Alyssa Milano, a well-known actress in the US and self-proclaimed “breastfeeding advocate”, uses social media to promote breastfeeding and break the stigmatization of public breastfeeding. Milano began her advocacy by sharing multiple photographs of herself breastfeeding her two children on social media platforms such as Instagram. This is significant because Milano had organic support of breastfeeding. The absence of an external sponsor lends credibility to her efforts from the perspective of her social media followers. Social media is a low-cost avenue for increasing breastfeeding awareness and advocates who can use their popularity to publicly support its purpose contribute to the acceptance and normalization of breastfeeding.
Description & Context
In many countries around the world public breastfeeding is stigmatized, discouraging mothers from breastfeeding their children in public due to fear of embarrassment. This is a significant barrier in the United States; a 2016 study found that less than two-thirds of U.S. adults believe that mothers should have the right to breastfeed in public places. For many mothers, this fear of embarrassment is cited as a reason for choosing to feed supplementary formula or to give up breastfeeding altogether. Furthermore, on a cultural level – particularly in American culture – breasts have been portrayed as sexual objects in lieu of the nurturing role that defines them; visual images of breastfeeding are rare while focusing on the sexuality of female breasts is common in the mass media. This perception of breasts contributes to mothers’ discomfort with breastfeeding in public. This fear of public stigmatization, embarrassment, and cultural objectification of breasts comprises a significant barrier to optimal breastfeeding practices. In many countries, breastfeeding advocates, or champions, could help address this stigmatization, aiding in reducing both embarrassment and cultural objectification of breasts and ultimately encouraging mothers who wish to breastfeed.
Alyssa Milano, a well-known actress in the US and self-proclaimed “breastfeeding advocate”, uses social media to promote breastfeeding and break the stigmatization of public breastfeeding. Milano began her advocacy by sharing multiple photographs of herself breastfeeding her two children on social media platforms such as Instagram. This is significant, as Milano, an individual champion, had organic support of breastfeeding. The absence of an external sponsor lends credibility to her efforts from the perspective of her social media followers. Milano is also vocal through television shows and popular magazines.
Three components comprise Milano’s advocacy of breastfeeding:
- Initial advocacy on personal media
- Large-scale, publicly-proclaimed advocacy
- Long-term advocacy as a “Champion”
The initial advocacy on personal media was followed by a large-scale proclamation of support for and advocacy of breastfeeding on The Wendy Williams Show. In 2016, Milano appeared as a guest on the program, where host Wendy Williams described how she “did not want to see” mothers breastfeeding in public spaces, highlighting the social stigma and discomfort associated with the action for some of the public. Milano’s public rebuttal of this opinion solidified her role as an advocate for breastfeeding when she stated that she was shocked by how opinionated people could be over “something that is supposed to be so incredibly natural.” On the show, Milano also highlighted the fact that the American public construes breasts as sexual objects, when biologically they serve a different, much more important purpose. This appearance spurred many articles and responses, garnering attention to the discussion of public breastfeeding.
The final component of Milano’s advocacy is her long-term, continued advocacy. After the Wendy Williams Show, Milano responded to the public reactions via interviews with ET Online and other news sites, standing by her advocacy position. For World Breastfeeding Week 2016, she posted several images of herself breastfeeding with the tag #normalizebreastfeeding, inspiring many others to use the tag to publicly promote breastfeeding. On a global scale as a UNICEF ambassador, Milano has made it her goal to improve infant and young child feeding practices, including breastfeeding.
Evidence of Implementation Strategy
Milano’s advocacy is a good model for future champions: both small-scale personal acts of commitment as well as a large-scale, highly-publicized event led to increased awareness and support of breastfeeding.
She has over a million followers on both Instagram and Twitter. “Alyssa Milano breastfeeding” pulls up over 500,000 results on Google, most pertaining to her heated interview on The Wendy Williams Show and Instagram and Twitter posts. There are 544,000 Instagram posts tagged with #normalizebreastfeeding after Milano’s. Clearly, her public profile and advocacy has reached a significant portion of not only breastfeeding mothers, but the public as well, to help reduce the stigmatization of public breastfeeding.
Cost and Cost-Effectiveness
Social media is a low-cost avenue for increasing breastfeeding awareness and rates, as particularly evidenced in the United States: 57% of the United States population gets TV-based news regularly, while 81% report using online news sources. New, popular social media outlets are emerging; the United States alone has over 70 million Instagram users. These personal social media accounts are free to the user and give them access to millions of other users, including influential individuals.
Milano posted her breastfeeding photographs for free, a clear indication of her personal support of public breastfeeding. However, it is possible that a breastfeeding champion would require costs for speaking events, or, if taking on an organizational role, a significant salary. Even with these costs in mind, the fact that the breastfeeding champion is highly visible could reduce costs significantly, as information is constantly or more easily generated by the media regarding their actions.
Perceptions and Experiences of Interested People
Social norms regarding breastfeeding have clearly been influenced: the fact that there are over half a million Instagrams with the #normalizebreastfeeding has brought breastfeeding, particularly public breastfeeding, into the public’s eye. While still not optimal, national belief in the right to publicly breastfeed has increased from 43% to 64% in the last decade.
Benefits/Potential Damages and Risks
A significant risk in having a highly visible breastfeeding advocate is that the message is in their own words and media outlets. This could lead to messages without factual support regarding breastfeeding. In addition, the advocate may only be respected by part of the population, leading a significant majority to reject the message.
Benefits include bringing more attention to breastfeeding and its benefits, using an influential individual to publicly support its purpose, thus ultimately leading to a larger acceptance and normalization of the act of breastfeeding both privately and publicly.
Scaling Up Considerations
Virtually every country has an influential, highly-visible individual. Consideration must be given to whether this individual understands the benefits of breastfeeding and supports the act in their own right, as organic advocacy of breastfeeding is crucial. It is also possible to carefully solicit highly-visible individuals to promote breastfeeding. To determine if there are potential breastfeeding champions, consult media sources (i.e. social media announcements or articles, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., newspaper articles, radio or TV stories, newsletters, magazines, etc.) and/or commission or conduct a media survey. Written reports from individuals or advocacy groups specifically focused on breastfeeding and interviews with health officials are also potential sources of information.
Barriers to Implement
Finding a high-level advocate of breastfeeding or soliciting one is the biggest challenge to this implementation.
An important barrier in reaching all populations is the lack of Internet or television access among rural-living or poor mothers whose exposure to social media may be limited. In this case, widely circulated print media and billboards featuring the influential individual and their advocacy may be a more effective delivery method for breastfeeding promotion.
Consideration should also be given to those mothers who are unable to breastfeed – including many vulnerable populations, such as HIV-positive mothers without access to antiretroviral therapy or who have otherwise been medically advised not to do so. They could be made to feel ashamed for not breastfeeding and popular media messages should account for these populations when promoting breastfeeding.
- Public Beliefs and Attitudes About Breastfeeding. (2015). Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/healthstyles_survey/survey_2015.htm
- Barriers to Breastfeeding in the U.S. (2011). Office of the Surgeon General. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK52688/
- Tempesta, E. (2016). “Mother-of-two and 'breastfeeding advocate' Alyssa Milano hits back at Wendy Williams after TV host criticized women who nurse in public saying she 'doesn't want to see that.’” The Daily Mail.
- Pathways to News. (2016). Pew Research Center: Journalism and Media. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/
- Beale, C. (2017). “President’s daughter responds to critics after breastfeeding photo goes viral.” The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/aliya-shagieva-kyrgyzstan-breastfeed-photo-almazbek-atambayev-a7867701.html