Last week, I got a text from a friend (and FFF reader). “Saw this and thought of you,” said the message. Here is what the attachment revealed:
I immediately texted back to ask where she’d seen such a thing. “Old Navy”, she responded, making my mouth drop even farther than it already had. A retail giant like Old Navy was selling this? Were they mad? I mean, I loved the shirt (obviously), but I could already feel the anger swarming around the internet, and I was at least 50 feet away from my sleeping laptop.
Needless to say, I have since witnessed a vast amount of Tweets and blog buzz sprouting up as a result of this onesie. I wasn’t surprised at the reaction, but I was surprised – and maybe a little disappointed – to see some of the lactivists I admire most invoking the WHO code as an argument against this shirt’s right to exist.
I don’t think we’ve discussed WHO code (aka the International Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes) on this blog before, which probably seems odd, considering. But it’s been a conscious choice, because I’m skittish about confronting this particular issue. Why? Well, to understand that, you first have to be acquainted with the basic premise of the code….so here you go, courtesy of the World Health Association, itself:
The World Health Organization and UNICEF have for many years emphasized the importance of maintaining the practice of breastfeeding, and of reviving the practice where it is in decline, as a way to improve the health and nutrition of infants and young children. A variety of factors influence the prevalence and duration of breastfeeding. The 27th World Health Assembly in 1974 noted the general decline in breastfeeding related to different factors including the production of manufactured breast-milk substitutes and urged Member countries to review sales promotion activities on baby foods and to introduce appropriate remedial measures, including advertisement codes and legislation where necessary.
The Code is basically a number of rules that formula companies and health care providers are supposed to follow; there are sneaky ways that the companies get around this code, and the manner in which it’s policed varies from country to country (the USA, for example, doesn’t really adhere to the Code). The provisions of the WHO Code are as follows (copied from CompleatMother.com):
- NO advertising of any of these products to the public
- NO free samples to mothers
- NO promotion of products in health care facilities, including the distribution of free or low-cost supplies
- NO company sales representatives to advise mothers
- NO gifts or personal samples to health workers
- NO words or pictures idealising artificial feeding, or pictures of infants on labels of infant milk containers
- Information to health workers should be scientific and factual
- ALL information on artificial infant feeding, including that on labels, should explain the benefits of breastfeeding and the costs and hazards associated with artificial feeding
- Unsuitable products, such as sweetened condensed milk, should not be promoted for babies
- Manufacturers and distributors should comply with the Code‘s provisions even if countries have not adopted laws or other measures.
My problem with discussing the Code is that I understand from whence it came. In third world countries, bottle feeding can indeed be dangerous, and improper marketing and lack of education within these countries are a dangerous mix (for evidence of this, consider the reasons behind the ongoing Nestle boycott – a situation which was primarily responsible for the conception of the WHO Code). I’m always afraid that digging up the Code’s particular can of worms is going to do more harm than good to the cause I’m trying to promote, which is simply better support for all women, in their given situations. (And following that, in a third world country with no access to clean water or adequate supplies of sterile formula/bottles, the given situation would not be conducive to formula feeding).
All chickens must come to roost, though, and I was being a ginormous chicken about this issue. One of my absolute favorite breastfeeding advocates and bloggers, AccustomedChaos, asked me via Tweet the other day what my stance was on WHO Code, and I agreed to email her an answer. I’m going to share with you now what I wrote to her, because, well, it’s just time. So here it is, a slightly edited (and cleaned up for profanity, since my mom reads this) version of my Big Fat WHO Code Confession:
In terms of WHO code… this is a tricky one for me. It’s not that I have any huge problem with formula companies not being able to advertise, but it’s more what the code implies. The only other restrictions like that we have are for alcohol and tobacco, and I do not see formula as being anywhere close to comparable to those products. And actually, if we were to unilaterally adhere to WHO code, formula would be more policed than those substances (for example, I still get tobacco promotions in the mail, b/c I participated in some bar promotion 100 years ago. It’s crazy. And you still see ads in magazines and billboards for cigarettes and snuff, which carry so much more risk than formula, it’s ridiculous.
I see WHO code as resulting from the mess with Nestle, and I understand why they felt the need to implement it. But I don’t think it is appropriate in western, affluent nations with clean water and social services. I also believe in individual responsibility and power. For instance, I get coupons for McDonalds every flipping day… but I haven’t bought anything except 1 cup of coffee (out of sheer desperation – I had a sleeping baby in the car and they had a drive-thru) from them in about 10 years. I also resist the lure of all those ads I see for Radiesse and Botox, even though it would be nice to zap my wrinkles… but I don’t think it’s cool to put chemicals in your body like that. I received formula samples in the mail before my son was born, and it didn’t phase me; I kept the little booklet they sent on breastfeeding and threw out the formula (dumbass move, considering what happened ultimately, but that is how dedicated to breastfeeding I was).
