One of the current top five national news stories on The Washington Post's website is about one of their own. A staff writer who survived cancer only to be shamed for not breastfeeding her infant. Her story is being shared all over social media and on national television. She wants people to see the dark side of breastfeeding support. Her words are going viral hitting international shores. And the media frenzy is spiraling out of control.
And that is bullshit.
Do I have care and compassion for Emily Wax-Thibodeaux? Of course I do. I commend her and admire her and wish I could wrap my arms around her and tell her face to face I don't believe I have even an ounce of the courage she does for what she has battled and been through. She is a hero for surviving the horrific blight on humanity that is cancer. Fuck cancer. FUCK CANCER. This woman's triumph has my utmost in awe and inspiration. I can not even imagine.
That being said:
Piss poor journalism is hurting my head.
Wax-Thibodeaux's piece was originally framed as an essay for The Washington Post. That makes it a first person point of view. By definition, a personal essay is not academic. It is anecdotal. It is nonfiction based on isolated personal experience. That's all it is. The Washington Post, itself, had just run a commentary criticizing the use of personal essays as effective reporting. Because they are not the same thing. And yet, here was Wax-Thibodeaux's under their Health & Science heading.
NPR has outlined the role of commentary, essay and editorial and the drastic difference between those prose and actual reporting. Note that even when essays and commentaries are used, accuracy and facts are a cornerstone of journalism. Personal essays have their place. So do ethics.
It matters what we say. It matters when our own credentials are on the line. Wax-Thibodeaux is an award winning journalist. She should have known better.
I absolutely hate that she experienced ignorance and idiocy in her journey as a new mother. (Welcome to parenthood). But I hate more that she used that experience as a platform to disparage thousands of other parents. I hate more that she removed her call for critical thinking and tossed logic out the window in order to slam the reproductive decisions of countless women. I hate more that her encounters with a few assholes has now become a viral frenzy of ledes perpetuating a fabricated tale of a battle on infant feeding.
It is bullshit.
In her essay, Wax-Thibodeaux shares the grief she felt as precious moments with her infant were stripped from her because “'breast-feeding Nazis' came marching in to [her] room". Yes. She really did apply Godwin's Law. Because it's always appropriate to joke about health professionals as being fascists who support genocide, eugenics and racial superiority. Here, she should have lost all credibility. But she didn't.
Whether or not Wax-Thibodeaux is exaggerating isn't really at issue. It's possible her perspective is a tad skewed in hindsight. It's possible she wanted to use hyperbole as a literary device. It's possible lactation consultants actually did suggest milk would flow from her arm pits. It's possible. It's not relevant. Because even if it is true, it has very little to do with breastfeeding activists and far more to do with ill equipped medical staff.
What woman hasn't had a moment stolen in a maternity ward? What woman hasn't felt there were negative experiences in the hospital after giving birth? What woman couldn't write an essay about an inconsiderate thing said to them by a nurse that ruined a moment with an infant? Having a maternity ward staff member spoil intimacy with your baby isn't exclusive at all to breastfeeding. Everyone's got a labor and delivery story.
But instead of acknowledging the obvious probability that these women were inadequately trained due to a fundamental lack of priority in lactation education, instead of acknowledging the facts that most hospital personnel are overworked, over-tied and understaffed, instead of acknowledging the obvious failure of two human beings in their well intentioned but ignorant remarks, we have ad hominem attacks comparing individuals to fascists and degrading initiatives to support the majority of women who have chosen to attempt breastfeeding.
How on earth are we, as women, celebrating that?
But we are. "Bravo!", "About time!", "Thank you!", "Overjoyed!", "Share, share share!", all over the fucking internet. Picked up by multiple major news outlets with three stories from the Today Show alone and a televised interview with Wax-Thibodeaux so she could rail against breastfeeding support some more.
For a woman who wrote about how horrific it feels to be judged and ridiculed and shamed, she's certainly having no problem dishing it out herself. Yikes indeed.
