Breastfeeding activists boycott Old Navy


Via Strollerderby, we find that some lactivists aren’t happy about a new onesie on Old Navy shelves that reads, “Formula Powered.” In response, folks like Cate Nelson at Eco Child’s Play are telling moms they should boycott the store (and their accompanying Gap, Banana Republic, etc.) until they take the onesie down, which they say is empowering the formula industry. Nelson says:

We all know breastfeeding is best for baby…and mama. Formula simply isn’t the healthy option. So, why doesn’t Old Navy know it?

I’m no mama, but I am a breastfeeding advocate, believe in a mother’s right to breastfeed in public and at work, and am aware of how much the formula industry and larger culture today can stigmatize breastfeeding. But how effective will boycotting Old Navy for a onesie that’s — quite simply, in jest — be? After all, this onesie is bought by moms who may need to make light of a not-so-ideal decision they had to make. Paula Bernstein at Strollerderby addresses this while talking about her own feelings of guilt when she told her lactivist friends that she breastfed and used formula. She says,

“Breast may be best, but it’s not helpful to stand in judgment of those moms who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed.”

Would love to hear from some moms on this. Thoughts?

Join the Conversation

  • Anne

    I exclusively breastfed my son for 22 mos, and consider myself a breast feeding activist, but I still don’t find this offensive. I think it’s meant as a joke, really and not worth boycotting. I would participate in boycott regarding a company that won’t allow women to breastfeed in their stores; that’s a much more important issue IMO.

    I fully support women’s rights to choose in every respect, and that includes how you feed your baby. I was lucky to be able to stay at home. Pumping at work is a big pain in the butt for working women; and we have no such thing as Maternity leave in this country. We just are not supportive enough. My sister chose to formula feed for some of those reasons.

  • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

    Wait…those creepy mannequins can be at Old Navy, but not breastfeeding moms? Oh of course, after all the mannequins never creep out little innocent children *sarcasm*

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    Agreeing with Paula Bernstein. If I hear one more person insinuate that I’m not as smart or as healthy as I could be because my mom had the audacity to feed me formula as a kid, I’m gonna make a T-shirt that says “Yeah, I was a formula kid. Fuck you and your self-righteous condescension.”

  • S Corner

    I have a 2yo and I did breastfeed him for a year. I am a huge advocate of breastfeeding and I do detest the way that formula companies actively undermine women’s confidence who want to breastfeed. That said, I don’t find it offensive.

    What I don’t like is that it is part of this ongoing back and forth between mothers (and I know that I only said “mothers” but from my experience, that is who deals with this stuff the most) about who is doing a better job at mothering: those who breastfeed or those who don’t (those who stay at home, those who work; those who let their children sleep in their bed, those who do “cry it out”; those who home school, those who put their kids in pre-K; etc. – it’s unending). It feeds this old and tiring fight that does nothing except make women feel about their choices, their physical realities, and each other.

    • Anne

      Amen. to this. It’s just so divisive. As I said, I would consider a boycott if it were repressive of moms needing to bf in public, but I would never be condescending to moms who choose to formula feed.

    • Betsy

      Exactly!! Why does everything about mothering have to pit women against each other?? Is it society, the media, the companies who have to promote their product, i.e. the advertisers, who is it who wants us to do nothing but fight each other?! Why can’t we support each other as individuals who are all trying our best to make it through this life alive and do the best we can for our families — and why can’t society as a whole recognize that?

  • Betsy

    As a mom who had to feed my son formula because neither of us could figure out this breastfeeding thing, even with the help of a consultant, I get sick of being demonized by the breastfeeding side of the debate. Breastfeeding often isn’t as “natural” as it’s adherents make it out to be. It’s something moms and babies often have to learn and be coaxed into doing. My son wasn’t thriving, and at 3 weeks was below his birth weight. I was exhausted from trying to get him to eat, staying awake at all hours, responding to every cry, etc… and losing my mind. With my second son I managed 6 months until he started losing weight too and my doctor recommended switching.

