Tamara Ecclestone, breastfeeding, and how it feels to see representations of love that you’re unable to give

Last week I was interested to see a picture of celebrity Tamara Ecclestone pop up on my newsfeed.

 

Source: BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Source: BBC.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Tamara was shocked. Shocked and saddened that her valiant attempt to normalise breastfeeding through a stunning photoshoot had not been received with the blanket adulation that she had expected. More than that though, for Tamara there is nothing but love in the images and it’s such a shame that it brings out anger in some of you it’s sad for you that that’s how you choose to live.  Personally, I think that love may well have been the order of the day, but there were also probably more scatter cushions than there were in the John Lewis Christmas sale this year.

I don’t know why she would expect blanket adulation because my experience of being a woman and having access to the internet has shown me that I could post an image of a packet of crisps with a vagina and somebody would try to concern troll over what birth control it was using.  Post a picture of breastfeeding and you are guaranteed to uncover that very special type of person who is mortally offended by a nipple.  This is annoying and these people deserve to be treated as the newts that they are and I delight in doing so. However, the four of five newts come with legions of likes, shares and messages of support, as I’m sure Tamara’s PR team know well.

The thing is, we’ve seen these images before, Gisele did it, [here]. Body confidence advocate Tess Holliday used the women’s marches two weeks ago to do it [here] and this week, it’s Tamara’s turn [here].  All of these images have striking similarities.  We see beautiful, wealthy, white and glamorous women gazing off into the distance while effortlessly nurturing wide-eyed babies (scatter cushions optional).  These women are professionals at re-packaging our bodies as an ideal and selling them back to us, they have a team of PR execs and agents to help them in their quest for self-promotion and this is exactly what’s happening here. Usually we are allowed to be angry about the lack of realism and unattainability of things like the thigh gap, but here the product is breastmilk and it’s different rules.

In the UK, 81% or women initiate breastfeeding whilst they are in hospital.  Given that figure, it’s hard to keep a straight face when someone tells you that seeing someone breastfeed is some sort of revelation, but they do.  By the time the baby is six weeks old that figure falls to 55% and by six months, it’s at 1%.  Of those women who stop breastfeeding, 80% of them desperately wanted to but could not. These women have internalised the mantra breast is best and they’ve given it everything they’ve got but come away feeling like abject failures when their breastfeeding dreams didn’t come true.

For them, when they see an image like that with the words powerful demonstration of love and nurturing it feels like a kick in the teeth. As I imagine it does for those among the 20% who don’t attempt to breastfeed because they’re transgender or survivors of sexual violence, on certain medications or adoptive parents, or because it simply isn’t the best choice for their family.  For those parents all they can hear is:

A powerful demonstration of love and nurturing THAT YOU CAN’T GIVE.

That you can’t give, written as if by sparkler; bright, hot, fleeting and gas lit. Or worse, that you are too selfish to give. Of course there is anger.

The late John Berger wrote a lot about advertising and how it works.  To skim it, a good advertising campaign creates a tableau that we all recognise subconsciously to some extent, like the Madonna and Child. You foreground a product of lifestyle that is difficult but perhaps not impossible to imagine yourself attaining, this creates envy.  Then you distribute it far and wide. If it’s something that everybody can have it simply won’t sell as either an image or product.  I mean I love my Henry the Hoover, it never lets me down. I’m never going to make it look like Tamara makes breastmilk look because it is so very mundane and attainable.

If you haven’t yet read Berger’s book Ways of Seeing then you should, because he also makes the point that:

“[P]ublicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats […] takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.” [Berger: Ways of Seeing, p. 149]

 

Tamara and her photographer’s image, and those that came before are the epitome of the genre. Glamorous and unattainable, always just slightly beyond reach.  Why? Because for all of the hashtags and so called ‘normalising’, they do nothing to address the structural inequalities that mean that none of us really gets to choose to live the way we would really like. They are publicity as a mask.

