It’s Not About the Brelfie

For obvious reasons, I get excited whenever the media takes notice of how formula feeding parents are feeling.

That’s what happened yesterday, when the media (and my email, Twitter and Facebook feed) exploded with the news of a new campaign meant to fight back against breastfeeding pressure, using the hashtag “#bressure”. When I first read the articles about the movement, I noticed the positive (attention to the experience of “failing” to meet breastfeeding recommendations) and ignored the references to the “brelfies”, breastfeeding photos which apparently spurred the campaign in the first place. I even sent a letter to the creators, praising them and asking if the FFF community could contribute in some way.

But as the day wore on, red flags started popping up. First, a fellow blogger alerted me to the fact that the survey conducted by the Bressure movement alluded to breastfeeding selfies as “sexualized”. Then, every single article I read focused on how these (apparently sexualized) “brelfies” were directly causing pain and suffering to bottle feeders. Instead of talking about the systemic issues that create a cycle of guilt, fear, and competition, we were once again dragging the conversation down into the mommy-war gutter, pitting woman against woman, and continuing the seemingly endless divide between breastfeeding and formula feeding moms.

This is not progress.

I’ve run a modestly large international community of formula feeding parents for the past six years, and I know several truths:

1. Formula feeders are a diverse group, just as breastfeeders are a diverse group. There are militant, intolerant formula feeding parents who truly do believe that women shouldn’t breastfeed in public, just as there are militant, intolerant breastfeeding mothers who believe formula feeders are selfish, ignorant, and useless. I wish we could vote them all off the island, but alas, such is life. The problem is that we’re letting these factions monopolize the conversation. This is EXACTLY why we started #ISupportYou, to which there was a rather vocal backlash from the intolerant/militant faction, on both sides.

2. The media loves drama. It is so much more fun to blame “brelfies” for the pain we formula feeders endure, because then the extremists come out of the woodwork and create mile-long comment sections, boosting your traffic for the next few days. It is also easier to get inflammatory quotes when nuance is ignored. Nuance doesn’t get web traffic or media attention. Trust me on that one; I speak from experience.

3. Seeing breastfeeding photos is undeniably difficult for those of us who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t, or feel conflicted about our choices. When we’re feeling vulnerable and judged, it can definitely feel like that model/celeb/Facebook friend’s breastfeeding selfie is intentionally meant to twist the knife a little deeper. But that shouldn’t stop a mom from posting a breastfeeding photo, any more than you should refrain from posting a shot of your newborn when your second cousin is struggling with fertility issues. Both of you have the right to your feelings – your pride, her grief. (That said, there’s the social media-era problem with all of us comparing ourselves to others, posting things we’d never say to someone’s face, and basically acting like insensitive jerks every time we hit “post”.)

4. The breastfeeding selfies themselves are not the problem, but the  ”#breastisbest #breastfeedingmomsrule #whatsyoursuperpower hashtags can be construed as an attack on formula feeding moms. That’s not me telling you to stop doing them, just explaining why the photos might hurt your best friend who switched to formula three weeks ago. That is not me telling you that the cause of normalizing breastfeeding isn’t important, just explaining why there might be better ways to achieve the same goals without adding to the conflict. Just like this latest “bressure” video series could have had a hugely positive impact, if the impetus behind it didn’t sound like bitterness and jealousy and a who-has-it-worse competition.

5. There’s enough anger, misunderstanding, and generalization on both sides of this debate to fill several football stadiums. When the media chooses to focus on something trivial (“brelfies” – for the love of god, who though of that term) instead of the real issues, we all lose. Personally, it makes me feel like I might as well jump in my DeLorean and head back to 2008, because what the hell have I wasted the past 6 years of my life on?

6. The top reasons that formula feeders are angry, based on my totally unscientific, not-peer-reviewed but at least peer-collected research, are the following:

We are made to feel like inferior mothers by medical professionals, websites, fellow moms, lactation consultants, mommy-and-me group leaders, and the media.


We get no guidance or education on bottle feeding from professionals, and when we seek it out, we get conflicting info peppered with constant reminders of why we really should be breastfeeding, so why even bother attempting to find the best type of formula, since they’re all crap, anyway?


The reasons that breastfeeding advocates and the media give for us “failing” to meet their recommendations are so far from our lived realities, it’s hard to believe we exist in the same dimension.