    So yeah – moms who need to use formula need something that says – hey, I had no choice – or I did have a choice and there’s nothing wrong with my choice. Both of my children, 6 and 8 y/o, are just as healthy today as their breast-fed counterparts, just as intelligent (or more) and actually get sick quite a bit less. I have no regrets and if I had another child, I’d be first in line for this shirt.

  • elizabeth

    For a lot of women, breastfeeding is still something that is just “not done”. This onesie, though printed to be funny, actually might help reinforce the idea that breastfeeding is weird/low class/ gross/etc.

  • Lorie

    I appreciate your objectivity in this article and willingness to see this topic from both angles. I breastfed my son for 4 months exclusively. Then I began him on formula to supplement the breast milk. And I continued to breastfeed until he reached 9 months. My case was extremely difficult. At the time I was a single mother, with my partner being incarcerated, and had very little help. I had to go back to work 1 month, yes 4 weeks, after the baby was born, and I worked to jobs to make ends meet as I did not receive any Maternity leave. Breastfeeding was yes a special time, and I am glad I could do that for myself and my son, but it was also exhausting, and at the end of the day I was staying up sooo late pumping to make sure the baby had enough milk at daycare the next day. I got free formula with my WIC, so I decided it was more beneficial for me and my son to not have a stressed out, fatigued, thouroughly exhausted momma, and to have a more rational and well-balanced one. He took formula while he was at daycare, and breast fed in the mornings, evenings, and weekends when I was at home with him. This presented itself as a nice balance for the both of us.

    Yes, I do see that this shirt can be offensive to lactivists, but also people do need to remember to put the shoe on the other foot and realize that breastfeeding may not be the best choice for everyone. Should HIV Positive women feel bad about not being able to breastfeed? No. So if this onesie offends a lactivist I feel they should simply not buy it. I don’t feel this is such and issue that a business needs to be boycotted. Maybe the lactivists can create an opposing onesie that says breast milk powered.

  • norbizness

    WHY isn’t OLD NAVY being FIREBOMBED from SPACE?

    Signed, formerly formula-fed baby from the 70s.

  • Alice Warren

    No mother should be looked down upon for formula feeding. It is always a parents choice, not societal standards, that decides what a baby is fed.

    I found breastfeeding to be tiring, hard, and painful. I tried to breastfeed but was unable to produce milk only a few weeks after I gave birth. Why should I be belittled and scorned because my body doesnt function as others’ do? My son is happy and healthy fed only on formula. Why am I told I am hurting him with his bottles when I am clearly not?

  • jolenetara

    I’m not a mom, so I don’t feel totally confident making a comment on this, but I don’t know if I agree that the onesie justifies a boycot.

    My mom wanted to breastfeed (she was also in a lame work situation, so her maternity leave from work with me lasted for 3 whole days) but it just didn’t work. She said my older sister almost starved because she couldn’t produce enough milk, and with me she just didn’t want to run that risk again (and again, work would have made it extremely difficult anyway).

    She still feels a lot of guilt about it to this day- so I think a boycot or largescale campaign could be really damaging and shaming to mothers who don’t have the option to breastfeed. I think the effort should be focused more on educating on the benefits of breastfeeding for those who can, and to pressuring the formula industry for more healthy and organic options for those who cannot.

    • jillian

      actually, there was an article a few years ago that the “organic” baby formula had more added sugar than conventional.

      the “more healthy and organic options” for mothers’ own milk is that from a milk bank or donated from a trusted source.

      • jolenetara

        Thanks for the link- as always, it’s good to be informed.

        I definitely have reservations about the “Capital ‘O’ Organic” (Is that a thing yet?) food trend. I certainly can’t afford to shop at organic-only grocery stores, and I definitely think a lot of people confuse a label that says “organic” with something that means “good for you” or “good for the environment”. I shouldn’t play into the stereotype, but I smirked a bit when I read the first part of the article with the woman who was a “self-described “yoga mom””. There is definitely a commodity fetishism when it comes to a lot of these things. You know, get healthy so long as you can afford the club membership and the “right” yoga pants.