The NHS is struggling and with maternity services, according to the National Health Executive report of January 2017, disturbingly high numbers of women are experiencing so-called ‘red-flag’ events.  What are ‘red-flag events’? They’re events that happen because we simply do not have enough care for women, even to the point that of women not receiving one-to-one care during established labour. If we can’t even ensure that women have that level of care when they’re giving birth can we hope for better during the post natal period and with breastfeeding support? No prizes here for guessing that no, we can’t:

During the post natal period, women were most likely to express disappointment with their experience in the postnatal wards and breastfeeding support. (Source:  National Health Executive report of January 2017)

On occasions where we have actually spoken to women who found themselves unable to breastfeed over dismissing them as bitter and hateful trolls, we find that something like 80% cite pain as a key reason that they were unable to continue. If a mother simply cannot get the help that she needs from a dedicated professional then she cannot continue.

Since 2010 the UK has faced austerity and whether or not you agree with the necessity, in March 2016 the Women’s Budget Group found that women are hit harder than men and households headed by women such as lone parents […] are hit harder. What does this mean for mothers? It means cash in hand, manual labour jobs where you can’t have your children with you. It means no maternity leave because you’re restricted to short-term, temporary contracts. It means not being able to afford the bus fare to get to the doctors when you have mastitis or to pay for the prescription for medicines you might need to treat it. It means choosing between heating and eating. It means that having the time, energy or will to go through the pain of establishing breastfeeding may well not be at the very top of your agenda.

If you do have a job that you are able to go back to, there is unsurprisingly yet more bad news. The House of Commons committee on Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination, tells us that not only is there more discrimination reported now than a decade ago, but also there is no legal duty to provide a place to breastfeed or store milk. So even women who are able to afford the highest levels of childcare may not be able to continue to breastfeed their babies until two years of age.

These images are beautiful and modern reinterpretations of the Madonna and child tableau, chic and classic, but they do nothing to address any of the challenges faced by women today. baby-jesusEven if women in their droves started saying that had they just seen one more photo they could have breastfed on, I don’t know if this one would really help. We already know that wealthy, well-educated and thirty something are more likely to breastfeed, it’s already normal. Most of us could only dream of owning that many scatter cushions in a lifetime and one of her shoes could probably cover at least a month’s rent. As a twenty-two year old, pregnant dropout who just couldn’t get her breasts to co-operate, the only thing that image would have done for me is amplify my failure on every single count.  With the benefit of hindsight, and good research, I now know that I’m not alone.

 

Breastfeeding a new baby is already normal, breastfeeding a two year old has yet to become the norm. When every parent has the luxury of choice over how and for how long they feed their babies, it most likely will. Papering over the cracks with a few Instagram snaps and calling your critics angry and bitter isn’t going to cut it.  We need to meet every obstacle head on. We need to treat our fellow parents with empathy.  Above all, we need to support each other.

#ISupportYou.

Stephanie Maia is a UK-based writer for FearlessFormulaFeeder.com and the #ISupportYou movement.

My honest reaction to The Honest Company’s new formula

So there’s a new formula on the market.

Honest-Company-Formula-DHA

This should be good news, right? Especially as this particular formula brand (The Honest Company) is trying to corner the organic, natural-minded formula feeder market, which is steadily growing. I’ve heard from many FFFs who import a British organic formula because it’s the only one that suits their needs; this is certainly not cost-effective or efficient, and it’s spectacular that these parents now have a Stateside option.

Unfortunately, most of the formula feeding community (including me) learned of this new product via an article on PopSugar which only served to infuriate a good deal of its target audience.

“When you’re trying to feed your baby, you’re riddled with emotion, shame, judgement . . . all these extra layers,” Christopher Gavigan, the company’s cofounder and the creator of the formula, told us. “We acknowledge that breast milk is the most nutritious form of food on Earth, but if you look at the research, the majority of moms will end up doing some combination of feeding, whether it’s a choice or because they have to. It’s a growing reality around the world. And in that reality, parents have to be able to choose something.”

Um, I’m no marketing genius, but since when has “well, we know you feel really shitty about using this – and you SHOULD – but since you have to do it, you may as well choose us” been an effective marketing strategy?

One could argue that for moms who just need to supplement a little, or who are still feeling awful about their “failure” to breastfeed, this self-flagellating attitude might be welcomed. But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful. I wonder about the impact of this language on moms who already worry enough about nutrition to shell out $30/can for formula.