Everything having to do with babies these days – from conferences to books to radio shows – focuses on breastfeeding. If bottle feeding is mentioned, it’s typically in the context of Things To Avoid At All Costs Unless You Really Have to Go Back to Work In Which Case You Should Just Pump or At Absolute Worst Use Donor Milk.


Yes, there are many breastfeeding advocates who come to troll on our pages and provoke our anger. And yes, there are formula feeders who will do the same on breastfeeding pages. Ignore these people. They do not matter. There are more of us middle-ground, moderate folks than there are of them.


While mom-to-mom cruelty is certainly a part of the problem, we know that there’s a much larger battle to fight – the battle of scientific illiteracy and paternalistic advocate-physician/researchers who are blinded by a religious belief in breastfeeding. If the bullies didn’t have certain unnamed, infamous physicians leading their charge – people who encourage the shaming and ridiculing of formula feeding parents – they wouldn’t have so much power. If society had a better understanding of the reality of infant feeding research, and could acknowledge that correlation and causation are two different animals, it would take away the fear and guilt, on ALL sides.

We just want to be equal with you. Not better. We’re not even asking you to think that formula and breastmilk are equal – that’s a question of science, of risk/benefit analysis, and individual circumstance. All we are asking is that we do not equate the type of liquid going into our children’s bellies with how much we love them, or how bonded we are with them, or how strong/capable/dedicated we are as parents.


This is not about photos. This is not about who has it worse. This is not even about breastfeeding and formula feeding, anymore. It’s about how we view motherhood as a competition, how the powers that be monopolize on this competition, and how the media loves to encourage it. Instead of focusing on brelfies or bressure, let’s get the hell off Instagram and start making an impact in our own communities, with our own friends and fellow parents. Ignore the hype, and focus on the help.

A picture tells a thousand words. But they don’t have to be negative ones.


The Sorority

You honestly thought you were past it.

It’s been four years since you’ve had a newborn. Four years since you had to answer the inevitable are you nursing? questions, or had to buy a can of expensive hypoallergenic formula, or stare in envy at how easy it was for your friends to feed their babies. You’d sit there covered in renegade powder and splashed water, smelling like rotten potatoes; they’d push aside a designer nursing top and feed with ease. But you got through that hard first year. It was done. It was over.

But then, friends starting having more babies. Some were first timers, some were on number three. And though they may have struggled, all went on to join the sorority. You know the one: Alpha Lacta Nu. 7110705855_5443084995_mIt’s a pretty easy sorority to join; the hazing involves some cracked nipples, a few hundred dollars in lactation consultant fees (at least pre-influx of Baby Friendly initiatives and ObamaCare), and a successful completion of Lactogenesis II. But for those who don’t pass the lactation equivalent of pledge week, it can feel like the most exclusive club in town. (Exclusive. Huh. Why does that ring a bell…?)

Beyond the politics of infant feeding, beyond guilt, beyond misleading articles, beyond the pressure to meet public health recommendations, lies something far simpler and emotionally loaded: it’s the feeling of being left out. Of not being allowed into the sisterhood. Of not being part of the real Club Motherhood, the one that shares inside jokes about drinking while nursing or recipes for lactation cookies.

Years go by, and the club opens up – now, your entry is based on toddler tantrums, preschool admissions, moving to neighborhoods “for the schools”. You find common ground. You start feeling like maybe motherhood is more than this, more than milk, more than nutrition, more mind than body.

But it’s always there – that little fizzle of ugly jealousy in your gut – and it will remind you of its presence when you see one of your own – one of the “uninitiated” – gain entry into the sorority with a second or third child. Suddenly, you’re left out again. One of your uncool friends just got invited to the cool kid’s table. She looks up, over her tuna fish sandwich, and shoots you an I’m-sorry-I’m-still-me-I-still-love-you-but-this-is-way-more-fun kind of half-smile. And the leggy blonde next to her, the one with the perfect teeth and 4.0 GPA, tosses her hair and you know, in that moment, that your friend is no longer like you. How can she be? She’s in.

And while you know – you know – that your lack of breastfeeding did nothing to your child’s health, or intelligence, or beauty; and you know – you know – that you are no less of a mother because of how you fed – that doesn’t stop the hurt. Because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about guilt, or regret, or even jealousy of the nursing itself. You know you made the right choice for your and your family. It’s not about what people think it’s about.

It’s about wanting to be part of the club. Just for once. To not have to be the one people feel sorry for (oh, she couldn’t nurse, poor thing) or talk about (I bet she didn’t have enough support) or judge (I heard she could have if she’d just tried) or try and reassure (it’s okay! My aunt/sister/friend’s baby was formula fed and she’s just fine!) as they politely close the door to the sorority house in your face.