        When I said “more healthy and organic” options it was heavy on the healthy. As few harmful chemicals and preservatives as possible (which, let’s be honest, still might not earn an “organic” label) while still nutritious.

  • jillian

    who knows if this will actually be posted, but i think the shirt is redundant. kinda like sticking those apple stickers you get with your purchase on your ipod. chances are great, sadly, that a baby, especially an older baby, is going to be given formula given the US’s horrible breastfeeding rates over the long term. i dont think this design was a dig against breastfeeding, though. it’s just the cultural imagery of babies. it’s bottles and safety pins (though those harken back to cloth diapers and again, the majority of babies’ butts are wrapped in plastic). maybe it’some sort of reference to “formula racing” or something like that.

  • Liz

    Formula feeding is not necessarily ‘less than ideal’ for many women. Breastfeeding can be intolerably painful EVEN when done properly (good latch, healthy breast, etc.) Imagine searing pain on your nipple, for 20 minutes at a time on each nipple, every 3 hours, around the clock, for months. This is the situation for a lot of women who choose formula, which I eventually did for my toddler and am doing now for my newborn. There is an insane amount of pressure to breastfeed, when there is no harm done to your baby by formula feeding for the vast majority of full-term babies. Formula is not sugar water, it is not poison, and its existence is not a vast conspiracy to thwart nature or separate us from understanding our own bodies. Its availability supports the emotional, physical and mental well being of many parents (including dads and partners who likewise benefit when Mom is not a wreck from the simple act of feeding her child). Don’t boycott a company for making a piece of clothing that tells it like it is for many healthy moms and babies.

  • SG

    I would argue that ‘lactivist’ sentiments and campaigns are actually profoundly reactionary, anti-feminist, and reinforce the patriarchy.

    The claim that breast milk is best for babies is often repeated but virtually impossible to verify since randomized population studies are totally unavailable and confounding variables more complex than income and education, like how much time a mother wants to spend with her baby, are impossible to control for. Of course bad formula milk and formula made with contaminated water is a problem but there is no reason to think that there is some magic special metaphysical property of women’s breast milk that makes it catagorically (and morally?) superior to any possible formula – modern technology often improves on semi-random natural evolution.

    But thats not really the point.

    Even if it is true that breast milk is statistically marginally “better” for babies – the notion that this makes it the only healthy and acceptable option is problematic for numerous reasons.

    In no other circumstance apart from how mothers care for their babies, is the statistically optimal the only socially acceptable option – and anything less than perfection an unacceptable failure. When we make other choices about food, including what to feed children, we know that say, an ideal diet is “best” but that doesn’t mean that anything less than a hypothetical ideal is appalling, does it? Why is there an exception for mothers and babies? I’d like to pose the following hypotheses as to why this caught on:

    1. We live in a society where the prevailing ideology of motherhood is one where mothers must sacrifice everything for their babies – their own personal independent welfare is nothing – the baby is everything – their worth is only first as a vessel for the baby and then only as a care taker for the baby. To be a mother consumes someone’s entire social identity – it is “the most important job in the world.” According to this ideological position, if you aren’t doing 100%, you aren’t a good mother, a good woman, a good person. The media poses “provocative” questions frequently like “can working women be good mothers.”

    The notion that breast milk is the only option and that mothers who choose, for their own personal reasons (even say, if they are capable of providing breast milk) to use formula milk are somehow bad mothers or mistreating their children plays on this. Breast milk is time consuming and often uncomfortable or painful to produce at least for some mothers. It also means that a woman needs to either be physically attached to her baby, near her baby, or physically producing milk for her baby, for nearly all her waking day. Its easy to imagine how this could be burdensome on many mothers – but no burden is thought too much to bare if its “what’s best for baby.” This attitude, that a baby’s welfare even at the *margins* is *everything* is only possible to sustain with a corollary that a woman’s welfare, individuality and dignity is nothing, except insofar as it is necessary for her to be a “good mother.”