This product launch is also causing drama because Gavigan implies that other widely-used commercial formulas are sub-par:

What he came up with was a formula carefully modeled after breast milk, nutritionally complete, easy to digest, and meticulously blended using ingredients sourced from trusted organic farms. It’s free of gluten, GMOs, flavorings, steroids, growth hormones, and pesticides. And it’s the only formula on the market that has chosen to leave out hexane-extracted DHA (while the fatty acid is known to help with baby’s brain development, the synthetic forms don’t meet safety standards).

While there are many who don’t feel comfortable with hexane-extracted DHA (and I’m thrilled they have a new option, because all parents deserve to feel comfortable with what they are feeding their babies), it’s patently false that the forms used in other formulas don’t meet safety standards. They may not meet Gavigan’s safety standards, or the Cornucopia Institute’s standards, or European standards, or YOUR safety standards, but they do meet the safety standards formula companies must adhere to. Speaking of which, I highly doubt this formula’s ingredients closely resemble breastmilk any more so than Good Start’s. Every formula company wants to get as close to breastmilk as possible. That’s sort of the end-goal. If Honest Company has cracked the code, I think we’d be seeing articles in the Wall Street Journal, not PopSugar.  (Also, for the record, Baby’s Only also has a hexane-free option, although they market it as a “toddler formula” because they believe babies should be primarily breastfed for the first year. But it really is an infant formula. Which is weird. But whatever.)

That said, it is plausible that they have sourced all their ingredients from trusted organic farms. That’s probably where the hefty price tag comes from.

Yet, while Gavigan’s quotes in the Pop Sugar article left a lot to be desired, whoever designed the company’s website is a genius. In the introduction to their feeding section, they state:

No breast versus bottle, no right or wrong: We believe how parents choose to feed their babies is a personal process based on the needs of their families. We know it can be quite an emotional decision. That’s why we’re here not to judge, but rather to support parents with a range of researched information and safe, premium products that empower every family to make the best choices given their unique circumstances.
We’re aware that breast is best, but we also understand that families may choose or require other options. No parent should have to feel guilty for choosing to feed her or his baby one way or another. Parents have been nourishing their children in all kinds of ways since the beginning of time as we know it. With Honest Feeding, The Honest Company hopes to represent the next step in the evolution of nourishment as we help you lay the foundation for a safe, healthy and happy future.

 

Freaking amazing, isn’t it? And even better, they have a section called “Transparency” where they take you through the ingredients in their formula, where they are sourced, etc. The old guard formula companies could learn a lot from this approach. It’s beautiful.

Problem is, I don’t know if what’s on the site is merely lip service, and the “persona” of Honest as a formula company will be closer to the PopSugar representation. I really, really hope that Gavigan was just misquoted.

Regardless, when I posted about this new formula on the FFF Facebook page, all hell broke loose. Some echoed Gavigan’s feelings about currently available commercial formulas, saying that what was available was “garbage”. Others understandably balked at this suggestion. Feelings were hurt, insults were hurled, and I ended up turning off the computer and watching Law & Order SVU because it was less frightening.

(**This is what we’ve come to. We’re so reactive, because we’ve been forced to live in fear, under this heavy, smelly cloud of judgment. It puts us in bad moods, makes us jumpy and defensive, and who can blame us? You spend too much time under a smelly cloud, and you start to kind of stink, too. I know I do.** )

So where do I stand on this new product? First, it doesn’t matter what I think. It’s not my baby. It’s yours. And what mattered to me when I was choosing formula doesn’t have anything to do with what matters to you. My kids couldn’t tolerate anything but expensive hypoallergenics, and I was so relieved to have a way to feed them that allowed them not to starve or bleed from their GI tract that I wouldn’t have cared if the ingredients came from the seventh layer of hell. If organic, hexane-free formula is important to parents, then I damn well want to see organic, hexane-free formulas on the market. We should have more options, overall. That doesn’t mean formulas differ in how they will nourish your baby – they all meet the same nutritional standards and your baby will grow well on all of them, unless s/he has a special need/allergy/intolerance that necessitates a specialty formula. But there’s enough “noise” out there when it comes to our food (not that I condone or agree with this noise, but that’s not really here nor there) to make any new parent anxious, and when you’re already feeling anxious about not breastfeeding, the last thing you need is more anxiety.

