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Shame And The Mom: On Formula, Lactivism And Why, It Seems, We Can’t Just All Get Along

I breastfed both of my children. I breastfed Emilia on park benches and in restaurants and in libraries and on airplanes. I breastfed Jasper in front of a crowd at BlogHer ’08 – while I was speaking – when he was eight weeks old. I breastfed Jasper by Guy Kawasaki’s swimming pool, while sobbing and wiping baby shit from my pants. I breastfed another woman’s child. I wrote many thousands of words about breastfeeding. I launched, with a good friend, a campaign against Facebook for removing photos of women breastfeeding, and then, from that, an entire site (now, sadly, defunct) devoted to mom-activism and defense of mothers against nonsense like Facebook’s hypocritical policies on breastfeeding photos, whereon we posted a breastfeeding manifesto, and hosted – don’t laugh – a Breast Fest. I considered myself a breastfeeding activist. I still consider myself a breastfeeding activist.

But some would argue that I’m not a breastfeeding activist. I am, according to certain arguments, a bad breastfeeding citizen, perhaps even an enemy of the breastfeeding cause. In this view, all of the work that I’ve done to support the nursing cause amounts to zip, diddly and squat, because I work for a media property – this one, the one that you’re reading right now – that accepts advertising from formula companies. The money that I earn is, on this view, “blood money,” because it comes from a company that accepts such advertising. Formula advertising is, after all, indisputably evil, because formula itself is evil. So. You can’t, according the parameters of these arguments, be a breastfeeding activist if you’re not against formula, never mind accepting blood money – blood money, you guys – from companies that aren’t opposed to formula. You’re probably evil if you do this. I’m evil. I should probably just accept this.

Because herein resides the problem: I’m not against formula advertising. I’m just not. I’m against bad formula advertising: I’m against misleading formula advertising, and formula advertising that actively and explicitly undermines breastfeeding, and I’m against formula advertising to vulnerable communities. But I disagree with the hard line of many breastfeeding activists that any and all formula advertising is by definition because it is the advertising of formula, full stop bad. I disagree with the position that any and all advertising of formula is uniquely deceptive and sinister; I disagree with the claim that the very existence of formula advertising meaningfully undermines breastfeeding. Yes, I know that the World Health Organization recommends against the advertising of formula. But the WHO recommendations were developed primarily to address real problems with the marketing of formula to vulnerable communities – problems that are being widely addressed by most formula companies. Mothers in the North America are not, by and large, a vulnerable community. And the choice to formula feed, freely made, is not an terrible one, nor is any mom who cannot for any reason breastfeed and is therefore compelled to formula feed harming her child. And so I’m discomfited disturbed, even, to say nothing of insulted by the claim that my disinclination to disavow formula advertising in its entirety nullifies or even diminishes any claim that I might have to being a good citizen in the community of mothers.

Because here’s the thing: advertising is part of our cultural discourse. Advertising provides consumer information. As a consumer, I rely to some extent on advertising to keep me aware of the variety of choices that I have in a variety of markets. I know what variety of strollers are on the market because of advertising. I know the specs on GM’s latest Chevy vehicle because of advertising. I know when Old Navy is having a sale because of advertising. I know which brand of beer has that chill measurement thingy on its can because of advertising. I know what allergy medications are on the market, what birth control pills are out there, and that there exists treatment for erectile dysfunction because of advertising. I know what political platforms are being put forward by candidates for office, when the latest X-Men movie is coming out, when the new season of The Walking Dead premieres and whether ballerina flats are still in style because of advertising. I live in a culture in which a pretty large share of social discourse is informed, and sometimes even driven, by promotional narratives. Which is why debates about censoring certain forms of advertising always provoke intense debate: advertising, or commercial speech, is understood, rightly, as a part of public discourse and a domain of speech that should, barring a very few extreme exceptions (tobacco, firearms) and given certain codes of reasonable and acceptable conduct, remain free.

So. The censorship element of the ‘no formula advertising ever’ argument rankles me as liberal (and, I should add, as a former political scientist. You have no idea the self-control that has been required to not veer off, here, into dissertations on John Stuart Mill and the fallibility of UN organizations.) But as a woman and as a mother, it insults me. The push for a complete ban on formula advertising rests upon the assumption that mothers are not capable of understanding formula advertising as advertising – it assumes that they will be confused by it, those poor, silly mothers, and mistake it for unbiased, non-commercial speech – and that they are therefore vulnerable to being ‘duped’ by formula advertisers in a way that they are not from, say, Budweiser or McDonalds or General Electric. I’m a grown-up, you guys. I know what commercial speech is. I am capable of parsing information from advertisers. I am not stupid. I can make up my own mind.