    2. The other appeal to the reactionary, patriarchal right is precisely because breastfeeding is potentially so burdensome, to make breastfeeding socially mandatory is to mandate a gendered division of labor in child rearing. If a babies only source of nourishment is going to be breastmilk – then there is little possibility of a male partner with anything close to equal hour per hour responsibilities. This effectively mandates a return to the patriarchal household structure with an autonomous male providing for the family in the working world, and a dependant woman attached to the children at the home – that the patriarchal right has always wanted to restore and maintain. It is appealing to this reactionary ideology because if women really do need to be exclusive primary caretakers of babies for the first year of life at least – it is confirmation that the feminist project has failed, that biology is destiny and that biological differences entail differences of social function – rather than hierarchical differences of social function being a social invention of the patriarchy.

    Lactivism then should be viewed with the utmost suspicion by feminists. We should support any mothers right to breast feed if that’s what’s best for *her* – but we should militantly oppose efforts to shame mothers who *for whatever reason* choose not to.

    • jolenetara

      Thank you so much for this comment- you’ve articulated a lot of same things I’ve long felt about the issue, but never say much about, feeling like it’s out of my place as a non-mom.

      I think any time, any issue, where our choices are limited, where shame and guilt are used to push us towards a specific decision- even when that shame and guild comes from other women, is something we need to look at carefully as feminists.

  • Lina Miller

    As a feminist and a mother of a 6 month-old, I couldn’t be more frustrated and tired of this subject matter. I nursed my baby for two months and was miserable the entire time. People seem to be under the impression that breastfeeding is an easy endeavor, but I assure you that it isn’t! It was incredibly painful and demanding. When I finally made the decision to stop, I felt terribly guilty. Most feminists and liberals made it quite clear that a mother who choses formula is a “bad mother”, but is that fair? Isn’t feminism about being free to make choices without judgement? I completely understand that “breast is best” and I will always encourage other mothers to breastfeed, but I think that all of us need to be more supportive of mothers and their choices. To say that formula isn’t a healthy choice is a total lie. If it wasn’t a healthy choice, why is does our pediatrician marvel over how perfect, strong, and healthy my son is? Not to mention that the switch to formula allowed me to enjoy precious moments with my son, rather than stressing out about our difficulties with nursing. I refuse to believe that there is a stigma about breastfeeding anymore…the stigma associated with formula feeding is MUCH worse.

    I am a good, loving mother who would do anything for my son. Yes, he is “formula-powered,” and no, I will not apologize for that.

  • nicolechat

    This is such a useless (and misguided) boycott! Breastfeeding is great and wonderful and puppies and rainbows, but staging a boycott against a “formula powered” (hehe, cute) onesie just reeks of privilege. Many moms can’t breastfeed their kids, due to issues of convenience or physical inability. My friend couldn’t breastfeed her son because the pain was excruciating and he wasn’t taking the milk in properly, so it was dangerous to both of them. Her situation isn’t the norm, but it’s not all that unusual either. I’ve even heard about a woman who wasn’t able to breastfeed due to an extraordinarily rare defect wherein her nipples were connected to her circulatory system, so when her child was drinking from her, he was consuming blood along with the milk. I’d say that’s a pretty damn good reason to give up breastfeeding! And of course, there are countless women who simply don’t get enough time due to work constraints.

    There are even some babies – the horror! – who don’t have moms! Babies whose mothers died during their infancy, babies who were adopted by non-nursing women and/or men, babies whose mothers abandoned them. And this call for a boycott is implying that all of these babies who can’t get breast milk (due to health issues, time constraints, or inaccessibility to a nurse-ready parent) should be ashamed of that, or at least silent about it.

    Jeez, people. It’s a cute little onesie. Not an anti-breastfeeding billboard.

  • Sabina

    First of all, this onesie isn’t implying that breastfeeding is bad, in my opinion. Maybe Old Navy also considered a “Breast-Powered!” onesie and then decided that any graphic they put on it would be censored. Or at least feel kind of weird.

    I also want to say that, like a number of other commenters here, I was a formula-fed baby and I don’t think I’m any worse for it. Due to a series of complications around my birth, my mother wasn’t able to breastfeed me for the first few weeks, and then when she tried I had developed a severe allergy to her milk. She did, however, breastfeed my younger brother. He and I come from the same gene pool, had the same parenting and family life, got the same nutritional meals as kids, and went to the same schools. We were both “gifted” and maintain similar levels of academic success. We both are in excellent health, except that he (the breastfed one) has some heart problems.

