Tag Archives: motherhood

Bogus Science, Outright Lies, and the Social Control of Mothers

Laurie and Debbie say:

you-are-what-you-eat-MAIN

If you watch TV in Brazil, you will see a series of ads that

depict a baby suckling on an unhealthy food instead of a breast.

One ad features a baby nursing on a burger, the second has an baby feeding on a doughnut, and the third has an infant nursing from a cup of soda. “Your child is what you eat,” reads the campaign’s tagline in large cursive letters across the woman’s chest. “Your habits in the first thousand days of gestation can prevent your child from developing serious diseases,” it continues.

The ads, which are outright lies, are sponsored by the Sociedad de Pediatrica de Rio Grande del Sul, so a Brazilian mother may not realize she is being lied to, and threatened.

(Parenthetically, gestation is about 270 days. If it’s a mistranslation, and they mean the first 1,000 days of life, you would still have to breastfeed until the child was three for that number to be useful. But that’s a side issue.)

More important, only a few substances are known to cross the breast milk barrier, and they don’t include sugar and fat. According to Diana West of La Leche League, the body’s milk production is designed to be relatively consistent so that the nutrients in whatever food a mother consumes go first into the milk. If there is any nutritional deficit, it will be experienced by the mother. “She’s the one that gets robbed, not the milk,” said West.

So what are the pediatricians really doing? Let’s look at another example, this one from the U.S.

think-2

… almost all public health campaigns, whether sponsored by states, social movement organizations, public health institutes, or the associations of alcohol purveyors tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol during, before, or after pregnancy… at all… or else.

If you’ve heard of fetal alcohol syndrome, this sounds like reasonable advice … until you dig into the numbers.

… only about 5% of women give birth to babies who are later diagnosed with FAS. This means that many mothers drink excessively, and many more drink somewhat (at least 16 percent of mothers drink during pregnancy), and yet many, many children born to these women show no diagnosable signs of FAS. Twin studies, further, have shown that sometimes one fraternal twin is diagnosed with FAS, but the other twin, who shared the same uterine environment, is fine.

So, drinking during pregnancy does not appear to be a sufficient cause of FAS, even if it is a necessary cause (by definition?)

The article on mothers and alcohol goes on to quote a 12-year-old (!) book by Elizabeth M. Armstrong, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility, which identifies a host of co-factors in fetal alcohol syndrome, including “poverty, malnutrition, high parity [i.e., having lots of children], and advanced maternal age.”

So, again, telling mothers that they must not drink at all during pregnancy is an outright lie. Even telling them that excessive drinking usually leads to FAS would be an outright lie.

What purpose do these lies serve?

First, like so many other things, they serve to control women. We know as feminists that when women gain power, huge efforts are immediately applied to curb that power. Just as acceptable sizes for women get smaller and smaller as women’s power gets bigger, acceptable behavior for women (in this case mothers) gets more and more constrained as more and more women take control of their lives (including their choice to have children).

Second, they prey upon the vulnerability of new mothers. Pregnant women and new mothers have long been known to be the most “compliant” population the medical profession sees. No one wants to feel like what’s wrong with her new baby is her fault, so if you tell her something she can do to prevent a possible problem, she’s very likely to take you seriously. (Isn’t “compliant” an interesting word in this context?)

Third, it continues the social trend to move “sin” away from harming others, acting violently, or other historical sinful acts and toward what we consume, what we eat and drink. It’s very convenient for the power structure if we worry more about what we put into our mouths than what they put into their pockets.

Finally, as we are learning to see everywhere, it takes the focus off the ways we as a society translate social problems into individual problems. It’s so much easier, and cheaper, and less demanding for us to tell pregnant women not to drink than for us to look at the issues of poverty and malnutrition. It’s so much more facile to tell nursing mothers not to eat fast food than it is to think about what food they have available, what choices are within their budget, and who is paying for the baby’s needs.

Shaming isn’t just cruel (though it is cruel); it’s also extremely convenient for the capitalists.

Older Mothers: When the Camera Doesn’t Lie, the Captions Do

Debbie says:

Philip N. Cohen blogs at Family Inequality, where he has written recently here and here about how the older-mother phenomenon is misrepresented in articles and data.

In this Sociological Images post, he takes on the visual imagery that goes with the misrepresentations. This picture is sold by a stock photo agency as a picture of a grandmother with her new grandchild.

When it ran in Slate with Katie Roiphe’s lamentation in Slate about how older mothers are women “trying to have it all,” it was captioned as if it was a picture of a mom and baby. Cohen is kind enough to say that this isn’t really untrue, because the article is a feature and not news.

Here’s Roiphe on older moms:

… one of the problems of our bourgeois, post-feminist world is the lingering sense that you can, according to the absurd cliché, “have it all”—that you should be able to have children, even if you push off that time until your late 30s or early 40s, and that the world should not be withholding an experience like motherhood from you because you have dedicated yourself to your career and adventures in your 20s and 30s. We tend to view basic biology as a practicality to be surmounted, something trivial and irritating that shouldn’t get in the way of the promise of a full life.

Of course, what this really is is anti-feminist journalist code for “I don’t want to go into the social pressures on women, or the social/financial/cultural reasons why women delay motherhood; I just want to call them out for being selfish, and especially I want to say that they are acting stupidly and they don’t have their children’s best interests at heart.”

A very similar article, also from Slate, was reprinted by Canada’s National Post with this image:

This one is a picture from China, and is sold (weirdly) as a picture illustrating the problems of the one-child policy in terms of available children to care for aging grandparents and parents. (This makes no sense, since the woman is with two children, but it’s also not expressly, and perhaps not at all, a picture of an older mother.)

I don’t feel as kind as Cohen about this. I think this is misrepresentation. Slate and other venues could find accurate pictures to make their point if they wanted to. These pictures are in short supply at the stock photo agencies, but they’re easy to find on Google Images (and rights to Google Image photos can usually be cleared with a little patience). They’re probably also easy to find on Flickr. Perhaps even more to the point, if Roiphe and Benedikt and their companions in this crusade against women who “want to have it all” are interviewing real people for their stories, why aren’t they bringing a camera to the interviews?

Perhaps for the same reason that they can’t be bothered to get their facts about older motherhood correct?

ETA: The original version put more burden on Roiphe and Benedikt for the truth of the photographs than is probably fair given how journalism works. This version attempts to correct that.