But here’s the further problem: those who see all formula advertising as inherently evil see it as such not just because they think that I am, as a mother, uniquely vulnerable to the advertising message, but because they see the product itself as dangerous and so want to limit my exposure to any messaging that reminds me that I have a choice about whether or not to use that product. Using formula, in this view, is dangerous: it’s on a par with smoking cigarettes and using firearms. They believe that the choice to use formula is problematic enough that women should be prevented from seeing images or text that suggest that it is anything other than fully ill-advised – or, at best, a desperate last resort for unfortunate mothers who – regrettably, lamentably, pitiably, shamefully – cannot manage to provide their babies with the life-preserving sustenance that they so deserve. This is insulting for all of the reasons that I cited above, but it’s also disturbing because it shames any and all mothers who, by choice or otherwise, use formula. The message at the core of the ‘ban all formula advertising’ platform is simple: formula is bad. You should not use it. You should not even think about using it. You should not look at words or images that in any way suggest that you are not a terrible mother if you choose it. Giving your baby formula is akin to sticking a cigarette in her mouth. If you use formula, you are a bad, bad mother.

This is nonsense. This is pernicious nonsense that is harmful to mothers, inasmuch as it undermines mothers’ powers of self-determination and calls into question their ability to make the best choices for themselves. It is harmful, because it shames mothers. It shames working mothers who have to bottle feed because they can’t be with their babies all day and it shames mothers who are unable to breastfeed and it shames mothers who truncate their breastfeeding relationship with their babies for the sake of their mental health. It shames any mother who has paused and wondered, even for a moment, whether things wouldn’t be easier for her, whether she mightn’t be better able to cope, whether she mightn’t be happier (because isn’t a happy mom best for baby?) if, maybe, just maybe, she didn’t breastfeed. It shames any mother who regards the method by which she nourishes her babies as her personal choice. It shames me, a woman who struggled with her choices, but who regards the fact that she had those choices – unlike other moms, in other places – as a privilege beyond measure.

Shame drives us to silence. Shame drives us apart.

Shame disempowers us, as individuals and as a community. Shame closes off the possibility of civil, productive discussion about the ways and means by which we promote not only breastfeeding, but the art and craft and work and community of motherhood generally. At Babble, we’ve been working on a plan to involve members of the community in an ongoing discussion about what Babble can do to promote breastfeeding and a culture of discourse in which all maternal choices are respected. But there are members of the community who refuse to even consider being part of that discussion unless we ban formula advertising entirely. And because we won’t ban formula advertising not because of money, but because we believe I believe; I cannot stress enough how hard I believe this that the demand to ban formula advertising is problematic on too many levels, a full and inclusive discussion is not possible.

This is a shame, because there are tremendously important conversations to be had about how we reconcile the seeming solitudes of breastfeeding advocacy and choice advocacy. There are important conversations to be had about what a ethical culture of formula advertising should look like, given that there is, as WHO itself acknowledges, a legitimate market for formula. There are important conversations to be had about whether a mom who uses formula can be a breastfeeding advocate, and about whether a breastfeeding advocate can allow space for discourse about formula that does not demonize it. There are important conversations to be had about respecting each others’ choices as mothers meaningfully respecting these choices, and not just paying lip service to them.

We’ve fought hard for these choices. We’ve fought hard to have public conversations about these choices and how we live them. Let’s not lose this ground.

Thanks all – yes, all – for the fascinating conversation. I’m closing comments now, because I simply don’t have the bandwidth to continue to participate in the discussion. We’ll continue to draw from the input and feedback in the discussion as we move forward, and believe me when I say that we appreciate everyone’s engagement here.

Update: a note from Rufus Griscom, Babble’s CEO:

Thank you, Catherine, for your wise, level-headed post and series of comments. There are many other great points made in the comment section… it’s an interesting conversation. It’s always been our objective here at Babble to encourage lively discourse on all things parenting, so it’s gratifying to see full-throated discussion of an important topic.
One broader comment: We at Babble have always welcomed feedback, whether it’s positive or negative, both from our users and experts in the marketplace. Most parenting sites do not engage in these conversations; we make it a policy to operate transparently and share our thinking with the community. Though we do not see eye to eye with the more extreme lactivists — I think Catherine articulates our position extremely well above — we are responsive to rational and constructive input.
Last year, following a discussion on the subject, we made it a policy to make sure formula ads don’t appear next to breastfeeding content. That policy has been in place for almost a year now. Someone noted in comments that if you search for breastfeeding, you sometimes see formula ads next to the search results. That’s a great point that had not occurred to us — unfortunately we cannot control what ads appear next to specific search results. However, we can exclude ad campaigns from all search results, and we made a decision last week to change the settings to make sure that formula ads, going forward, do not appear next to any search results.
We have reached out to lactivists, among other thought leaders, to be part of a panel to help guide the expansion and revision of our breastfeeding content. Many of the lactivists in this conversation have taken the position that they don’t want to participate in a conversation with us because, like all family-related websites over a certain size, we run formula advertising. That is disappointing, but we will continue to engage other breastfeeding advocates, pediatricians, and of course our wonderful and outspoken users, in our continuing effort to make Babble as good as it can be. Thanks for reading and posting.
– Rufus, Babble ceo
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