One more thing I want to address, in this convoluted post: On Twitter, a lot of pediatricians I respect and who have fair, balanced perspective on formula use, surprised me with their reaction to this new formula. I share their skepticism on the marketing claims, but I worry about this attitude of “no formula will ever match breastmilk, so why even try?” That’s fatalist and scientifically pessimistic. There is always room for improvement. This may mean more options, better safety protocols, more transparency from the formula companies  And yeah, someday, it might mean making a formula that is even closer to breastmilk, at least in terms of certain specific aspects of human milk that we could potentially recreate in a lab. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

Sometimes, I think that our desire to promote breastfeeding denies us the opportunity to do better for our population as a whole. As Gavigan rightly points out, many parents use formula. That will not change, at least not in our lifetimes. Throughout history, babies have been fed with drinks and foods other than breastmilk, much earlier than the currently advised 6-month mark. Providing the healthiest alternative possible should be a major goal. Dismissing formulas as “all the same” translates to “all junk” in the hyper-alert minds of loving parents. That’s not the message we should be sending, and more importantly, it’s not true.

Here is what it comes down to: No formula is “better” than another, nor is any parent “better” than another. We make choices; sometimes those choices are made for us, for financial or health reasons. The beauty of having options is that we feel we can exert some control over our babies’ health. The downside of having options is that we feel pressured to make choices that can exert control over our babies’ health.  And it gets even more complicated, because no one can agree on what is “healthy” half the time. Depending on whether you read Food Babe or Grounded Parents, your definition will vary.

But here’s what it also comes down to: We can’t confuse innovation, marketing and development within an industry with the politics of infant feeding at large. It’s the difference between arguing whether parabens should be in skin care products, and proclaiming that no one should be using anything but water and olive oil to clean their faces in the first place. It’s telling a car company that they shouldn’t be talking about their safety ratings, but rather encouraging people to walk.

It’s good to talk about these things. And no one should feel they have to sugarcoat or keep mum about issues that concern them. But if we could all just be realistic, be wary, and be kind, it would make for a much more palatable and productive discussion.

Honestly. It’s that easy.

All new parents deserve a place at the consumer protection table, not just breastfeeding ones: A response to the “Day of Action: Keep Infant Formula Marketing Out of Healthcare Facilities”

Public Citizen is known for its advocacy for ordinary citizens who have been harmed by large entities–and rightly so.  Much good has been done by this organization in the name of everyday citizens who otherwise have little power to lobby our government for stronger laws and regulations to protect our society.  However, Public Citizen’s recent event, “Day of Action: Keep Infant Formula Marketing Out of Healthcare Facilities,” does not accomplish the goal of protecting consumers.  A consumer protection advocacy organization has an obligation to women to support their right to bodily autonomy, as well as support their and their children’s health care needs—issues that are sometimes incompatible with breastfeeding and do not currently receive sufficient support in our breastfeeding-centric post-partum health care model.

The Day of Action fails to address many of the true issues that affect women’s and children’s ability to breastfeed.  A complete lack of formula advertising is not going to enable women with insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) to make sufficient milk, or change the fact that many women have to take necessary medications that are incompatible with breastfeeding.  It is not going to prevent complicated births or medical conditions in babies that sometimes make it exceedingly difficult – or impossible –for moms to breastfeed.  It does not reduce adoptive or foster families’ need for formula.  And a lack of advertising is not going to change the fact that some women do not want to breastfeed, and have a right to their bodily autonomy.  While we agree that it would be best for parents to receive information about formula from a non-profit source, currently, there is no such source that provides accurate, unbiased formula information, even to families for whom breastfeeding is not an option at all.

The Day of Action implies that information about formula is plentiful and accurate.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Information about formula is typically riddled with fear mongering about not breastfeeding and uses value-laden language that assumes women who use formula lack perseverance or are selfish, lazy, uneducated, immoral, or ambivalent about their children’s health, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Formula supplies in hospitals are hidden in drawers or even locked up.  Lactation consultants are held to the WHO Code and urged not to discuss formula unless under special circumstances (lest it send a message that formula is “just as good as breastfeeding,” even though it is a medically appropriate option, and sometimes the only option).  Doctors are not taught about formula preparation and are frequently scared off of even talking about formula for fear of being labeled anti-breastfeeding.  Where are formula-feeding families supposed to get the accurate, unbiased, judgment-free information they need?

