For Shame: Feminism, Breastfeeding Advocacy, and Maternal Guilt


  • Erin N. Taylor,

  • Lora Ebert Wallace


In this paper, we provide a new framework for understanding infant-feeding-related maternal guilt and shame, placing these in the context of feminist theoretical and psychological accounts of the emotions of self-assessment. Whereas breastfeeding advocacy has been critiqued for its perceived role in inducing maternal guilt, we argue that the emotion women often feel surrounding infant feeding may be better conceptualized as shame in its tendency to involve a negative self-assessment—a failure to achieve an idealized notion of good motherhood. Further, we suggest, both formula-feeding and breastfeeding mothers experience shame: the former report feeling that they fail to live up to ideals of womanhood and motherhood, and the latter transgress cultural expectations regarding feminine modesty. The problem, then, is the degree to which mothers are vulnerable to shame generally, regardless of infant feeding practices. As an emotion that is less adaptive and potentially more damaging than guilt, shame ought to be the focus of resistance for both feminists and breastfeeding advocates, who need to work in conjunction with women to oppose this shame by assisting them in constructing their own ideals of good motherhood that incorporate a sense of self-concern.