When I started breast-feeding my son in 2016, I had a lot to overcome. I had flat nipples, a baby who would not latch for an entire month and no black role models. Of course, my husband saw the value in my determination, but aside from him, very few people understood what I was going for. Black women often lack community support for breast-feeding endeavors because so few black mothers breast-feed. Experts attribute the lack of support and scarcity of breast-feeding among black women to history, limited workplace policies and a dearth of information. La Leche League, a breast-feeding advocacy group, provided advice, but it lacked knowledge of the cultural factors that discouraged me. I was also surrounded by negative messages. The reactions I got when breast-feeding in public made me feel as if I was doing something wrong, and each time I was directed to a restroom to nurse, a piece of me broke.
I was consistently exposed to positive images of motherhood in media. But there was no reflection of young breast-feeding women who looked like me. A recent Gap ad that features a breast-feeding mother is the image I wish I had had two years ago. New black moms and women of all ethnic backgrounds who are looking for a media image now have something I did not. To understand the importance of this, we can look to the most-discussed ads from 2017.
Through the decades, the advertising industry has shown a preference for catering to a white audience. When people of color are shown, they are racially ambiguous or have a light complexion and loose hair. This, along with the trend of cultural insensitivity, is not shocking. Like most industries, the upper echelons of advertising are heavily populated by white men. Blacks, Asians and Hispanics combined compose barely 21 percent of the 582,000 individuals employed in advertising and communications. Without the cultural diversity to predict what campaigns are going to trigger a wave of offenses, it is not surprising to see the same mistakes made over and over.
When H&M was under scrutiny for releasing an image of a black boy wearing a hoodie that read “Coolest monkey in the jungle” it seemed as if 2018 was going to follow in 2017’s footsteps as a marketing Dumpster fire. Thankfully, though, the recent Gap ad is not only gaining widespread support, it is also testing boundaries and combating cultural stigmas.
The Love by Gap body apparel line ad features a natural-haired black mother breast-feeding her toddler. It is epic for a multitude of reasons: She a dark-skinned black woman, she is a black woman with a wedding ring, and she is breast-feeding a toddler!
At first glance, this ad may seem like nothing important, but in a society that stereotypes black women, criticizes breast-feeding and idolizes whiteness as a beauty standard, this image speaks volumes.
Historically, studies like the “Doll Test” illuminated the effects of racism and segregation on black children. They also served as a reminder that children are affected by the images we put in front of them. This ad provides representation that was not there when I was a young black mother struggling to find her place in a world that showed only white women breast-feeding. It provides comfort for the women who choose to practice extended breast-feeding and face the “When are you going to stop nursing and feed him regular food?” comments.
When I decided to breast-feed my son, I did not find any images of black moms breast-feeding, much less community support — and it hurt. My experience is not unique. Lack of support is one of the biggest reasons black mothers have such low success rates with breast-feeding. We are often given the message that breast-feeding is something we just do not do. Rates of initiation and length of success are so low among black women that Black Breast-feeding Week was created to address the obstacles black women face with breast-feeding initiation.
According to an August 2016 study published in Pediatrics, black women’s breast-feeding rates lag far behind other groups. Sixty-one percent of black mothers initiate breast-feeding, compared with 90 percent of English-speaking Latinas, 91 percent of Spanish-speaking Latinas and 78 percent of white women. When initiation is successful, white and Latina women lasted about 17 weeks, but black women average about 6.4 weeks. By six months postpartum, 35.3 percent of black women are still breast-feeding while almost 56 percent of white mothers and 51 percent of Latinas are still going strong.
Many factors contribute to these low rates, including the painful history of black women being unable to breast-feed their own children because they were serving as wet nurses to white mothers during and shortly after slavery. Another roadblock is a wage and wealth gap that prevents black mothers from having the time or finances required to establish and maintain a healthy milk supply. Research has indicated black mothers are at least nine times more likely to be offered formula in hospitals than white Americans.
Thankfully, though, black women, including birth workers Kiddada Green, Kimberly Seals Allers and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka who founded Black Breastfeeding Week, are doing a great deal to normalize breast-feeding within their community. Black birth workers are developing more initiatives to educate communities and increase cultural competency in the birth industry to close the breast-feeding gap.
Gap likely has created something more meaningful than they intended. The ad provides an image of the value of black motherhood. It is one of the few mainstream public displays of a loving relationship between a black mother and a child. The crown of curls and coils atop both the mother and child’s head symbolize multicultural beauty and is a simple yet powerful reflection of the black family. Before this image we had very few models of unfiltered black motherhood. Although the woman does not have a partner present in the picture, the ring on her finger is enough to shut down many stereotypes and assumptions about the marital status of black women.
My breast-feeding journey is over, but I did not miss the power of this ad. It is empowering and validating to feel represented for the first time, as a long-term, black, breast-feeding mother. It reassures me I was never alone.
Young mothers of all backgrounds need images that help normalize breast-feeding. For once, an ad might be leading the way.
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a writer and speaker who has a passion for diversity.