Scene: A meeting between NHS breastfeeding promotion team and their ad agency.
NHS wonk: The UK has the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. We need some epic ads pls.
Ad guy #1: Ugh, it’s not going to have to feature pictures of women doing you-know-what, is it?
NHS wonk: Now that you mention it, babies are a bit passe. Perhaps a new direction…
Ad guy #2: Ok… hm, so what do women like, apart from kittens?
Ad guy #1: My wife likes spending up big at Harrod’s.
Ad guy #2: That is a good point. Women do like shiny new things.
NHS wonk: Um, where is this going exactly?
Ad guy #1: Be quiet and let us tell you more about what women want.
Ad guy #2: So dresses, shoes, handbags, breastfeeding… I’ve got it!
One week later…
Ad guys: So what do you think?
NHS wonk: I think women will especially like the bright colours and patronising copy. Top job lads!
Oh gosh. Where to start?
We could discuss the fat shaming, sexist stereotypes, and embracing of mummy wars tropes (complete with a comparison element in the actual wording). We could discuss the bizarre misinformation – not all breastfeeding mothers
get their figures back lose weight while breastfeeding (some women actually gain weight while lactating); breastfeeding does not mean you can leave the house with everything you need in a patent leather clutch; high heeled shoes are terrible for any woman, let alone one with a postpartum pelvis.
We could discuss the fact that nobody could possibly breastfeed in that dress, or that there is already enough pressure on mothers to look like we never actually had a baby, without the bloody NHS jumping on the bandwagon. Perhaps we could talk about the fact that mothers have better things to do than worry about our appearance and clothes, or that *gasp* not all women like wearing dresses, heels, or useless little purses that we wouldn’t need if our clothes actually came with decent pockets.
But what I want to talk about is not these things, not least because social media is already full of very smart women resisting the tiny sparkly box in which this ad is attempting to place us. As egregious as they are – the casual misogyny, fattism and stereotyping are the least offensive part of these ads. Once we peel away the toxic messages on the surface, what is lying beneath is even worse. Because the ultimate message of these ads is: the blame for low breastfeeding rates lies with mothers.
Let that sink in for a minute. The core premise of these ads is that the reason more mothers aren’t breastfeeding our babies, is because we haven’t been given the right motivation. Put a juicier carrot on the stick, and who knows what could happen!*
This is gobsmackingly offensive. The overwhelming majority of women already want to breastfeed. In the UK, over 80% of mothers initiate breastfeeding, yet by 6 weeks only 24% of babies are exclusively breastfed. Does the NHS honestly think this is because mothers don’t know that we could spend money on other things or squeeze into our pre-baby jeans, if we just stuck with it? Do they think that we are so vapid that we make our infant feeding decisions on a basis of being able to afford patent leather high heels? Do they think that our babies are not incentive enough for us to make the best decisions we can in the circumstances we face?
I have a lot of time for the work of health promotion. I have a public health background, and I know how challenging it can be to strike the right note. But it’s very hard to be patient on this one, because there has been no shortage of experts and breastfeeding advocates clearly pointing out the barriers to breastfeeding which leave the majority of mothers unable to meet their own breastfeeding goals, let alone WHO targets.
If only the money spent on this ad campaign had been directed to funding public breastfeeding clinics. Or properly regulating the marketing of infant formula. Or investing in adequate paid maternity leave, or enforcing laws which prevent discrimination against breastfeeding mothers… ANY kind of material or cultural support to dismantle the barriers to breastfeeding really, they could have taken their pick. Instead, we have the status quo reinforced by a useless bunch of memes and posters which do nothing but demonstrate that whoever is responsible for them is a colossal donut.
Ooh a donut sounds good actually. Thank goodness I’m breastfeeding… gotta watch that girlish figure.
*It’s very important to note the small logo and text at the bottom right which reminds us that breastfeeding “decreases” a woman’s risk of breast cancer. That is one juicy carrot they could have gone with right there.
UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that this campaign actually ran in 2010. Which doesn’t, in my view, make much of a difference to my response. It’s never too late to critically analyse such things, particularly when the state of breastfeeding in the UK (and globally) remains largely the same currently, as when the ads were originally run.