It’s about feeling happy and sad at the same time, when you see one of your own finally gain entry. You want her to be happy, to succeed at something that caused her pain and sadness the last time. But it’s also the loneliest feeling in the world to lose one of the only people who know what you know, and feel what you feel. You’re thrilled for her. And you also hate her, in the ugliest, tiniest, most disgusting part of your soul.

It’s about wishing for the day that motherhood won’t be measured in ounces produced, or tears shed, or bottles filled, but knowing that day probably won’t come, because it’s human nature, and we’re human.

It’s about reaching out, and wanting to start your own sorority – one that accepts you for who you are, and knows that your journey isn’t exactly like hers, and that’s okay – and finding more drama, more disagreement, and more ugliness.

It’s about realizing – finally, really realizing – that you’re not alone. That there’s community out there. That one day, this too really shall pass; that the majority of your close friends will leave the childbearing jungle years, and this sorority will cease to matter.

Someday, we will all graduate. I promise. And when that day comes, I’ll be the one waving my cap in the air, shouting hallelujah to the bigger, broader, world that’s waiting for us all.


A World Breastfeeding Week Plea: Stop celebrating, start collaborating

Usually, I’m all over the place this week. Getting quoted in the requisite “it may be breastfeeding week but gosh darnit some women still find exclusive breastfeeding super hard” articles. Posting my own stuff here on the blog, or over on HuffPo. Talking about #ISupportYou and pissing off hundreds of people in the process, because they see it as a veiled attempt to “steal the thunder” from World Breastfeeding Week.

But this year, I’m all but invisible.

Part of this was unintentional. I’ve been going through some stressful career-change mishigas, dealing with the inevitable gaps in childcare that occur between camp and school, entertaining a ridiculous number of visiting extended family members. I’ve been too exhausted to blog, or talk to media sources, or self-promote (because let’s be honest – that’s a part of what all of us parenting bloggers do. Even the most altruistic of us. Even those of us who don’t depend on hits or advertising or who never make a cent off their blogs. We write because we want to be heard; we pray for bigger audiences, book deals, evidence that we’ve made some sort of impact. I happen to be rather shitty at this, which is why I don’t blog much anymore. I don’t have the stomach for that part of the job).

Another part of my conspicuous silence has been intentional, however. Probably more than I care to admit. See, I’ve been focusing my efforts on the supportive stuff. Reaching across the aisle, trying to understand all facets of this debate, and hoping that by creating better resources for all moms, I can help stop all the guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. I know that breastfeeding is important to many, many women. I want those women to succeed, and feel happy and proud and supported. So this year, I wanted to try and stay out of World Breastfeeding Week drama like I try and stay out of my kids’ sibling squabbles.

Yeah. Because that works so well with my kids.

The problem is, I also want formula feeding mothers to feel happy and proud and supported. And for some reason, it’s not okay to want both of these things. It’s ok to pay lip service to it, to claim #ISupportYou and tell formula feeding moms that celebrating breastfeeding isn’t about them. But if you actually do the work you need to do to ensure that non-breastfeeding parents are supported, you are violating WHO Code. You are taking attention away from the women who “need it”. You are stealing…. what? Resources? Sympathy? One-up(wo)manship?

I tried to stay out of it. I really did. I held my newly-minted CLC certification close to my non-lactating chest and bit my tongue.

And then the articles came, and came, and came. And so many this year were not about the benefits of breastfeeding, but rather how hard it was. Or how hard it was NOT to breastfeed. How this mom felt like she was poisoning her baby, or this one felt like she’d be booted from the “mom club” because she didn’t wear the EBF badge.

So much guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt. None of it is stopping. There’s more this year than ever before.

Then this happened.

And I heard my community inwardly wince. Not for the reasons you might think. Not because they didn’t think it was a beautiful image, and not because it glamorized something that had been messy and painful for most of them, although those certainly were thoughts that some of us had to squash down into that endless pit of mother-guilt. No, it was because it was yet another image of a breastfeeding celebrity, with headlines and stories that spoke of her bravery for normalizing nursing, and comments all over the place about how breastfeeding was finally being celebrated.

I think, for many of us, it was the “finally” that did it. For many of us, it would seem far braver for a celebrity to do a shoot with her bottle-feeding her kid with a can of formula in the background. We have only seen breastfeeding being celebrated. There’s so much partying going on, and we feel like the crotchety old neighbors calling the cops with a noise complaint. But you know, it’s late, the music is loud, and we’re tired.

