Self-objectification and breastfeeding

Barbara Frederickson’s objectification theory says “that girls and women are typically acculturated to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical selves.” The theory acts as a “framework for understanding the experiential consequences of being female in a culture that sexually objectifies the female body.” Johnston-Robledo expanded this research around self-objectification and young women’s attitudes toward their reproductive functioning.  Her work shows that women with greater self-objectification tendencies report shameful attitudes toward breastfeeding.

Christine Toledo, PhDc, MSN, RN, ARNP, FNP-C is a PhD candidate at the School of Nursing and Health Studies, University of Miami, and a McKnight Doctoral Fellow. The McKnight Doctoral Fellowship is a program “designed to address the under-representation of African American and Hispanic faculty at colleges and universities in the state of Florida by increasing the pool of citizens qualified with Ph.D. degrees to teach at the college and university levels.”

She’s been influenced by Frederickson and Johnston-Robledo’s work and will present Self-Objectification in the Context of Breastfeeding: A Concept Analysis at the upcoming 2019 International Breastfeeding Conference in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Toledo’s interest in maternal child health started at two different junctures. Her interest in children’s health peaked while working as a research assistant under Michelle Obama’s initiative through an NIH Research Project Grant (R01) aimed at decreasing childhood obesity. The initiative effectively increased physical activity within childcare centers and public schools, changed lunch offerings and reduced children’s screen time. Through this research, Toledo and her colleagues also affected policy at the state level, like when municipalities worked together to add bike lanes for residents.

Later, when Toledo became a registered nurse working at a level three neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Holtz Children Hospital, she was struck by mothers’ pride in providing their milk for their vulnerable babies. This experience has led to her dissertation idea which looks at breastfeeding’s potential to positively affect maternal affect.  

Toledo hopes her work will introduce the concept of self-objectification in the context of infant feeding to health care providers. She says health professionals have the potential to work with families on investigating negative feelings about breastfeeding as well as educate and ameliorate concerns about how breastfeeding affects the body. And because self-objectification has been correlated with other health concerns, Toledo says that awareness of this phenomenon could help healthcare providers screen for other mental health disorders.

Toledo points out that self-objectification in the context of breastfeeding is underexplored and needs much more research.

She raises questions like: Do women who self-objectify have lower birth weight babies because they are concerned about healthy weight gain during pregnancy? How does self-objectification change over a lifetime? Does self-objectification happen in same-sex relationships? Does it differ across ethnicities?

“These are all questions someone needs to research,” she suggests.

She goes on, the research around self-objectification is limited to relatively small sample sizes and limited demographics.

“This research really needs to expand upon itself,” she says.

Join Toledo at the International Breastfeeding Conference by registering here.

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