Thursday, October 6, 2011

Joining the Fray: Third Person Effect in the Formula/Breastfeeding Debate

I recently wrote about the Time article reporting fewer hospitals were giving formula gift bags to new mothers.

This same subject sparked some renewed voices in the breastfeeding/formula feeding debate, and it's being framed in an interesting way that discusses connections (or lack thereof) between breastfeeding and feminism.

The Feminist Breeder has a post titled "Why I'm a Feminist AND a Lactivist" that explains her view:
I absolutely support a woman’s right to choose to feed her baby formula, but I absolutely do NOT support the drug company’s “right” to be in the delivery room, handing out products that are only designed to stand between the mother and her breastmilk.
She also calls out feminist Jessica Valenti for a post she wrote explaining her view that "refusing to give mothers access to formula is not 'baby friendly' or helpful--it's shaming and in some cases could be very dangerous."

Some back and forth debate ensued, including Valenti's response and then The Feminist Breeders re-response, which also included pertinent discussion pieces from Alison Stuebe's post "What Does Feminism Have to Do with Breastfeeding" on Breastfeeding Medicine and Penny Van Esterik's post "Breastfeeding: A Feminist Issue."

I agree with TFB that breastfeeding is a feminist issue, and I wholeheartedly agree that formula marketing doesn't belong in maternity recovery rooms. At the same time, I am sympathetic to Valenti's feeling that she was shamed for using formula and that shaming women for their decisions is not a very feminist response (though I don't think there was any of this individual shaming in TFB post).

I think AHodges, one of the commenters on TFB's post, makes an excellent point:
I don’t disagree that formula companies are unethical, but I do disagree with the implication that women are so easily manipulated and persuaded. Either women are intelligent enough to make informed decisions for themselves (which you seem to think is true when it comes to making decisions about pregnancy and birth), or they are too vulnerable and hormonal to make good choices.
What's at the heart of this comment is the third-person effect, a mass media theory that suggests people see persuasive ideas as being more persuasive (manipulative) for other people than for themselves. So, someone may look at some manipulative advertising for a women's diet pill and say to herself, "I'm smart enough to see through this charade, but there are many other women who will be tricked by this. They should be protected."

Is there a third person effect when it comes to formula marketing? Perhaps. There are many women who successfully breastfeed even though they were offered free formula in the hospital (myself among them). I did, however, feel vulnerable and frustrated which manifested itself as a temptation to use the formula that felt somehow endorsed by medical professionals because I received it in a medical setting. However, suggesting that other women are not smart enough to see through the marketing ploys puts everyone on the defensive, and it clouds what's really at the heart of this issue.

As Stuebe points out " the ultimate link between breastfeeding and feminism is that in a truly equitable society, women would have the capacity to fulfill to pursue both their productive and reproductive work without penalty."

What's ultimately at stake--at least for me--in advocating to get the marketing out of the hospital room is that marketing is one of the ways we create cultural norms. I am frustrated that breastfeeding is not a cultural norm. I know that many women who formula feed feel attacked by the breastfeeding community, and I think that's not only unfortunate, but actively undoing the progress we're attempting to make. However, the fervor of support for breastfeeding among a vocal minority (myself among them, too) might be distracting us from the fact that there is not this kind of support from the culture as a whole. 

When a formula company-sponsored gift bag is placed in the hands of every woman who gives birth (including the ones who explicitly declare they are going to breastfeed), the message is that formula is the norm. The context of this message is not the same as the context of a coupon in a magazine ad or even a sample sent directly to the mother's house by the formula company and it's certainly not the same as a television commercial or a radio promo that can be shut off or ignored. This sample is given in the context of a medical setting--a setting where health is supposed to take center stage. Giving formula in this context helps elevate formula feeding to the default choice, and that has, in turn, created a culture where breastfeeding is not as valued.

It is not okay to attack women's individual choices for what is best for them and their families. But we have to be able to separate micro-level personal attacks from macro-level cultural ones. 

I, for instance, went back to work when my daughter was seven weeks old. I could feel personally attacked when I hear people advocating for maternity leave policies that guarantee women six months off. This article, for instance, argues that women should not go back to work before the baby is 12 weeks old because it is a crucial time for milestone development and these "are crucial times that parents need to be an active part of." 

