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Thursday, 29 January 2015

Why the ‘mummy wars’ are a myth designed to keep women quiet


Similac's Mother 'Hood video has taken the Internet by storm


In a stroke of marketing genius, infant formula manufacturer Similac has launched an advertising campaign with a video parody. With already over three million YouTube views, Similac calls for ‘an end to judgement’ with #SisterhoodUnite.

Follow any popular parenting pages on social media and you will have seen it. The Huffington Post called it, ‘A playful reminder that judging other parents is absurd.’ Mamamia said, ‘Ever been judged by a fellow parent? Then this video is for you … hilarious.’

‘Welcome to the sisterhood of motherhood’, says Similac. ‘Time to put down the fingers and the subtle suggestions … And, just like the sister who’s got your back, we’re there to help you … with confidence—and zero judgment.’

That’s right, folks. An industry that makes millions in profit wants nothing more than to help. Honest! And they mightn’t judge you personally, but they will bolster stereotypes to enable you to judge the s**t out of each other.

Depressingly, the amusement in this video comes at the expense of enforced labels—the aggressive breastfeeders thrusting their chests (under a cover, obviously); the nervous ‘helicopter’ parent with hands clamped over swaddled baby; the snarky be-suited ‘working’ mum; and of course, the sausage-wielding dads making jokes about boobs.

Clichés aside, what makes this campaign so brilliant is what you don’t see. You don’t see an ad. (Mars ‘Earth’ bar, anyone?) Viewers are led to believe that the company instead empathises with us, that they get us. They make us laugh—and weep. As a result, within moments they’ve established our trust.

What happens when we trust someone? We listen.

Playing beautifully on the women-are-their-own-worst-enemies shtick, the subliminal implication here is that discussion of conflicting information is mean. By appropriating ‘sisterhood’, by reiterating that ‘no matter what our beliefs, we’re parents first’ we’re reminded that anything said contrary to what someone else says must be letting the sisters down—it’s war.

So everyone should, as Similac says, ‘end the subtle suggestions.’ And humour makes compelling argument—because who wants to be that parent? The mother who judges others, who uses her breasts as weapons of mass destruction?

Why would a formula manufacturer call for quiet? Because by talking about infant feeding amongst each other, by sharing information—even by intelligent debate and argument—there’s a chance more women will overcome the hurdles society places in front of them to meet their own parenting goals.

And that might include breastfeeding for longer than companies like Similac would appreciate.

Over the past century, growth of infant formula has un-coincidentally heralded the dramatic decline of breastfeeding rates. ‘The development of artificial baby milk has been a marketing success story,’ writes Gabrielle Palmer in The Politics of Breastfeeding: When Breasts Are Bad For Business, ‘not least in the skill with which the competing product has been destroyed. Women are not paid for producing breastmilk ... those who market [formula and supplies] benefit financially from keeping breastfeeding in check.’

Australians spend about $132.8 million a year on infant formula. Even mining billionaire Gina Rinehart is investing in the ‘white gold’ boom, set to export as much as 30,000 tonnes of the stuff annually to China.

And what is the only competitor to infant formula?

The humble human breast.

Fortunately for formula manufacturers, patriarchy has done a stellar job of convincing women that their bodies are defective, their sole purpose in life is sex, and that their arguments are petty, catty, and pointless.

Kudos, patriarchy. First create the problem, then withdraw and make it look like the women are just squabbling amongst themselves.

For any woman, breastfeeding or not is an emotional and individually complex bodily experience. To reduce it to a choice akin using cloth or disposable nappies is insulting. But it’s also insidiously brilliant—because it enables the continuation of offence whenever discourse around breastfeeding and its common cultural or rare physiological hurdles arise. In short, it allows the accusations of judgement! Guilt! whenever someone says, ‘I’m sorry you were given poor advice. Would you like some help?’

No, Similac’s ad is not likely to inspire a woman’s switch from breastfeeding to formula. But it is likely to keep her quiet about struggling or not wanting to give up—along with shaming into silence voices who might help her if she wants it.

In Australia, the majority of women who initiate breastfeeding cease or introduce formula before they wanted to. No decision is made in a vacuum. Stupendous profits are made by companies maintaining women’s dislike and fear of their own bodies. And they all claim to be doing it for us. To make our lives better, happier, easier. Vast industries make money when women believe their bodies are flawed and faulty—including manufacturers of artificial baby milk.

In Australia, increased breastfeeding rates would save an estimated $60-120 million annually in public health care. Globally, optimal breastfeeding has the potential to prevent almost a million child deaths a year—about one death every 40 seconds.

Formula companies have done an exceptional job convincing women their breasts don’t work. That’s not a petty ‘mummy wars’ issue, that’s a worldwide health crisis.

While these facts are confronting, it’s important to point out that they are not judgments of parents who use formula. There’s supply of information and then there’s criticism. Judging other parents over life differences is absurd. Instead these are criticisms of the corporations who cleverly market to maintain a lucrative facade of trustworthiness at the expense of global wellbeing—at the expense of women’s belief in their bodies.

This video is not a benevolent community service announcement. It is an advertisement for infant formula. It might not look like it, but it is. And it's an advertisement for formula through the implicit misdirection of stifling discourse about the 'competition'—breastfeeding support.

Make no mistake, there’s no altruism in encouraging the silence of information sharing. ‘Let’s all play nice mummies and get along’ is passive aggressive and infantilising. There’s no progress in degrading adult discourse to ‘judgement’. Especially when it comes to highlighting where women are being used and let down, over and over and over again.

The mummy wars? I don’t buy it. We’re bigger than that.