MTSU journalism professor tackles media perception of breastfeeding in new book

Photo and story by Sabrina Tyson / Contributing Writer

Katie Foss, an associate professor in the School of Journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, has put 10 years of research into her new book, “Breastfeeding and Media: Exploring Conflicting Discourses That Threaten Public Health.” 

The book looks at the portrayal of breastfeeding in media, such as entertainment, advertising and social media, and how the representation of breastfeeding could be making it more difficult for mothers to be successful in reaching their personal goals in what is widely considered the healthiest option for babies.

“It’s a public health issue,” Foss said. “It’s not just about a choice like which blanket should I buy.”

Foss became interested and began to study the topic when she was in college at the University of Minnesota. She chose the topic for a paper in one of her classes, which led to an independent study she worked on with her professor. Since then, she has been researching issues such as the underrepresentation of women of color who breastfeed and women in lower socioeconomic positions.

“What we see is not media directly telling women not to breastfeed,” Foss said. “Instead we see media messages really undermining kind of a cultural support for breastfeeding.”

Foss’ research shows that there is a normalization of middle to upper class women breastfeeding in the hospital but a lack of normalization for older children breastfeeding, which is recommended up to age two according to the World Health Organization. Many media outlets show the difficulties of breastfeeding without providing solutions for obstacles women might face, according to Foss’ research.  

“We see a lot of individual blame on mothers who try to breastfeed and don’t succeed or don’t succeed in making their own breastfeeding goals,” Foss said.  “Often it’s because of these institutional factors or these cultural barriers.”

Foss said that a number of cultural obstacles can prevent a woman from breastfeeding, such as public shaming, unsupportive partners and insufficient time or space for necessary pumping during work.

“The intention to breastfeed is incredibly high,” Foss said. “What we’re not seeing is women able to successfully breastfeed, and I think that’s the most alarming thing.”

Foss, a mother of two, said she had access to specific resources that made breastfeeding easier for her. Foss advocates for pumping rooms in places of employment for breastfeeding mothers to help with the difficulties women may experience.

“I had the luxury as a professor to have my own office (and) to have a flexible schedule, and that made it easier for me,” Foss said. “Was it easy? No, but it was easier for me than, for example, a woman who works at a factory (and) who has to go by the factory’s schedule. It’s much harder for her to be successful as a working mother and a breastfeeding mother.”

Another big aspect of Foss’ research is advertising and how increased formula advertising correlates with lower rates of breastfeeding.

“There are conflicting messages,” Foss said. “On one hand, we see this bad mother discourse, but the other hand, we see all these formula ads. It undermines the breastfeeding mother and places blame on the formula-feeding mother. In other words, it’s not good for anybody.”

Foss said she believes that the importance of a supportive partner is an aspect frequently left out of the conversation.

“Studies have shown that a supportive partner is among the key influences to an important breastfeeding relationship,” Foss said. “If your partner supports your breastfeeding, you’re much more likely to be successful in doing so.”

There are many benefits to breastfeeding for both mother and child. There is a decreased chance of certain childhood leukemias, asthma, and reduced risk of obesity in the child, and mothers who breastfeed show lower risk of postpartum depression, breast cancer and ovarian cancer, according to a study done by American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The list goes on and on,” Foss said about the benefits of breastfeeding.

As far as formula feeding goes, there are many risks, such as contamination through water or products in the formula, according to Foss.

“Any time you take something that’s manufactured, there’s the potential for contamination with a lot of different things,” Foss said. “There are absolutely rare cases in which formula feeding is very necessary … The issue is that breastfeeding is the healthiest way, but we need to have cultural support for women to breastfeed instead of blaming women who cannot.”

Foss said she wants more factual coverage of breastfeeding in the media to come from her research in order to help combat myths that are floating around.

“I would like to see more prosocial breastfeeding campaigns that target entertainment, because that is such an important way to normalize breastfeeding, as well as more publicity for successful breastfeeding relationships,” Foss said.

“Breastfeeding and Media: Exploring Conflicting Discourses That Threaten Public Health” is available for purchase on Amazon.

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

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