Now, just to be clear – I’m talking about breastfeeding being “celebrated” That celebration doesn’t do us much good. It does not mean that it is easy for moms to nurse in public. Obviously, it isn’t. Or that lactation services are plentiful and accessible to all. Obviously, they aren’t. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but that doesn’t stop it from being difficult for the new mom in the hospital, whose birth didn’t go as planned. Or the one who has to go back to work 2 weeks postpartum. Or the one with a job not conducive to pumping. Breastfeeding is celebrated, but not when you’re overweight. Or when you’re nursing a toddler.

Idealized images in the media of what breastfeeding looks like do not normalize nursing. In fact, I’d argue it fetishizes it – not for men, so much, but for women. Now, we don’t just have to feel inadequate for not fitting into size 2 jeans a month after giving birth, but we need to feel inadequate if we don’t meet the feeding norm and make it look gorgeous and natural and easy.

Please do not misread what I’m saying here – talking about breastfeeding, supporting breastfeeding, and implementing changes to make breastfeeding easier for those who want to do it are important, admirable, and necessary goals, as far as I’m concerned. But the comments I saw coming from my community after this photo hit the news were not about any of these things. They were from women feeling totally drained, frustrated, and alienated after a nearly a week of hearing how inferior their feeding method was, who were sick of being told they were defensive or that they feel guilty if they tried to stand up for themselves. This story was the last straw. It’s weird, when you think about it – it wasn’t the piece on the risks of formula, or the memes about the superiority of breastfed babies – what broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous spread of a gorgeous, confident actress proudly nursing her baby.

This is what perpetuates the cycle of guilt/anger/resentment/confusion/hurt: our lived experiences are so damn different, that it’s like we’re constantly talking at cross-purposes. The nursing mom who is the only one in her small town not using a bottle sees a photo spread like this as thrilling, victorious, self-affirming – as she should. The formula feeding mom living in Park Slope who carries her formula-filled diaper bag like a modern-day hairshirt sees the same spread as just another celebrity being held up as a pioneer, when she’s only doing what’s expected of a woman of her stature – as she should. Both are right. Because both are personal, emotionally-driven responses.

Earlier this week, I said that deciding how to feed your baby is just one of a myriad of important parenting decisions. But somehow, it’s become the most important one. We cannot expect formula feeding moms to support their breastfeeding sisters when they don’t receive the same support. We just can’t. It’s not fair, and it’s not realistic. I feel like that’s what I’ve been asking of all of you, and somehow I just woke up to that fact.

Why are there still articles talking about how shitty we feel for not breastfeeding, instead of articles talking about what’s being done to change this? Where is the news story about the doctors who are saying enough is enough (because I know they are out there – many of them contact me, and I appreciate these emails, but I wish they were able to say these things publicly without fear of career suicide)? Where’s the NPR program about ways we can improve breastmilk substitutes so those who cannot or choose not to nurse aren’t left hanging? Where’s the Today Show, The View, The Katie Show, doing segments on why women are REALLY not meeting breastfeeding recommendations, instead of segment after segment on how brave so-and-so is for posing nursing their newborn on Instagram, or talking to dumbasses on the street about the “appropriate” age for weaning?

When we stop “celebrating” and start normalizing and supporting and being realistic about how different life can be even just a street away, maybe World Breastfeeding Week can have it’s proper due. Maybe we can actually talk about ways to help women in the most dire straits feed their babies as safely as possible – clean water, free breast pumps, free refrigeration, access to donor milk.

I want to be able to be silent during World Breastfeeding Week. It shouldn’t have to be “overshadowed” by emotional, personal pieces about breastfeeding “failure”. It shouldn’t be a time for articles about not making formula feeding moms feel “guilty”. These words shouldn’t even be part of our infant feeding lexicon, for godsakes. Failure? Guilt? For what?

This year, I want us to stop celebrating, and start having some calm, productive conversations with people outside your social circle. For many of us, the celebration feels exactly like high school, when the popular kids had parties and we sat home watching Sixteen Candles for the thirty-fifth time. That’s not to say breastfeeding isn’t worth celebrating, but the end goal should not be one group feeling triumphant and the other feeling downtrodden. Formula feeding was celebrated for decades too – and that celebration made the current atmosphere of breastfeeding promotion necessary. Please, let’s learn from our mistakes. Let’s move on. Rip down the streamers, put away the keg, and open the doors to the outsiders looking in. You never know – they could end up being the best friends you’ve ever had.


