meme for the newest 3D blockbuster.
Battle-Fisher, M. (2013). The Heavy Load of Agency and Health: Anna Julia Cooper, Race and Gender, Retrieved from Orgcomplexity Blog at http://wp.me/p32X8n-q.
Chen, A. & Rogan, W. (2004). “Breastfeeding and the Risk of Postnatal Death in the United States,” Pediatrics. 113 (2004), E435-39.
Philipp, B., & Jean-Marie, S. (2007) African American and Breastfeeding: The Courage To Love: Infant Mortality Commission. Washington D.C.: Joint Center for Political and Economic Health Studies.
Sharee, T. (2012) Why Don’t Black Women Want To Breast Feed? Retrieved from http://madamenoire.com/169359/why-dont-black-women-want-to-breastfeed/.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2013) It’s Only Natural: a mother’s love, mother’s milk, Retrieved from Women’s Health, http://www.womenshealth.gov/ItsOnlyNatural/index.html.