When Big Pharma “Strong” Arms Mothers, We All Lose

Mother feeding newborn sonCorporations have a very bad habit of telling moms how to be. Or better yet, co-opting some very common “mom” archetypes for their marketing pursuits. For decades, we were told “Choosy Moms Choose Jif.” More recently, “It Moms” were more likely to choose a particular fabric softener. This week, infant formula maker Similac has taken on the dubious role of connecting their brand to “Strong Moms” — those supportive, they say, of a less judgmental environment for mothers. This new affinity for strength is being launched with a Strong Moms Summit on May 7th in New York City featuring a number of high-profile mom bloggers.

Please forgive me for being suspect. It is certainly true that there is way too much pressure on mothers today, and we all could take a proverbial “chill pill” on the mommy-bashing. But when a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical giant (Similac is owned by Abbott Laboratories) plows millions of dollars into telling mothers to be “strong” and “non-judgmental,” I think I’m rightfully engaged in a side-eye glance.

Selling women messages that sound good on the surface but actually undermine them has been a corporate tactic since at least the 1950s. We aren’t really being supported to be strong moms–whatever that means anyway — we are being sold the idea of “strong” as a marketing tool for corporate interests. There’s a big difference and all parents should take note of the dangerous undercurrents.

What I typically find most insulting is that these corporations are counting on moms not knowing better. That we are so weary from the pressures of motherhood, that we will hang on to any messaging that appears to be a “release valve” without delving one centimeter beneath the surface to find the real facts.

Apparently “strong” does not mean savvy.

Because one centimeter beneath the surface of Similac’s “Strong Moms” Summit and online campaign you will find that framing of infant formula use around a “lifestyle choice” that is not to be judged has been its primary marketing strategy for decades. Ah, choice. It used to be such a powerful word–one that conjured up women’s suffrage, the feminist movement and our battle for reproductive rights. The problem today is that “choice” has been taken out of the context of women’s rights and misconstrued into a dirty and insidious word. In its most disgusting reiteration it is being marketed to women and girls by corporations — in this case, by infant formula marketers, who are more concerned with profits than infant health outcomes. Women have been led to believe that the “choice” between formula feeding and breastfeeding is merely a matter of inclination–a personal decision, a feather in the cap of liberation. 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.

This is dangerous territory for all women and mothers as the issue of breastfeeding vs. formula feeding is turned into a mere lifestyle choice as opposed to a child health matter. No wonder Similac is supporting so-called non-judgment.

What is really happening is that by leaving each other alone in our so-called non-judgmental circles, we are simply leaving the current unjust system in place and discouraged from forming opinions about the value of different choices. With this type of continuous marketing messaging, we lose the ability to have critical discussions about where the real choices lie and which “choices” are merely illusions. Most problematically for the future of mothers, it deters us from addressing the systemic problems such as improving child care options, increasing the market for part-time work, the lack of a paid federal maternity leave, and other deep-rooted, anti-family policies that actually devalue mothering and shape our infant feeding choices, and prevent us from being active agents of change because we are being told that many aspects of mothering from our infant feeding to work decisions are “choices” and, therefore, private matters.

Choice becomes the silencer on a dangerous handgun.

In this context, choice is not liberation. It is suffocation. In this context, Similac is asking moms to be strong when they really want us weak and silenced. Framing the infant feeding conversation as an empowerment experience erases the context of corporate interests and deep pocketed marketing machines that have always put profit motive ahead of infant health and the health of mothers and our actual empowerment, for that matter.

Let’s face it, this isn’t the first time that women have been sold on an ideal that sounded good on the surface but was actually manipulated to undermine them. It’s been over 50 years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ripped the veil off the problem behind a very good-looking pretense of waxed floors, perfectly applied lipstick and domestic bliss in the 1950s to help women breakthrough a malaise they didn’t know existed. At that time, the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers was borne out of similar cultural forces and commercial interests. It was presented as if this was the woman’s choice, when in fact cultural forces dictated that preparing for marriage and motherhood even from the teenage years was her only option.

Meanwhile, the dialogue around the real issues that could actually significantly impact our lives and the health of all infants has been suffocated while we clamor behind choice and non-judgment and use it as a shield to deflect our mommy guilt. Our ability to build conversation and support among each other has been quashed because we won’t discuss what we have been told is a private choice. With so much individualism embedded in our views about choice, there is little room for examining interdependence or acknowledging individual fallibility of our choices.

It is women and infants who are paying the price for this so-called freedom of choice.

Until “choice” is presented with accurate information, then choice is just a mirage. What’s more, we have to understand the difference between choice and options. Having unequal options doesn’t make for true choice. And truly strong moms don’t need big pharma’s underhanded and predatory marketing ploys under the guise of a summit. Thanks, but no thanks.

