Sexualized & Stigmatized: The Realities Of Breastfeeding a Black Son
The mom of both a daughter and a son, Imani L. Whyte-Anigboro has been breastfeeding almost continuously for three years and counting, and throughout that time, she's made some interesting and sometimes unsettling observations. In honor of Black Breastfeeding Week I had a chat with Imani about her experience, particularly when it comes to nursing her son.
Imani breastfed her now 4-year-old daughter, Oghenebrume (Brume), for two and a half years, getting a brief two- to three-month break during the third trimester of her second pregnancy, before she started nursing her son, Oghenerhoro (Rho), who is now 15 months old. With the exception of a single tandem feed, she has spent the last 15 months nursing Rho exclusively.
With Brume, Imani was a bit of a pioneer among her family and friends.
Her family and friends just didn’t get her approach to breastfeeding. She had to tell them: [Babies] nurse on demand. Nursing is not only for food but is also for comfort. It's OK if you’re the pacifier.
“These are all concepts that are foreign to a lot of people, even people who have breastfed before,” Imani says. The second time around, the people closest to her now assume that she knows what she’s doing when it comes to feeding her children. But with her son, Imani has noticed an entirely different concern. When people see her nursing her 1-year-old, they say things like, “That’s a boy?’ ‘Oh, you’re still nursing that boy?!’ ‘He doesn’t need that anymore after one year,” she explains.
Thankfully, Imani has been armed with facts.
“Extended breastfeeding used to start at one year,” Imani explains. “But now, the CDC has joined with Word Health Organization to say that it’s two years.”
Imani says the “Google machine” is your friend, and more people should use that instead of relying entirely on what older generations may have done.
“Stand on facts and not what your grandmother did,” Imani suggests. “No shade to grandma. What grandma did might have been good for when grandma did it. It doesn’t make grandma a bad mother. It doesn’t even make grandma ill-informed. What it does is make you ill-informed because you haven’t done any research."
When she breastfed her daughter, people wondered about the duration, but gender never came up.
But when it comes to her son, the people who question Imani’s choice to continue breastfeeding aren’t solely worried about his nutrition.
“People sexualize everything. Girls are sexualized early. And then with boys, it’s like ‘Oh that’s nasty.’ And it’s like it’s not nasty when your man is doing it and he’s not getting no nourishment at all,” Imani says.
Imani believes men and boys could stand to learn that a woman’s body can be used for more than sexual pleasure. It was a lesson she tried to impart on her ex-husband as well.
“I was at my brother’s baby shower. Rho was 5 to 6 months. There were people at our table who I didn’t know," Imani explains. "I’m nursing Rho and my Wusband was like, ‘There are little boys at the table. You shouldn’t be doing that in front of the boys. It’s making them feel a way.’"
She told her ex that if the boys were indeed bothered, their parents should have said something to her. Or they could have used the experience as a teachable moment.
“It’s OK for your son to see a woman breastfeed,” Imani says. “Maybe their first time seeing a woman’s breast will be when she’s breastfeeding and you can explain what breasts are used for. Instead of the first time they’re seeing a woman’s breast being in a porno that they’re looking at in middle school. Let [breastfeeding] be their first image of a breast and their first notion of what a breast is used for and then they can learn about the second thing.”
For Imani, it’s clear that these attitudes harken back to the perception of a Black woman’s body from origins of enslavement in this country.
“Our bodies have not been for our own use forever,” Imani explains. “If our breasts have not been used for the sexual pleasure of someone else, they have been used to nurse someone else’s babies while our babies died, literally.”
But those days have changed. And as Black women are taking back agency over their bodies, Imani wants breastfeeding to be a part of that conversation.
“I want Black people to know that as empowered as you feel by seeing women like Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo living the truth of who they are, in their bodies ... have that same energy for when you see a mom of color who chooses to breastfeed their child,” Imani says.
“It is a form of empowerment. It is a form of embracing your body. It is another journey that someone has chosen to take. One minute she can be on her City Girls vibe and the next she can feed her baby. We continue to be multifaceted. Understand, appreciate, and applaud us for that.”
In addition to the more sexualized notions about her feeding her son, Imani is convinced there’s another more emotional layer to the inquiries she gets.
“People want boys to be tough so bad,” Imani says. “It’s scary raising a Black boy. He’s 15 months in two days and I’m scared already.”
Imani’s fear is about the ways in which boys and eventually men are taught to process and express — or suppress — their feelings. “Men have to effectively use all of their emotions and not be scared of that,” she shares.
“That’s a new concept for too many men. You can use all of your emotions and it’s going to be OK. They want boys to be tough to be ready for what may come in the world because the world is so hard on Black men. But why can’t they be hard and soft?
"If the world is so hard on them, shouldn’t they have a safe space to fall?" she says.
"Let boys have a soft place to land. And until he’s 2 or he decides to stop, my breasts are going to be that for my son. And that’s OK.”