Could I take offense? Sure. I could feel like this article is claiming I'm not a good parent because I wasn't "an active part" of my child's life. But this article is not about me or any individual woman's choice; it's about a cultural norm regarding women's paid maternity leave. 

Furthermore, I whole-heartedly believe that I would make the same choice again. Even if I were offered six months of leave, I would very likely have returned to the office around the same time. I was ready to get back to work. I love my job, and I missed it. I truly think that I am a better parent because of the level of fulfillment I get from my work. That does not mean, however, that I don't value better maternity leave policies. I recognize that my personal choice has little bearing on the overall culture surrounding motherhood. I feel it is my responsibility as a feminist to advocate for better choices and better treatment for all women, whether or not those are choices I myself would make. 

Finally, we have to realize that getting personally defensive about a macro-level discussion is exactly what those in charge of the systems of power are banking on. If women fight among themselves over when (or if) we should return to work and how we should feed our babies, we don't have time to confront the systems that  limit our choices and deny us equality when we make them. 

And that's why breastfeeding is a feminist issue. 


  1. Someday, when I'm done grading, I have more to say on the larger issue here (it boils down to: I agree!). My comment isn't really about the issue of predatory marketing...

    I can't help but notice that this post on "the f word" ( focuses on a UK hospital that is not only discontinuing free formula gift bags, but is *requiring* parents who plan to formula feed to bring their own *pre-mixed* formula.

    This is going to a problematic end of the spectrum. As a patient in the hospital, the hospital provided food for me. Granted I (or my insurance company) had to pay for it, but I didn't have to pack my own lunches and dinners for my 48 hour in-patient stay. Why should parents who choose not to breastfeed have to pack their own formula?

    Having formula available when requested is VERY differently than handing a corporate sponsored gift-bag with free formula in it to someone who has said "I plan to breastfeed." And I'm not sure that what St. Mary's is doing is really what UNICEF intends...

  2. I totally agree. On the "third party" thing - formula is different than something like cosmetics because if you are having a weak moment and buy expensive face cream you can realise later that actually, you are better than that (or whatever!) and just throw it away. Once you have given a baby formula that is often the nail in the coffin and once you start running out of milk there's often no going back (it's super-hard, anyway).

    I think the main problem is, though, why aren't medical professionals telling women, "this is normal, your baby will scream bloody murder until your milk comes in, it's just how it goes, wait a day or two". Why are so many of them telling women that their babies are STARVING AND OMG you are a bad mother if you make your baby wait! I think that's why women often feel so angry at being "told" they are a bad mother for not breastfeeding. So many mixed messages!

  3. Amanda, I agree that the policy that doesn't allow formula in the hospital unless a medical professional deems it necessary is extreme. I think you're also right to question whether this is in the spirit of the UNICEF goals.

    I also understand how calls for making formula illegal (which the author of the f-word piece says she's seen on social media sites) is ridiculous rhetoric that just works to further put people on the defensive without moving the discussion forward in any productive way.

    Finally, there is no end to grading. It just goes on, and on, and on.

  4. Kat:
    Yes! The panic over my daughter not gaining back her birth weight fast enough was horrible. I had to bring her in for constant weight checks; doctors implied that her jaundice would have been resolved faster if she had formula. It was so hard to stick to my decision to exclusively breastfeed in the face of that kind of pressure. Of all the roles I have, the one I can least handle failing is motherhood, and that means I'm extremely sensitive to thinking I'm doing it wrong. I'd imagine similar emotions are what keeps this debate from a unifying resolve.

  5. So, rather than post a response here, I've instead decided to write my feminist theory paper on breastfeeding. I'm currently trying to focus my thesis, but I'm think going to look at the 1) medicalized rhetoric regarding "support" of breastfeeding which seems to be leading to both implicit and explicit moral judgments of women who choose to formula feed and 2) lack of true social support for breastfeeding to be successful. Both of these lead to absence of true choice regarding infant feeding.

    As I'm sitting here thinking about it, I'm a bit daunted by how complicated it is. My working bibliography has sources all over the place right now.