Why the Formula Companies Need Women of Color - in the U.S. and globally

My daughter was in the 0.05 percentile of babies’ birth weight for much of the first year of her life. She looked perfect to me the day I welcomed her to this world: tiny toes that begged to be kissed, a heartstoppingly beautiful pouty mouth and a head full of spiky black hair. She even had a perfectly respectable birthweight at over 7 pounds. But to the medical profession, she rapidly became a problem: she just wasn’t gaining weight fast enough to keep up with their charts. I took their concerns seriously. I breastfed her on demand–sometimes when she was having a growth spurt it felt like I was glued to my rocker and boppy pillow. I attended my local breastfeeding support group religiously, weighed her almost obsessively and tried all their techniques. But she remained stubbornly a little 0.05 percentile baby, who often choked and cried when I tried to nurse her.

I can’t begin to describe the feelings of inadequacy, guilt and shame that I felt as a mom who seemed to be incapable of the most basic maternal responsibility–to make sure that my baby was fed, satisfied and chubby. Although at times, I questioned whether my third generation Nigerian baby really needed to be compared to Anglo babies, and how the many babies who grew up and thrived in our extended family in South East Nigeria would fare on the U.S. baby weight chart.

Of course an easy and tempting “solution” was presented to me from day one by a nurse in the maternity ward: “Why don’t you just supplement with formula?” But I had heard enough about babies who when presented the ease of a bottle refused to go back to nursing; and besides, I had an allergy to formula as a baby and I didn’t want to risk putting her through that experience. I decided to go against the grain and have faith that we–my baby, my breasts and I–would figure it out. (Note to reader: my 0.05 percentile baby weaned at age two and is now a strong, healthy 9-year old).

As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week from August 1-7, we might consider how this tactic of fear, comparison and shaming is played out on a global stage. The geopolitics of breastmilk and breastmilk substitutes are an ugly tangle of money, power, race and imperialism. At the center is a battle between the formula-industrial complex–a mutually profitable relationship between the breast-milk substitutes companies and governments that protect them–and the World Health Organization, government agencies and non-profits that seek to defend breastfeeding against the more harmful impacts of commodification. The stakes are high: the global market breastmilk substitutes market is slated to surpass US $119 billion by 2025 and has considerable influence. This was made visible when the Trump administration threatened Ecuador with trade sanctions and a withdrawal of military aid if it did not end its advocacy for a U.N. resolution that would protect breastfeeding and restrict the marketing of formula.

Many of us remember the tragedy of the Nestlé babies who died after the formula company pressured African, Latin American and Asian mothers to abandon nursing in favor of the formula, which was touted as healthier and more hygienic than their own milk. That highly public debacle led many governments to ban or limit marketing by formula companies. Despite these efforts, laughing, chubby, white, Western, formula-fed babies continue to represent a powerful image of modernity, sophistication and good health to mothers in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. As many middle class and wealthy white women in the U.S. and Europe are turning away from formula and toward nursing, pumping and voluntary breast milk banks, the formula companies are successfully seeking out new markets among women in the global South as well as working class women and women of color in the U.S..

Increasingly, the formula-industrial complex needs black and brown moms to choose substitutes to breastmilk as it loses market share among middle class white women. This so-called choice cannot truly be made freely when moms face barriers such as lack of adequate support for pumping at work, meager statutory maternity leave allowances, and cultural norms that shame black women for breastfeeding in public spaces or equate breastfeeding with either “backwards,” “country” practices or hippy, white women. Yet formula companies cleverly present their products as a life-saver for today’s busy, modern mom. And increasingly, that “modern mom” is depicted as black or Latina, while only the white, “crunchy granola” “breastfeeding police” are depicted as having time to nurse their infants.

Similac Commercial The Mother ‘Hood, Crunchy granola breastfeeding police are depicted as having time to nurse their infants .

Fighting back means taking a holistic view that understands the global politics and racial/imperial history of the formula-industrial complex. It means fighting for parent-friendly policies, like extending maternity leave and flexible work arrangements, pushing hospitals and WICs not to routinely distribute formula for newborns and demanding more Baby Friendly hospitals in our neighborhoods. It requires a culturally-sensitive approach that does not shame black women in the U.S. for our higher use of breastmilk substitutes or stigmatize our communities for the racial trauma that continues to be associated with the act of nursing.

The birth justice community has a lot to fight for within the borders of the U.S.. But the struggle to reclaim breastfeeding and turn around black infant mortality rates is one that we won’t win on our own. If we are to challenge Big Formula we will need to develop transnational solidarities with women in Africa, Latin America and beyond. Let’s start with demanding that the U.S. government adopt the WHO’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and end the practice of bullying countries that are standing up to the formula-industrial complex.

Chinyere Oparah is co-founder of Black Women Birthing Justice, and co-author of Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy and Childbirth, a seminal text that puts black women at the center of debates about the crisis in maternal health care. She is lead author of Battling Over Birth which powerfully reveals black women’s experiences of coercion, mistreatment and empowerment during pregnancy, labor and the first six weeks. Chinyere received the Maternal-Child Health Champion Award Visionary of the Year award for this groundbreaking work. Chinyere is Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills College, Oakland, Calif.

To learn more about the barriers to breastfeeding faced by black women and strategies to address them, see Battling Over Birth: Black Women and the Maternal Health-Crisis.

Use discount code BLACKGOLD to receive a discount on Battling Over Birth from Praeclarus Press.

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