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, 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.


Concerned Members of the 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.



Getting a grip on the Strong Mom Empowerment Pledge Controversy

The latest outrage in the breastfeeding advocacy world doesn’t have to do with dying children in resource poor nations, or bogus “breastfeeding advice” hotlines run with the nefarious goal of undermining a mother’s goals. It’s not even about someone questioning the benefits of breastfeeding, or urging the government to rethink some of its public health messaging.

No, this week’s rage-fest is over a campaign asking women to pledge not to bully one another based on their parenting choices.

Sound silly? Well, according to a handful of well-respected bloggers, it’s about as silly as a car wreck. This is because the campaign is sponsored by Similac, a formula company, which has everything to gain by women feeling “empowered” to use their second-best (or fourth best, if we’re going by the WHO hierarchy) product in a world made less judgmental by a pledge such as this.

On a purely anti-capitalist, anti-marketing level , I understand why some may feel a little queasy about this campaign. I’ve seen some backlash against the Dove Real Beauty ads for the same reason – the message is great, but the fact that it was created by a group of advertising executives rather than a non-profit, purely altruistic group, sullies it. There’s an ad term for what Dove and Similac are doing – the “halo effect” – meaning that when you use the product, you’ll have positive, do-gooder type feelings about it. Coke’s done it, too. (Remember that catchy “I’d like to teach the world to sing” jingle? Halo effect, right there.)

I assume this is what was behind tweets I came across today suggesting that formula companies have no place talking about parenting issues. My counter argument to this is that many of us formula feeders feel abandoned by the parenting gurus (paging Dr. Sears) and in some cases, even our own pediatricians – the message we receive is that if we’re formula feeding, we’re pretty much a lost cause. So while I can’t say I’m thrilled that a formula company stepped up to fill this gap, I think we need to think a little more critically about why the gap was there in the first place.

For the record, with this particular campaign, Similac isn’t giving parenting advice, but rather advocating for an end to mother-to-mother judgment. More of an anti-bullying campaign than anything about parenting issues. Which is probably why they have Michele Borba as one of the spokespeople – she’s a well-known expert on bullying as well as parenting issues, but she barely deals with the infant/toddler set. For that matter, I don’t think babies are mentioned at all in the campaign literature –most of it has to do with embracing your parenting choices and not allowing other people to make you feel less-than.

But I’m not even all that interested in discussing the campaign itself – I’m more concerned with the response to it. Comments I’ve seen; articles I’ve read from some folks I have utmost respect for, but whom I feel really missed the mark on this one. Some of these arguments include: Similac has no right to talk about mommy judgment because formula feeding shouldn’t be a lifestyle choice; the bloggers who came on board to support the campaign are sell-outs or shills for Big Forma; and that the campaign is one big booby trap.

In a thought-provoking and controversial NY Times Motherlode column, KJ Dell’Antonia quotes Kimberly Sears Allers, who maintains that the Strong Moms Empowerment campaign is faulty because formula feeding is a public health issue, not a personal choice:

One centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s “Strong Moms” Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use as a “lifestyle choice” that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. … And since choices are individual, they have no social consequences; women are therefore relieved of responsibility of considering the broader implications of their decisions. And once I make my choice, no one is to challenge me. We can’t talk about it. And if you do, you are judging me.

Admittedly, I’m taking major poetic license here, but my take-away from Allers’ post was that we can’t not judge other moms for doing something which puts babies at risk. KJ’s own argument is more nuanced and balanced; she suggests that this whole conversation has become too personal, and the “judgment” rhetoric just dilutes the real issues.

I agree with KJ, actually – it’s a point I’ve made myself, in my own somewhat pissy rants about how the only anti-breastfeeding-promotion opinions we hear come in the form of personal stories (which are important in their own right – don’t get me wrong – but hardly a match against scientific studies and “fact”-driven articles). But making things “less personal” doesn’t just mean that every blog post discussing breastfeeding must stop devolving into a who-had-it-harder string of comments. The onus can’t purely be on those whose choices are being questioned to buck up and be “strong”. If we’re going to make it less personal, than breastfeeding advocates cannot be in charge of conducting research on infant feeding. We need to ensure that voices from both sides are heard, so that formula feeding mothers don’t need to sit in awkward, shameful silence while the food that so beautifully nourishes their infants is compared to tobacco, lest they be accused of “taking things so personally”.  And outlets like the New York Times need to post intellectually-driven or research-based pieces from the “other” perspective, rather than just personal stories of breastfeeding failure, so that the conversation isn’t so one-sided.