But I get that she's been hurt. I get that she's coming from a place of personal pain and internal struggle and external blame by a few in her chosen circle. I know she's just sharing an essay, her personal point of view story. It's an anecdote. And anecdotes are usually emotionally charged hyperbolic appeals in search of support.
But let's not pretend anything in this essay is anymore than that. Let's not pretend it contains accurate facts. Let's not pretend there is any sort of credibility in media outlets scouring to share the story when the reality is they are just driving ratings.
It is bullshit.
Wax-Thibodeaux tosses all her ethics out the door in her essay. She builds a Strawman argument using pseudoscience to shift the burden onto breastfeeding under the intellectually dishonest premise that infant formula shaming is an actual epidemic that deserves to be addressed in our country.
It is bullshit.
Infant formula is the absolute expected cultural norm in the United States. The majority of adults grew up on it. The majority of mothers choose it. The majority of infants use it. It is highly promoted, distributed and celebrated in our nation as a completely appropriate nutritional source for children. There is absolutely no cultural stigma against infant formula or bottle feeding in this country. None*.
But Wax-Thibodeaux thinks there is. She decided her individual personal experiences with a few random strangers and circle of friends justified a nationally distributed mass media defense. (Was there really no other pressing health story to cover that day)? But it didn't stop with one essay and the media interviews. She went on to write a follow up, sharing a few more anecdotes to boost her argument and validate her case that a society supporting a projected 25 billion dollar infant formula industry would actually question that a woman with a double mastectomy didn't try to breastfeed. Obviously.
Wax-Thibodeaux is convinced her experiences and the stories she's read in a book and online equal high spread systematic harassment and judgment of infant formula moms.
Because apparently, with over 10,000 birthing centers in the United States and only around 200 that are even participating in the BFHI, women all across the nation are being bombarded with lactation consultants. Apparently, even though most mothers use infant formula, they feel so "superior" by breastfeeding they are ridiculing others. Apparently, even though most infants are weaned, "crunchy breastfeeding" parents are suddenly being called mainstream. Apparently, even though the majority of the general public (including mothers) could not recall even one instance of a campaign to promote nursing, every single person on the planet needs to battle against the breastfeeding propaganda machine.
It is bullshit.
And more than the back handed slam against breastfeeding and breastfeeding support that her pieces promote, more than the piss poor journalism that has used her essay as a way to perpetuate the myth of a mommy war, more than the absolute irresponsibility of this journalist to ignore her own profession's standards in ethics, more than all the obvious gripes that people are feeding their egos with this nonsense, it is the egregious disservice being done to the reproductive systems of women that piss me off the most.
79% of infants start on the breast. 79%. After being practically eradicated by 1969, efforts to help women succeed in their reproductive decision to nurse their children are striving, but still failing all over this country. Breastfeeding is the anomaly in this nation. No one wants to support breastfeeding. Not really.
Not when qualifications on public nursing are the norm. Not when even nursing mothers think breastfeeding a toddler is gross. Not when laws in all states don't protect nursing moms. Not when women and children are harassed at airports, stores and restaurants. Not when charges get filed and women lose jobs. Not when award winning journalists use ad homs.
No one wants to support breastfeeding. Not really.
And that is bullshit.
Because women want to breastfeed. Maybe not all women. But most. Most want to try at least. Most will wean. But most want to succeed in some goal they've set for themselves and their families. Most want their efforts to be respected and esteemed.
So how, in any sane world, do we mass distribute an article that compares lactation consultants to fascist regimes? The truth is, we can't say we care about women when we give credibility to a piece that spends over ten paragraphs disparaging them. Breastfeeding or not breastfeeding your child is your choice. And whether that choice is stripped from you due to disease or because enough people convinced you there's a such thing as breastfeeding Nazis, it is hurting women and causing grief.
It is bullshit.
There is very little breastfeeding support in this nation as it is. It is nowhere near where it should be for the majority of women who are attempting lactation after pregnancy. There are enough battles nursing mothers are fighting daily than to have to fight one more because someone with a byline needed to feel personally validated.
