Breastfeeding Women Are Seen As Less Competent


Though there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on mothers to breastfeed, a study says those who do are judged harshly by both men and women. In three experiments, Montana State University researchers found that breastfeeding mothers are seen as less competent than those who bottle-feed. Why? Because breastfeeding makes people think about boobs.

In each of the studies, participants were told researchers were looking at “impression formation,” not breastfeeding specifically. Miller-McCune reports that in the first experiment,

[Subjects] were given biographical information on actress Brooke Shields, including the fact she had just written a book about motherhood. Half were told the volume included information on her “experiences with breastfeeding, bathing and overall care of a newborn;” for the other half, the word “bottle-feeding” was exchanged for “breastfeeding.”
Afterward, the participants answered a series of questions gauging their overall assessment of the actress. Those who read she was breastfeeding her baby viewed her as “significantly more warm and friendly compared to the bottle-feeding mother, but significantly less competent in general, and less competent in math specifically,” the researchers report.

In another experiment, participants were asked to share their impressions of a woman after listening to her voicemails about rescheduling a dinner date. From Miller-McCune:

Some participants heard a neutral conclusion, while others heard a reference to breastfeeding (“I figured you would want to go home and breastfeed the baby”), motherhood (“I figured you would want to go home and give the baby a bath”), or sexuality (“I figured you would want to go home and change into your strapless bra”).

Both the woman with the strapless bra and the breastfeeding woman were viewed as less competent than the mom who simply washed her baby. Researchers say this suggests that it’s the mention of breasts, not parenthood, that makes people see a woman as incompetent. However, respondents said they’d be least likely to hire the breastfeeding woman, suggesting that the mental image of a sexually appealing breast is preferable to the idea of a woman feeding her child.

Sadly, this makes sense, since breasts have been sexualized to the point that many see their natural function as gross and bizarre. The researchers concluded that the only way to fight this bias is to encourage more women to breastfeed openly. Considering that we routinely hear stories about breastfeeding moms being asked to leave stores and Facebook removes photos of women with a baby at their breast, bringing about this change seems like a tall order.

Breastfeeding Women Viewed As Less Competent [Miller-McCune]

Image via Valua Vitaly/Shutterstock.

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