Last week the US National Perinatal Association marked Breastfeeding Awareness Month by releasing 40+ icons which “recognise and honour everyone who does their best to give our babies what they need”. The icons feature mothers of diverse cultural backgrounds and skin colours, two bottle feeding fathers, mothers in various employment and education situations, incarcerated mothers, Princess Leia, and an alien:
The icons appear to be a riff on the International Breastfeeding Symbol, which was designed in 2006 by graphic artist Matt Daigle in response to a call for submissions run by Mothering Magazine. Daigle based his design on the language of AIGA symbol signs:
At the time, the icons representing baby feed and change facilities were typically represented by imagery of a bottle or a dummy/pacifier (in many locations, this remains the case). This was recognised as contributing to the marginalisation of breastfeeding mothers in public, as well as undermining the normalisation of breastfeeding more broadly. The new symbol was intended to create a positive representation of breastfeeding and baby care for use across the public domain.
The purpose of the AIGA symbols, which are in common use internationally, is to communicate important concepts quickly and without the need for interpretation. They are very specifically designed to transcend language, culture, and literacy. The symbols are deliberately simple to maximise accessibility. So what is the benefit of making things more complicated?
According to the NPA Facebook post:
This is an admirable goal, but as a breastfeeding awareness strategy it’s downright bizarre. Breastfeeding advocacy is not about honouring families for their choices – it’s about drawing attention to breastfeeding as a normal event in the lives of mothers and babies and the factors which remove their choices. Broadening breastfeeding to include pumping and supplementers and bottle feeding dads and jars of donor milk does not redress the theft of women’s rights and dignity in the perinatal period – it entrenches it.
Note also the shift away from language which advocates for mothers and babies, to nebulous concepts of ‘people’ and ‘celebrating’ and ‘awareness’ and ‘doing your best’. In language which completely disappears women and the motherbaby, NPA are employing a very familiar formula marketing tactic here. First, reframe the structural oppressions of mothers as mere matters of individual situations and choices. Then, instead of affording us real power or change, offer meaningless reassurances that loving a baby is more important than how or what they are fed.
It’s a deft move. By presenting the breastfeeding symbol as open for reimagining, the National Perinatal Association are able to use the banner of breastfeeding awareness to completely reimagine breastfeeding. But why? Why would an organisation which has spent decades working for improvements in perinatal health and advocating for the wellbeing of pregnant women and infants now be embracing gender neutral ‘pregnant people’ terminology and redefining breastfeeding in a way which normalises the separation of mothers and babies? Follow the money.
The National Perinatal Association website lists a number of “corporate members” whose “generous contributions” enable their work. Three sponsors are listed at $15,000 level:
- Sobi, a Europe-based biotech firm with a focus on rare diseases
- Prolacta, a US-based bioscience company with a focus on applications for human milk and which sells fortified breastmilk products to hospitals for nearly US$300/litre
- Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, a US pharma company based in Ireland for tax purposes. Mallinckrodt have come under scrutiny for excessive pricing and contribution to the US opioid crisis.
- The Wellness Network, a private healthcare company providing ‘patient education’
- 4Moms, a baby product retailer
- Medela, a breast pump and bottle manufacturer which has been criticised for repeated violations of the WHO Code.
The International Breastfeeding Symbol was deliberately bottle-free as a counterpoint to a global context in which corporate predation had replaced breast with bottle so successfully that babies were visually represented by products. Less than 2 decades later, of the 43 versions NPA has created to ‘celebrate breastfeeding awareness and all the ways we feed and nurture our babies’ – there are 5 bottles (including 2 separate masculine figures bottle feeding babies), 3 pumps, 3 nursing supplements, and 2 jars of donated milk. All of which are products of ethically opaque companies on whom NPA’s work is financially dependent.
Is the penny dropping yet? This is not just about a shareable versions of ‘diverse’ milk transfer methods in which if we are going to feature women of colour or plus size women we may as well also feature an alien. This is the unashamed and cynical hijacking of organisations set up to protect mothers and babies – by the very companies whose vested interest lies in eroding those protections. And it is absolutely no coincidence that it is all being couched in language which obscures the sex-based realities of the unique social, economic and institutional oppressions which force mothers to use alternative feeding methods in the first place. Celebrate that? No thank you.