Guest contributor Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, author and a nationally recognized breastfeeding commentator and advocate. She is currently a Food & Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a popular speaker and consultant. Her fifth book, an in-depth examination of the social, political and economic forces shaping the American breastfeeding landscape will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2014.

Image via iStockphoto/Rafal Olechowski

  • Thank you for this article and commentary. When I saw that there was a conference empowering moms I was excited and thought how wonderful. Then I noticed that Similac was the sponsor, not a non-profit like Mothers & More or a social good foundation. This appropriation of the mom community is concerning on a lot of levels.

  • I love how you have framed this. It’s such an important discussion. I don’t want the corporate messaging to get in the way. But I do want women to understand when some women cannot breast feed or when women choose not to continue to pump their breasts during the work day. It doesn’t “work” for everyone.
    Ironically, the Mom+Social Summit is Wednesday in New York brought to you in part by the UN Foundation, called a global movement of mothers. http://www.unfoundation.org/momplussocial/

  • Thank you for this excellent article, Kimberly. You’ve laid it out very nicely. Corporations like this are never truly there to support us.

  • Erin

    I absolutely agree that you have to follow the money to find someone’s real intentions. But I also know that marketers spend a lot of time/money working to understand how their audiences are feeling, and then playing into the hands of those feelings. The bottom line is a lot of us feel judged by our peers and defensive about it. These corporations aren’t creating that feeling, they are merely capitalizing on it. I don’t feel like I ever really had the “choice” to breastfeed, as my newborn was losing a ton of weight. Starving my kid didn’t seem like a choice. Using formula did. So I made the health — and yes, lifestyle — choice to feed her formula, lose the guilt and watch us both get healthier and stronger than our breastfeeding selves. Would it be nice if I had more time in the hospital, help from more lactation consultants and more than six weeks maternity leave to get the breastfeeding thing down? Sure. But those are not choices for me right now. While I see through the formula marketing tricks, I don’t fault these companies for realizing there are a lot of good moms who use formula and aren’t going to apologize for it.

  • Thanks all, I appreciate the comments. @Estelle, you’re so right–either they hide their participation or mask “empowerment”, either way mothers are being devalued and I’m glad we are smarter than that. @Helen, I will see you at the UN event tomorrow!! I’m looking forward to it…@Annie, you said it! Profit motive always trumps all! …glad we are “strong” enough to discuss these important issues.

    • Estelle Sobel Erasmus

      Kimberly, I’ll be at the UN event, too tomorrow. We must meet! I’m at mommymusings011 on twitter-let’s tweet up there!

  • Melody Cason

    After reading this article, I feel as if I have been duped by pro-formula people and formula companies. Hear me out and help me understand this as I think out loud here. So there’s not a choice to be made in the matter – I was born with breasts that actually produce a decent amount of milk, so I should breastfeed absolutely? So I should have continued to breastfeed rather than pump breastmilk for my daughter despite the pain? And after that, I should have continued to pump breastmilk for my daughter rather than switch to formula, despite my extreme exhaustion, being depressed and anxious and completely overwhelmed by such routine activities as taking a shower, being home alone with my daughter and not being able to spend much time with her because I was doing something completely unnatural, having to sit there and pump while I feel resentful and listen to her cry and scream for me, but I can’t unlatch the pump parts because my milk will leak everywhere, not to mention putting up with multiple clogged ducts, mastitis, and thrush? And after switching to formula and finally getting to really enjoy my daughter and her probably enjoying me more, I should have started taking actions and supplements/hormones to relactate and try to put her to a breast she never liked in the first place? So I should have listened to all the women I encountered on those online forums who said things like “You’re a bad, lazy mother if you formula feed” or “Why bother even having children and calling yourself a mother if you’re not going to breastfeed?” because they were actually right and my worth as a mother depended on the particular food I fed her for the first year of her life? So I should feel bad now, as I look at my beautiful, wonderfully healthy daughter who is excelling in every single area of her life and is indeed above average in so many ways, and I should wonder what college she would have graduated from by now (20 months old) if I had only been a better mother and breastfed her? So it wasn’t a choice all along, what do to with these breasts of mine, and I was duped by the science that says formula fed children, in countries with a clean water supply, grow and thrive just like breastfed babies? Wow, I truly had no idea I had to endure lots of horrible things for the good of the entire society! I’ll make sure to return the bottles I have already bought for my second baby due in August, and I’ll just brace myself for the depression that has already reared its ugly head earlier in this pregnancy, and just buckle down and resent my baby as he sucks at my breasts, making my depression stronger and more intense than it ever needs to be, and once we get past whatever age the WHO says I can stop breastfeeding, I’ll look at my baby and at all the times I was melting down and was way more irritable/anxious than normal, all the times I was feeling horrible and scared about every little thing including my baby, and I will know that I made the right choice, which was no choice at all.

