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.