The Problem with Choice

At times, the language of feminism has led to the undermining of breastfeeding, starting with the word “choice.” The mere word conjures up thoughts of women’s liberation and reproductive justice and hard-won rights and freedoms earned by the feminist movement. In fact, the very essence of women’s liberation was the liberation to make individual choices, whether it be about work, family, or lifestyle. This was most strikingly the case after Roe v. Wade, when reproductive politics made the language of choice synonymous with women’s liberation. As the feminist writer, Summer Wood wrote of “choice” in Bitch magazine, “The word’s primacy in the arena of reproductive rights has slowly caused the phrase, ‘It’s my choice’ to become synonymous with ‘It’s a feminist thing to do’—or perhaps more precisely, ‘It is anti-feminist to criticize my decision.’” In the so-called mommy wars and specifically in the milk wars, we see the most perverse form of individualism, where individualizing and privatizing choices around motherhood and breastfeeding has created a dangerous environment. What was once the trademark for women’s rights has become a consumerist tool being used against women. What began as a highly politicized term, in the context of a right to decide to terminate a pregnancy, has now been depoliticized and used for consumer imperatives, as in the “right” to buy all sorts of products marketed to women, from antidepressants, moisturizers, and diet frozen pizzas to infant formula. Implicit in this tactic is that exercising your choice in these matters is in itself a feminist act. We see this tactic often in pop culture, such as an episode of the fan-favorite Sex and the City, where liberated consumer Carrie Bradshaw (in an episode fittingly titled, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes”) proudly justifies purchasing expensive footwear.

The problem with “choice” today is that it has been taken out of the context of women’s rights and misconstrued.

In its most disgusting reiteration it is being marketed to women and girls by corporate interests. We are being sold on the idea of choice. The combination of aggressive advertising, medical backing, and a love of consumer freedom has led to a free-market paradise where a host of instant foods are readily available and women have been led to believe that the choice between formula feeding and breastfeeding is merely a matter of personal inclination—a feather in the cap of the quest for liberation. And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of the responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me.

Lately, choice has taken on a concerning meaning in third-wave feminist circles. One of the new iterations of feminism is called “choice feminism.” In contrast to political philosophies that explore the ways in which structural inequality limits freedom, choice feminism tells us that every individual is free to choose and that choice is empowering, no matter what the choice actually is. The result is that the term “choice” is now employed in feminist debates about everything from the sex industry to marriage and makeup to breastfeeding versus formula feeding. Choice feminism dictates that anytime a woman makes a choice, even if it’s to engage in prostitution or pole dancing, it is an act of feminism. This is dangerous thinking when the reality is that our “choice” has more limitations than many think and choices based on uninformed decisions founded on marketing propaganda is not true choice at all. It’s particularly dangerous because we fail to differentiate between those who have the privilege of choosing and those who do not, and it avoids any analysis of how race, class, and power actually affect a woman’s choice.

For one, choice should be based on equal options. Is having the option of breastfeeding versus formula feeding really a choice when the options are not equal? They are so incongruous that it has taken billions of dollars in research and insidious marketing tactics to build the notion that infant formula is just as good. When one option gives your baby preventive health benefits and the other increases your baby’s risk for health problems, then that’s not an actual choice. The options are not equal. The options are not equal when the reasons people give for not breastfeeding include returning to work, perceiving formula as more convenient, and fear-based ideas such as it will hurt or that their breasts won’t produce enough milk. This is not the choice women need.

It’s easy to see why framing breastfeeding versus formula feeding around individualism is a win-win for the formula companies. Doing so means that the idea can’t be challenged. So, for example, when breastfeeding or formula feeding is framed as an individual choice, the economic interests of selling formula can be disassociated from the conversation. The billions spent on marketing to create doubt among mothers who are undermined from the day they leave the hospital with a free infant formula bag can be removed from the discussion. If breastfeeding is purely a personal choice, it need not have anything to do with greedy corporations, body politics, or a marketing industry that has sold women damaging messages. If breastfeeding is purely a personal choice, then we don’t have to connect the dots between the paltry breastfeeding rates in this country and high levels of childhood allergies, asthma, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Think back to reproductive rights. At this point many women see those rights as accessible, but the right to have an abortion is greater than access.

It touches on issues such as the wage gap, health care, education—issues that have as much if not greater impact on the real-life choices of women. Similarly, breastfeeding is far greater than a matter of choice when issues such as employer practices, child care, and the lack of federal maternity leave play such a large part in how a mother decides to feed her baby. But continuing to frame the issue around choice allows these greater, more influential factors to remain unmentionables. Most significantly, keeping breastfeeding as a private choice rather than a public health issue hampers momentum. After all, private choices do not provide the basis for a movement. In fact, framing breastfeeding as a personal choice erases the context of corporate interests and deep-pocketed marketing machines in which it typically occurs. In this context, choice is not liberation. It is suffocation.

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Excerpted from The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business, and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) by Kimberly Seals Allers

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