I confess, I love Louis Vuitton bags and Christian Louboutin shoes. I love following and supporting Black
fashion designers in the U.S and across the diaspora and I’ve been known to rock a Gucci belt. I am also
a birth and breastfeeding advocate and strategist—this is my passion. I just had no idea and was wholly
unprepared for how these two loves would collide.
The “look” of birth and breastfeeding advocacy, as I learned, was dominated by so-called (and with all due
respect) the stereotypical tree-huggers, crunchy folks, and natural hair wearers. Committed folks wore
Birkenstocks, flowing skirts, and natural hair, it seems. I don’t do any of that. So when I showed up as my
authentic self in high-heeled pumps, a stylish outfit, and a designer bag to speak at conferences, many
people gave me the side-eye. Did I have the “look” of a serious birth and breastfeeding advocate? And
why was I being judged by my clothes and accessories versus my words and my work?
To be clear, my sense of style is a part of my identity. It is just who I am. I spent years in senior
management at the largest Black woman’s lifestyle magazine in the world. My mother went to a special high
school in New York City to study fashion and then went on to hand make about 40% of my childhood
wardrobe, so to paraphrase Beyonce’—I got this isht from my mama.
I am comfortable in my heels—in all meanings of the word comfort and I’m not sure why everyone is
worried about it. Please stop asking me.
This typecasting also has dangerous consequences for equity. I will never forget visiting a childbirth
center in the South east, several years ago, with great potential for impact on Black birth outcomes. The
white female owner talked about attempting to hire a Black midwife, who showed up for a job interview
with heels—the white midwife was taken aback as she shared this experience with me. “How will she do
the job in heels?,” she said with a scoff and a laugh, dismissive of the midwife’s attire, as if the midwife’s
“look” were analogous with her skills. As if her clothes were a leading indicator of her effectiveness to
safely catch babies. Why was she being judged on her attire? This gave me great pause, on many levels.
First of all, a job interview is a job interview. Back in the day, dressing “properly” was how we had to prove
ourselves as credible and upstanding citizens. Black people dressed up just to go to the post office or run
every day errands, so they could be viewed as respectable by white society and hopefully increase their
chances of being treated like a whole human. We have never had the luxury of showing up “any ole kind
of way” (as my mother would say) regardless of our credentials.
Now, the same white people who created that dynamic were judging us for it? This was a culture clash of
white privilege proportions.
Meanwhile, this focus on the look of a “birth advocate,” has also perpetuated a dangerous myth that
birthing with a doula or at a childbirth center is a fringe culture, indeed for a certain type of person. Or to
be a doula or midwife, you have to look a certain way or subscribe to a certain lifestyle.
I would argue that this historic “look” of birth and breastfeeding has limited the scope and impact of
equitable birth and breastfeeding outcomes. People thinking doulas, midwives or lactation consultants
aren’t for them because they don’t see any that look like them.
My message is clear. You do not have to be an Erykah Badu-type to have a doula. You do not need to
subscribe to a natural lifestyle, have natural hair, wear African print head wraps, be a vegetarian or
vegan, compost, or even recycle to have a doula or be a doula. Bring your lace fronts, your weaves, your
relaxed hair, or braids (knotted or unknotted) or your Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags to the movement.
Grab your wig or your bonnet and let’s get over to this childbirth center and breastfeeding support class.
You want to be a midwife but you wear wigs, eyelash extensions, and are comfortable in heels?? So
what! However, you come, we are here for you.
I love traveling the country for The Big LetDown and now for Irth work, and having young Black women
say, “I’ve never seen a breastfeeding advocate that looks like you,” — or my other personal favorite, “You
must be from New York City!” and then we talk shoes, handbags, breastfeeding, Essence magazine,
doulas, and midwives. I’m extremely proud of this.
The more people see themselves in us, the more we can attract to the message and the movement.
This gatekeeping around people needing to look a certain way to be accepted in the birth and
breastfeeding movement is dangerous. So as Fashion Week season is in high gear and we celebrate Black History Month, it’s an important time to examine how the “look” of birth and breastfeeding advocacy has caused harm and at times, perpetuated dangerous stereotypes that get in the way of equity.
It’s time for a mindset makeover.
Now to the other elephant in the room—especially, I feel, when I enter it. The second part of this issue is
the cost—how does she afford that bag or the shoes and outfits? I can see the look on many faces. Birth
and breastfeeding advocacy has always been associated with meager earnings and a life of service not
income. To be clear, I unequivocally reject that notion as well. I believe people can do good and do well. I
believe in getting paid what I’m worth for my books, speaking, and consulting work and I have worked
hard to build a business around my passion and earn what I’m worth. I also believe all Black people
deserve luxury, when and how they can afford it. And however they define luxury or “nice things” to be.
As we think of inclusivity—beyond skin color, gender, and language, let’s also consider the “look” of our
work. So that nobody will be judged by their attire but by their passion, their commitment, and their
impact. So that we widen the lens of who can work in this field or access the lifesaving and joy-bringing
services it provides.
So that birth and breastfeeding is forever fashionable and always in style in the ways that matter the