Perhaps Public Citizen is unaware of the extent to which breastfeeding marketing relies on shaky claims.  Maternity wards are typically papered over with literature that claims breastfeeding improving babies’ IQ and helps new moms lose weight—claims that some assert are based on poorly-done research that frequently confuses correlation with causation, and that have not been borne out in more powerful, well-designed studies.  Recent research on breastfed and formula fed siblings (three well-regarded published studies[1]) showed little to no long-term effect of breastfeeding for a number of oft-mentioned issues.  These studies are powerful because, unlike many other studies on breastfeeding, variables such as parental IQ, educational status, and socio-economic status are much better controlled.  Several large metastudies (including those conducted by WHO[2] itself and the United States’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality[3]) have found that the evidence in favor of breastfeeding is marred by confounding factors.

A consumer protection advocacy organization has the responsibility to ensure that advertising claims are based on sound science, but the “absolutes” plastered on maternity ward walls, city buses, and doctor’s offices (“Breastfeeding prevents asthma[4]”, “breastfeeding makes babies smarter[5]”, “Breastfed babies grow up stronger, healthier and smarter[6]”) and liberally sprinkled in literature distributed to new parents do not fulfill this criteria. Public service messages cannot be immune to the regulations that restrict other advertising.

Further, perhaps Public Citizen is unaware of how much of the advertising for breastfeeding actually benefits corporate entities.  New moms in hospitals are given sample tubes of Lansinoh nipple cream, Medela breast pads, and coupons or ads for local boutiques that sell breastfeeding products such as Boppy nursing pillows and covers.  It is common for new mothers to receive sample magazines, which exist both to promote themselves as well as the advertisers within. It seems counter to Public Citizen’s goals to protest one form of advertising and not others.

Women deserve to know the full range of medically viable options for feeding their children, in an unbiased, accurate, and judgment-free manner, and we feel a consumer protection organization should be at the forefront of that fight.  Formula feeding parents need help, advice, and support just as much as breastfeeding parents. Unless Public Citizen is willing to help establish a non-profit center to train “infant feeding consultants”, not just “lactation consultants,” whose job is to support all medically viable methods of feeding a baby, this Day of Action seems just another way to deny formula-feeding families what little information they can still get about their health care options for their children.  It seems to contradict the stated goals of Public Citizen to protect consumers.

We encourage Public Citizen to speak with actual formula feeding parents, many of who feel marginalized in our healthcare system for the choice or necessity of formula.  Breastfeeding—and products and service providers who support it—is so heavily promoted in hospitals that formula feeding families are left without the kind of education or support that breastfeeding families receive. As there are no non-profit sources of education for formula, other than a few websites run by mothers who have taken up the charge, companies are the only remaining source. This is not ideal, but it is currently all we have. We encourage Public Citizen and all who support this Day of Action to read the stories of actual formula-feeding parents, the vast majority of whom report seeing no advertising prior to using formula, at FearlessFormulaFeeder.com, and consider how they may equitably represent the needs of pregnant, birthing, and post-partum mothers and their babies at the consumer protection advocacy table.

Signed,

Concerned Members of the FearlessFormulaFeeder.com Community

 

 


[1] Evenhouse, Eirick and Reilly, Siobhan. Improved Estimates of the Benefits of Breastfeeding Using Sibling Comparisons to Reduce Selection Bias. Health Serv Res. Dec 2005; 40(6 Pt 1): 1781–1802; Geoff Der, G David Batty and Ian J Deary. Effect of breast feeding on intelligence in children: Prospective study, sibling pairs analysis, and meta-analysis. BMJ 2006;333;945-; originally published online 4 Oct 2006; Colen, Cynthia G. and Ramey, David M. Is breast truly best? Estimating the effects of breastfeeding on long-term child health and wellbeing in the United States using sibling comparisons. Social Science & Medicine, Volume 109, May 2014, Pages 55–65.

 

[2] Horta, BL and Victora, CG Long-term effects of breastfeeding: A systematic review. World Health Organization, 2013.

[3] NIH Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). Breastfeeding and Maternal and Infant Health Outcomes in Developed Countries. Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 153, April 2007.

 

 

Why the Gerber Good Start ad irks me

I’d finally finished my work for the night, and had just settled into bed to watch my DVR’d episode of Once Upon a Time (best show on television right now, by the way). Breasts and bottles were the last thing on my mind, until I was zipping through the commercials and glimpsed a formula can. Of course I had to stop fast-forwarding and watch, and here is what I saw:

Cute baby, but that’s beside the point.