Your reproductive system is your own. It is your body. Your decision. Your absolute right, despite what anyone would ever say to you. Your reproductive decisions are yours. And we should vigorously fight any argument that would deny that choice. You never need a reason to decide to breastfeed. You never need a reason to decide not to breastfeed. You never need a reason to decide to wean. Never. You never need to justify it, defend it or make any kind of argument for why you decide to use your reproduction the way you see fit.
And Wax-Thibodeaux didn't need to either. No one expected her to.
Will someone judge you for using infant formula? Sure. People are assholes. But you will be judged for the shoes you wear to the grocery store. I suppose that sort of essay isn't the kind to go viral. You get more hits sensationalizing topics that hit close to home.
Wax-Thibodeaux is a survivor. She is a renowned journalist with impeccable credentials. She has an amazing platform and an opportunity to use her pulpit to inspire and encourage and bring awareness to any issue close to her heart, with an even larger audience now. Why she chose a few anecdotal experiences with idiots to rail against women is beyond my comprehension. Why she tossed logic and attacked a Strawman is hard to believe.
Is this an ad hom on Wax-Thibodeaux? No. Do I think she has a voice? Of course. I celebrate her choice to share her journey and triumph in stories told. There was a place for what she wanted to say. This wasn't it. I blame her editor more.
Mass media has a responsibility to their audience. The balance in selection, placement and distribution of content all take care and consideration. Ethics matter. How we use the platforms we are given make a difference. And women being exploited and divided for the sake of internet engagement and ratings is crap journalism.
You want to stand on a soapbox? Go for it. You want to prop up a podium? All yours. You want to own a domain where you can rant and rave? More power to you. It's a beautiful brave new world of discourse. But when you hold a byline to a major nationally distributed mass media outlet, you own a lot more. You own a responsibility to your audience to not allow anecdotes to be counted as evidence, to not allow personal experience to replace standard ethics, to not disparage the majority in your audience under false pretense.
It is bullshit.
This could have been a triumphant, encouraging, awe inspiring story of a thousand joys that trump the ignorance and heartbreak of the world. It could have called for better education, more compassion, stronger connection to every woman who has ever felt alienated or alone by someone in a maternity ward or in a social circle or by a friend next door. But it wasn't. It was an us/them blame game exploited by the media as another reason to toss up an internet poll*. It was a chance to perpetuate a war within women instead of the war on women, dividing us and keeping score.
And if you don't see that, you either don't want to or have been conditioned to believe anything is "news".
Media has changed. The landscape has changed. We have thousands of channels and millions of brands and circulation within seconds these days. It's easy to want to search out the content that feeds the instant gratification nation needs. It's a more competitive industry than it has ever been. And gaining an audience often tests our balance in journalism. There has always been a difference between news and a news magazine. There has always been a line drawn between entertainment and hard hitting. There has always been a struggle between what the masses want and what we think they need. The standards can get blurry.
But essays aren't commentaries. Anecdotes aren't accuracies. Personal stories aren't reporting. And women deserve a hell of a lot more than a journalist who forgot that, an editor who allowed it and a media frenzy that ignored exactly what that means.
*It's worth noting, Wax-Thibodeaux had just run a four paragraph story highlighting nurses in our nation not even a month prior to this post.
*October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. A Health and Science feature addressing the multitude of women who are unable to nurse and/or who have successfully nursed in light of this horrific disease could have been a well balanced, unifying and inspiring piece. Who knows, maybe there's still time for that kind of commentary.
*The non-scientific internet poll showed the majority perceived women were judged and perceived judgment being put on them, while the majority of respondents stated they never judged a woman for not breastfeeding.
*Demographics are a part of any discussion on child rearing and infant feeding. Socioeconomics plays a role. There are some regions where breastfeeding is more predominant, some class systems where women are afforded more opportunities. Privilege is a part of the conversation. A high concentration of nursing in one region does not equal mainstream.
*As The Washington Post's own Fact Checker notes: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” – C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, 1921