  • Great points and questions here. Obviously the bottom line is pretty important to formula companies, and their bottom line is suffering when more mothers get breatfeeding support and overcome obstacles in continuing to breastfeed past the first couple of months without giving up.
    We’ve had to deal with cow’s milk protein intolerance (diagnosed after 3 painful days at a Children’s Hospital), I had to quit eating all dairy, then we battled thrush off and on. Stuck with it through everything and I’m glad I did for the health of my babies. Sure it would be an easier ‘choice’ to quit, we weren’t interested, we did whatever it took to breastfeed through the hurdles – just like moms did for thousands of years. Of course I can only attribute this to the support of my spouse and my support network and many moms don’t have that, so it isn’t surprising many quit.

  • Natalie Shipman

    Melody Cason said it all. I also made the “choice” not to breastfeed, as I was not. I have no allergies and have never been seriously ill in my life. But I guess I’m some kind of anomoly. The only thing, in my mind, that evil corporations like Similac and Enfamil are guilty of is making a product that fed and supported my babies in their first year.

  • Tracey

    Just because you veil this as saving the uninformed mom from the big bad corporation doesn’t make it anything other than mom shaming. This article framed formula as sub par in a way that is patently unfair and marginalizes those who had to choose it. Where does it leave room for adoptive parents, women with double mastectomies, or any mom who weighed her options and realized that formula was a better choice for her and her child’s long term health, relationship, etc? Anyone who feels comfortable posting such a one-sided passive aggressive attack has obviously never grappled with nursing issues. Or if you have and you think this entitles you to judgment over empathy, shame on you. We are all just doing the best we can for our kids and cheers to each and every one of us for that. And for the record I worked my ass off so I could nurse and we’re on 9months of breastfeeding and I still fall hard on the side of each mom needs to just do her best.

    • OtterMom

      Thank you for saying this. Not all moms who breastfeed are Mother of the Year, and not all moms who formula feed are horrible lazy moms. Feed your baby. Make sure he or she is growing and happy. Love him or her. That’s what matters.

    • I cannot up-vote this enough!

  • REALmom

    Tracy – Thank you for your comment. As a mom who breastfed, pumped and then had to fortify my breastmilk with formula because of my baby’s heart condition (she needed extra calories for weight gain) I find articles like this upsetting. I did what was best for my child and I’m thankful that supplementing helped get my baby’s weight on track and she is now a thriving toddler! You can never understand a mother’s reasons/choices unless you are that mother so let’s all try to be supportive of eachother. That is how we make mothers strong.

  • I’m not sure what you’re getting at here – it seems like you’re implying that moms who use formula are being tricked by good marketing into making a bad health choice for their child. Like you, I have a very strong opinion on the breast vs. bottle debate, and mine is: every woman has the right to choose. With the exception of countries where healthy drinking water is difficult to access, there has been no proven enormous difference between babies who were breastfed and those who were not. And interestingly enough, the history of breast feeding in the Western world is much more complex than breastfeeding advocates would have us believe. Here is a VERY interesting article about that: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/01/19/baby-food.

    My mother breastfed me, but when the time came for me to choose (and I thank God I was able to choose), I decided to bottle feed my baby. It had nothing to do with convenience or vanity or what the media had told me; I simply have never felt a desire to breastfeed and I knew that my child would feel that discomfort passing through me. My bottle-fed son is a healthy, happy, engaging and intelligent little boy. And when I give him his bottle before naptime or bedtime, it is a moment of tenderness and bonding. My breasts don’t need to be involved. What’s best for the child? How about a mom who feels confident and happy with her baby and is able to provide them with love and security, not a feeling of being repulsed, awkward, or uncomfortable. That’s me – and there are so many other women out there who, for a myriad of reasons, can’t or choose not to breastfeed. Bravo to them – and bravo to the moms who choose to breastfeed because they truly want to. Bravo to any woman brave enough to see through this horrific situation where people – including other women – try to appropriate our bodies and minds and tell us what to do with them.

    I’m sorry if I’ve misunderstood the point of your article. If you are arguing for the right of all women to choose breast or bottle, then at the very least, I guess you won’t mind my comment. 🙂

  • netta

    Thanks for the article. Very well said, summarizes my feelings since my first daughter was born. I totally agree with the underlying manipulation of women in all areas of motherhood from breastfeeding to work-family life balance. All of it in the name of profit and so well catered to women that we do not even notice it, no matter how many phds we obtained in the past decades.

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