This ad got me very riled up, and – dare I say it – took me out of the (in my case, very willing) suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a show about fairy tale characters come to life.

I am not against formula advertising, any more than I’m against cell phone advertising, or baby food advertising, or car advertising. In fact, considering I still do some commercial acting on the side, I’m fully in favor of advertising as an industry. (Except pharmaceutical ads, because they make me a total hypochondriac.) But this ad rubbed me the wrong way, for one major reason: why is an ad about formula focusing so much on breastfeeding?

Obviously, I know why. Anyone who frequents this blog knows why. In the US, this is about as close as we get to following WHO Code. The formula companies can do pretty much whatever they please, so long as they tack a “breast is best!!” message onto it. I’ve talked about this before, in regards to shady practices like running “breastfeeding support lines” or sponsoring “feeding guides” that talk far more about breastfeeding than bottle feeding. I think it is hypocritical, and demeaning to the intelligence of parents. If you were to ask me (a lifelong vegetarian, sometimes vegan) for a recommendation on the best steakhouse in town, I’d worry about your sanity. Likewise, relying on a formula company for breastfeeding advice is probably not the wisest move.

Nestle, who makes Good Start, has a reverse halo effect that is going to take about 1000 years to dissipate. Anyone who is involved in breastfeeding advocacy thinks the company is the devil, and for very good reason. Saying the words “Gerber knows that breastfeeding is best” comes off as totally disingenuous. It’s not going to make up for the thousands of deaths the company caused by marketing formula irresponsibly. Unfortunately, Gerber probably feels it has to make the requisite breast-is-better
statements because the company is making claims (which are indeed backed by research) that this particular formula has been associated with a lower risk of allergies.  (They even go one step further than most formula ads, subtly suggesting that their customers will most certainly be breastfeeding up until a point with the phrasing “if you do decide to introduce formula…”) Anyway… all this is to say, I get it. I get why they constructed the verbiage of the ad this way.

But this is what hit me last night, when I should have been enjoying some mindless entertainment: the fact that formula company advertising involves so much discussion about breastfeeding being superior, might actually be hurting breastfeeding advocacy. 

By talking about breastfeeding being the best way to feed your child, the advertisers are immediately creating an unconscious comparison between the two feeding methods. Comparisons necessitate qualifications like good, better, best. Parents might decide (quite justifiably, in my opinion, but that is neither here nor there) that better is pretty darn close to best, so why go to the trouble of breastfeeding?Within this model, breastmilk is also seen as a competitor to formula, which inspires subliminal pro/con lists in our heads.

What if Gerber hadn’t mentioned breastfeeding in this ad? The downside, I suppose, would be the implication that this formula could protect against allergies better than breastmilk. But that could be accomplished by making accurate claims, a rule that all advertisements are expected to follow, even if they don’t always do so. (I would suggest simply giving some statistical information, i.e, “Studies have found that breastfeeding exclusively for the first four months is associated with x amount of reduced risk of allergies. Gerber Good Start has been found to decrease the incidence by x,” but that is probably why I don’t write ad copy…)

 If formula could just be advertised as formula, instead of a poor man’s substitute for breastmilk, we wouldn’t lead consumers into a nebulous cloud of comparison. Because honestly, why compare the two? They are two different ways to get a child fed. The benefits and risks of breastmilk are fodder for a conversation between a care provider and patient, not the territory of a money-grubbing corporate conglomerate or over-zealous activists. What if we simply held formula companies to the same standards as, say, pharmaceutical corporations? No false claims; caveats of “talk to your doctor” if there are any statistics or medical studies cited.

Extolling the virtues of what is essentially a competing product (which is why I passionately believe we need to stop commoditizing breastmilk, but that would entail a much longer conversation than I want to have right now, as I have the rest of that episode waiting for me and it’s getting quite late) is something unique to formula advertising, and I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish that breastfeeding advocates could see that making formula companies pay homage to the Almighty Breast is serving no one. It just makes for a confusing and annoying ad, and we don’t need more of those cluttering up our DVRs and ruining a perfectly good evening of escapist television.