But I think, in some ways, KJ’s point gets convoluted by Allers’ quote. It can’t not be personal, when a woman’s decision to formula feed is being equated to a public health issue. This is where the misinterpretation of risk within the breastfeeding canon is problematic; it is where people like Joan Wolf are so vitally important. And yet, Joan Wolf can’t participate in the conversation because it has become so personal: her assessment of the literature is brushed off as anti-breastfeeding, lost in the fervor of those who fear that discussing breastmilk as anything less than a miraculous and perfect substance, and breastfeeding as anything less than a moral imperative, will negate their admirable efforts to normalize what should be a human right.

The other common refrain in the past few days is that formula feeding mothers should be offended by this campaign. I’m crying foul. First of all, I take issue with breastfeeding advocates speaking for me – someone who felt completely ousted, chastised, and disenfranchised from their community, and their ideal of good mothering. Just like I will never know the hot rage felt by a nursing mom who is asked to leave a restaurant, someone who has a fundamental belief that breast is best will never know what it feels like to be told that your maternal instinct is faulty, due to susceptibility to marketing, stupidity, selfishness, or some combination of the three.  To hear a company which created a product that nurtured my babies echoing the same sentiments I’ve been preaching for years – that the judgment must stop; that moms need to stop fighting each other and work together for better parenting rights; that women need to stop engaging in sorority-level hazing in order to wear the label of “Good Mommy/Good Radical Feminist/Strong Woman – makes me happy. I don’t feel preyed upon; I am well aware that they are hoping to sell more formula, and you know what? If I had to decide between a brand that is marketing to breastfeeding moms and one that is finally trying to appeal to its actual audience, I’d probably choose the latter.

Someone commented on the NYT article that it would’ve been nice if this campaign came from an individual or group without profit-driven motives. Spoiler alert: that would be me. That would be Bottle Babies. We’re out there, doing this. But most people aren’t aware of us – we each top out at about 3k Facebook followers, opposed to the popular breastfeeding blogger-activists, who are all in the 200k range or higher (some of whom, incidentally, could benefit from a pledge not to bully other moms. Just sayin’.)  We have nothing behind us – no advertising, no sponsors. No money. It’s slow going, trying to make a dent, attempting to create change in a positive and real and measured way. We waste a lot of time defending ourselves against accusations of working for the formula companies; of being anti-breastfeeding; of being uninformed and defensive.  And trying to run our ad-free websites and blogs and attend conference on our own dime and BE HEARD when there are so many more powerful, louder people out there. I realize this sounds like a whiny me-me-me rant, but I’m trying to paint a picture here – because it helps explains why I’m okay with the Similac campaign. Until the indie, unsponsored voices are able to reach the masses, I’m just happy that someone can. I’m happy that women who are feeling judged and guilty and embarrassed about their choices, who are forced to read “Breast is Best” every time they see a formula ad, or open a can of food for their baby, can finally have an opportunity to feel good about the product they are using. That for once, we can feel like part of the sorority – part of the “empowered” group – even if it’s all manufactured and for profit, even if it’s bullshit.  It’s not even about the cheesy “empowerment” pledge – it’s about seeing a formula company treat formula feeding as something matter-a-fact, rather than constantly comparing itself to breastmilk, and in a more subtle and unintentional way, comparing formula feeding mothers to breastfeeding mothers. It’s about being able to feel okay about the way a formula company is operating, rather than cringing at how they are sending free samples to moms intending on breastfeeding (rather than those of us who’ve filled out the damn internet form 300 times and never received a single coupon, but I digress) or marketing some asinine product (like the company in question, with its new “formula for supplementation”. Jesus, Similac. I’m wasting time defending you and then you pull something like this? For real?)

Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s a start. And if you think it’s sad that we are so desperate for acceptance and celebration that we are willing to get into bed with a formula company that thinks of us like an easy booty call, I’d recommend taking a long, hard look at yourself: at the comments you make; the Facebook posts you share; the policies you write; the initiatives you implement; the articles you publish.

Because yes, it is sad. It is sad that Similac has been able to capitalize on this need. It is sad that there is the need to capitalize on. And it’s sad that those who have created that need are refusing to see how implicit they are in the development of such a sad situation.

It’s just sad.


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