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How Corporate Interests Hijacked World Breastfeeding Week

The first week of August marks World Breastfeeding Week (WBF), touted as a ‘vibrant global movement for action to promote, protect and support breastfeeding by anyone, anywhere and at any time.’ Breastfeeding is back in fashion, and how. In a remarkable U-turn on their infamous attitude towards breastfeeding in days past, even the bête noire of breastfeeding advocates everywhere, Nestlé, is getting in on the act and launching campaigns to promote breastfeeding in China.

Sounds like a positive initiative on the face of it, but the underlying issues are much more complex than they appear. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with supporting mothers who want to breastfeed. It’s the healthiest choice for babies under six months, according to the World Health Organization, and confers a number of health benefits for the mother, including reduced risk of some cancers, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. But as it stands, the WBF campaign runs the risk of becoming only yet another example of how society – and now, corporations – just can’t seem to stop telling women what to do with their bodies. Of course, there’s a longstanding history of politicization of women and their personal choices, and breastfeeding is no exception.

Once seen as necessary fallback rather than an equally valid choice for feeding babies, infant formula became fashionable in the 1960s and ‘70s partly due to a culture that increasingly valued the breast more as a cosmetic sex symbol than as a source of nourishment – plus ça change – and partly because of businesses such as Nestlé that saw a ripe opportunity to create new markets for their products where none existed before. Unfortunately, these markets didn’t only include well-off cities and suburbs. As is now well known, Nestlé executives deliberately targeted less developed countries by convincing often uneducated and destitute mothers that expensive formula was better than the free milk they themselves produced. Of course, after being roundly denounced as baby killers and after the WHO enacted a new set of standards on infant formula marketing, Nestlé soon adjusted their tactics and public opinion swung back in favor of breastfeeding. But has it swung too far?

There is now enormous pressure from nearly all sides on mothers to breastfeed. Indeed, the benefits have often been over-stated in the campaign to get mothers to step away from the sterilizer, and many women complain of pervasively Pollyannaish and unrealistic rhetoric around the issue that leaves no room for dissent. What’s more, very few breastfeeding advocates seem to pay heed to the major class considerations around the practice. For example, in the US, 70.1% of college educated mothers were still breastfeeding at six months. Just 37.9% of their peers who had never finished high school were doing the same. This is not just down to different social norms, but policy issues such as the lack of maternity leave requirements in the country. And no amount of sloganeering can change the fact that in spite of an onslaught of advice from public health advocates, all but the most privileged women are still broadly denied the accommodation that’s necessary for breastfeeding at work. Even the UK, which has stronger laws protecting women’s rights to care for their children, only one in 200 women still breastfeed their babies after their first birthdays, citing physical pain, difficulty, lack of support from others, and embarrassment.

Of course, it’s not just society at large, and arguably well-meaning groups like UNICEF and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), that are putting pressure on women to breastfeed at all costs – whether or not the right infrastructure exists for them to do so. It’s also corporations with commercial stakes in the issue, and sordid histories of unethical marketing practices in the formula sector, that are now jumping on the WBF bandwagon – adding it to their arsenal of marketing collateral even as they find new ways to ensure formula remains a profitable business. Nestlé, for example, is disingenuously proselytizing about breastfeeding just weeks after authorities charged six of their Chinese staff with paying bribes to medical personnel to illegally obtain medical records and improve their formula marketing methods. This latest scandal came four years after journalistic investigations exposed how company employees were breaking both WHO standards and China’s 1995 regulation barring the promotion of infant formula to families of babies younger than six months. Given such a history, it comes as little surprise that the company’s China division has launched a series of publicity events around the campaign. It seems that Nestlé has jumped on the WBF bandwagon this year mainly as a way to “green wash” corporate misdeeds of the past.

Such a state of affairs means the NGOs and health institutions that provided the momentum to create WBF in the first place need to take a step back and return to their roots: promoting sound medical advice, offering tips and other means of support for women, and opening up a platform for dialogue about the benefits and difficulties of breastfeeding – not simply wagging their fingers at women as has so often been the case in the past. Most importantly of all, it means dumping the corporate interests that have started to tag along – and run the risk of tainting the whole campaign.

Jo Simmons is an American writer and consultant currently living in London.

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