A little post about Piri Weepu and breastfeeding advocacy gone wrong

Did you hear the one about the rugby star who dared be filmed bottle-feeding his baby daughter as part of a New Zealand anti-smoking campaign, and found himself the accidental poster boy for the breastfeeding backlash?

There’s no punchline, unless you can find some sort of dark humor in this egregious comedy of errors. Piri Weepu, who is supposedly somewhat of a folk hero for the Kiwi set, was shown feeding his kid in a PSA, and the images were cut after LLL, the New Zealand College of Midwives and a local health organization called Plunket decided that they would be “contradictory” to the nation’s breastfeeding initiatives. An uproar ensued. Twitter exploded with people defending Weepu; the rugby star himself spoke his mind (and made himself a bit of a hero in my eyes, too, as he stood up for formula feeders everywhere); arguments flooded the feeds of nearly every bottle-feeding- and breastfeeding-related Facebook page – including my own.

Some folks pointed out the breastfeeding advocacy groups were maligned unfairly in the press. Others said that the critics were overreacting; that this was simply a case of one public health campaign infringing on another. More than a few explained that showing an image of a father bottle-feeding would harm efforts to normalize breastfeeding and perpetuate a bottle-feeding culture. After all, they could have shown Piri bathing or cuddling his child if they wanted to make it clear that he was a doting dad – was the bottle really necessary?

I’ve heard lots of good points during the past few days, but no one has been able to clearly answer what I believe is the real question: Exactly how is showing a MAN feeding his baby sending a message that WOMEN shouldn’t breastfeed?

Yes, it is true that men can induce lactation, but in most cases, men are clearly incapable of providing breast-to-mouth nourishment for their babies. They must feed their children pumped milk from their partner’s mammary glands, or formula. Both of these substances must be fed through a bottle (cup or syringe-feeding, while less controversial methods of feeding babies in the breastfeeding advocacy camp, are certainly feasible alternatives for short-term situations, but they are not practical for most people and regardless, I’d think they are still “contradictory” to the normalization of breastfeeding if we’re operating on that assumption). In other words, if you are male, the only choices are a) feed your baby with a bottle or b) don’t feed your baby at all.

I understand that the fear is that an impressionable young woman who sees this ad will think “oh, look, a big time sports hero is using bottles – bottles are cool!” and this would make her not want to breastfeed. But I think this argument would be a lot more plausible if it had been a supermodel, actress, or female sports hero with bottle in hand. And what about the positive influence this image could have? What if we have an impressionable young man in place of our hypothetical young woman – maybe he’d get the message that real men take care of their children.

But, wait. Breastfeeding is supposed to be a family affair, right? Men should be helping their female partners lactate, not demanding that they take part in feeding themselves. What if that boy watching Weepu grows up, has a kid, and talks his wife out of breastfeeding because he wants to take part in the feeding?

I guess that could happen. Still, isn’t it a less hysterical interpretation to think that he’ll still support breastfeeding (if that is something his wife wants to do), but that he would ask her to maybe let him feed a bottle of pumped milk every now and then (or god forbid, a bottle of formula, if they are combo-feeding)? Frankly, I think that is 100% within his rights. Men should not be deprived of the feeding experience just because they don’t produce milk. Once breastfeeding is established, there is no medical reason that pumping a bottle or two a day is going to disrupt the breastfeeding relationship. (Not to mention that for any woman who goes back to work before her baby can use a sippy cup, bottles are probably going to come into play.)

I doubt that this incident would have caused such fury had it been a woman holding that bottle. I think most rational folks would understand that if the government is promoting breastfeeding, all government programs should be on the same page. But this is beyond ridiculous, and all it has served to do is provoke a massive breastfeeding backlash – something that we have been seeing more and more of in the past three years. When I started blogging, Hannah Rosin had just made headlines for her courage to to speak up when no one else would. Then Joan Wolf took it to a whole new level. A whole bunch of us have followed suit, some more radically, and some more moderately, than others.

I believe in breastfeeding, and the last thing I want to see is a backlash so extreme that it ends up discouraging women from nursing. At the same time, if raising breastfeeding rates means losing all modicum of common sense, engaging in censorship, and throwing us back into the dark ages of gender discrimination… well, I can’t say I want to see that, either.

So please, powers that be, take a breath and see where your actions are taking you, before you do more harm than good. I know it’s hard, but man up.

Literally.

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