Now, I do understand and appreciate the argument that having formula samples around can be tempting or discouraging to new moms struggling to breastfeed. Which is why I have my own personal theory on formula freebies, which is that they should only be sent/given ON REQUEST. To me, that is the easiest solution to the problem. I feel like if we lobbied for that, and the formula companies fought it, then it would expose them as being truly anti-breastfeeding, which would be a great gain for the lactivist cause, right? And if they didn’t fight it, then everyone would win – the companies could look better, formula feeders could still get their freebies and coupons, and breastfeeding mamas wouldn’t be thwarted.
Anyway – it’s obviously more complicated than that, but those are my “basic” feelings on WHO code. The bottom line is, I don’t like that formula is being treated as a harmful substance, when it isn’t. We should be encouraging breastfeeding and yes, keeping formula promotions out of hospitals (unless the mother has requested them, that is), but I don’t think that means treating formula like a controlled or damaging substance. Following the same logic, we should ban all soda and candy from public places, goodie bags, and they shouldn’t allow these products to be advertised, since these are too “tempting” for people on diets, and we have a national obesity epidemic. Does that make sense?
Okay, we clear? Good. Let’s move on to more important things, like cute onesies from Old Navy, shall we?
My problem with claiming that Old Navy is going against WHO Code (and yes, some breastfeeding advocates are already encouraging people to conduct letter campaigns or personal boycotts of the company) is that they are not a formula company, or a health care organization. They are not responsible, at least through the lens of the Code, for promoting or discouraging formula feeding or breastfeeding. So in my mind, this veers into the scarier territory of the code (like how, on Unicef’s site, they celebrate “innovative strategies of implementing the Code” in countries like Iran, where “Government has taken control of the import and sale of breastmilk substitutes. Formula is available only by prescription”, and India, where “legislation requires that tins of infant formula carry a conspicuous warning about the potential harm caused by artificial feeding, placed on the central panel of the label.” Considering there are affluent populations in both these nations with the proper resources for safe bottle feeding, this all rubs me the wrong way; plus, essentially celebrating control over women’s choices in Iran, even if it is in the name of breastfeeding promotion, is kind of offensive, if you ask me).
To clarify – I respect anyone who decides not to shop at Old Navy because this shirt offends them (and hey, more for me – they are always running out of my size, so the less people that shop there, the more I can benefit from their goldmine sale racks). That’s absolutely your right, and trust me, I’ve conducted personal boycotts for far less noble reasons (like when Maybelline stopped making my absolute favorite undereye concealer. I’m still pissed, so I won’t buy their products anymore, despite my penchant for Great Lash mascara. Petty? Sure. But if you’d seen the bags I carry under my peepers, you’d understand). I saw one blogger commenting that she would have no problem with the onesie if it had been offered with a breastfeeding counterpart; this made a lot of sense to me, and was probably the best argument for onesie-related anger I’d come across.
But I also saw one Tweet about how finally, the women who couldn’t breastfeed had a cute shirt to buy. I relate to that. I’ve often wondered if I should start a line of FFF paraphenelia, just so we could be out and proud like our breastfeeding sisters. I love those Got Milk? shirts; how about, Got Hypoallergenic, Incredibly Stinky but Absolutely Lifesaving Formula? (Guess that wouldn’t fit on a onesie, though, huh?) I think Old Navy did a pretty knock-up job of creating a shirt that formula fed babies could wear, without it being necessarily PRO-formula – it’s not saying “Formula Superpowered” or anything; yeah, there are angel wings attached to the bottle, but it’s supposed to be reminiscent of a tattoo, not implying that formula is heaven sent, even though some of us might rightfully feel that it was heaven sent, considering it was the only thing that kept our children alive. It’s simple. It’s cute. I wouldn’t feel embarrassed or anti-breastfeeding putting it on my bottle-fed child.
I guess, for me, it comes down to what’s behind the anger over this shirt. I can see how, if you were a breastfeeding mom living in a bottle-feeding society, this could be rubbing salt in a fresh wound. I sympathize with that, I truly do. I’ve heard enough stories on this blog and from other sources about the pressure some nursing moms feel from their friends and relatives to know that this is a valid and worthy emotion. Certainly just as valid as what we here, on this blog, feel in the reverse. But I’ve never felt so offended by a breastfeeding t-shirt that I wanted to write to a company or boycott it or threaten it with an international law – and I think it’s pretty clear that I feel more passionate than most about formula feeding rights. And I’ve seen slogans that are far more in-your-face about the superiority of breastfeeding than “Formula Powered”. Hell, for all we know, the kid wearing it could have terrible skin, or be super chubby, or be coughing and wheezing his way through the Food Court, munching on french fries in his stroller. That wouldn’t be the most effective way for a pro-formula message to be spread, would it?
I hope that Old Navy won’t bow to pressure and remove this item from its inventory. I also hope that there are some FFFs out there, who will have the chutzpah to buy such a shirt. I think it’s actually delivering a profound and positive message: your baby is “formula powered”. Not good, not bad, just fed, nourished, cared for, thriving. You were able to provide sustenance for your child, even if it couldn’t come from your own body.
And that’s something to feel proud of, too. It’s at least worthy of one measly onesie.