    Is it possible that the differences observed between breastfed and formula-fed kids might have more to do with the fact that mothers who feed their babies with formula are probably busier than breastfeeding mothers, and might therefore not have as much time for making nutritious meals and taking the kids to the museum?

  • jiujitsubuddah

    Of course breastfeeding is best for the baby and mom, but if a mom makes the decision to formula-feed her baby, and wants to put the onesie on it, that’s up to her. Trying to ban or boycott formula and put down people who use it is just as silly as trying to ban or boycott breastfeeding and put down people who do it.

  • Alyssa Anderson

    I breastfed my first until 22 mos. and my second is almost 9 mos. I am not offended by the clothing, but I am sad that if I put my kid in the breastfed version, I have no doubt people would be offended.

    Also, why is Old Navy picking and endorsing one side? (Are they being paid by the formula companies?)

    • Alyssa Anderson

      I hate you, photobucket. Proper image here.

      • Anne

        I had a onesie for my baby that said “I am Boob Man”. I found it pretty hilarious, and most people found it to be hilarious too. My little guy stopped taking even pumped milk in the bottle at around 5 weeks so it really fit :)

    • Kelly

      I doubt that people at Old Navy looked at their options and said, “let’s exclude breast fed babies and breast feeding moms!” The company is not a political billboard/campaign, etc. A company does not have to carry one item or another based on everyone else’s political views of it, nor do they have to anticipate this when choosing product.

      I don’t think it merits a boycott by any means; if I was to attach anything to it, it would sound something like, “heck yeah, someone made a shirt that makes light of the fact that a LOT of our mother’s were not/are not able to, or don’t want to breastfeed for whatever reason…and that doesn’t mean they’re bad in comparison to breast feeding mothers”.

  • tabloidscully

    It’s easy to demonize women on either side of the debate. My older brother and his wife opted not to breastfeed, even though she was a work-from-home mother. To them, it was more important that my brother get equal time doing the midnight feedings and so forth. I didn’t agree with their decision, but any time they started to receive flack from folks over their choices, I was the first one to defend my sister-in-law’s right to choose. And interestingly, the kid has been healthier than a horse!

    Conversely, my stepson was not breastfed. At a little over two, he is routinely sick with ear infections, colds, you name it. Breastfeeding was not something she was physically capable of. She could not produce milk, despite trying to, and spending a lot of money. I’m far from her biggest fan or even advocate, but I will acknowledge she made a somewhat valiant effort. There were other factors that came into play, of course–having to return to work less than six weeks after he was born, splitting custody with us–independently, each factor would have made the task difficult. Throw them together, and it was nearly impossible.

    I am pregnant with my first biological child (my due date was yesterday) and I am committed to the idea of breastfeeding my daughter for as long as I can. I also have some privilege in this decision that make me very humble when dealing with ladies that were not so fortunate. I have a hard time controlling my tongue when someone describes breastfeeding as “low class” or even “gross,” because I do think that is probably reflecting a culture war that the formula industry is winning.

    I get really tired of walking to my mail box, for example, and having a dozen formula samples cluttering up that space. It’s rude and it’s solicitation, because I have indicated in every possible place that they could be getting my name from that I have no intention of formula feeding. I don’t go over to someone’s house who has decided that formula feeding is right for them and perpetually wave my boob in their face, for example, trying to convince them that it’s easier and more convenient; they’ve made their choice and I respect that. Why can’t formula companies do the same, instead of trying to actively undermine my choice?

    I don’t think the onesie is worth boycotting. My opinion would be very different if it weren’t an obvious reference to racing or carried a more condescending message like, “Boobies are yucky, bottles are yummy!”

  • jillian

    i saw the original uproar over this shirt a few days ago, but with the addition of it here, this link came down the ‘tube which, imho, really explains why this shirt is problematic.

  • hannah

    I can see both sides but I am still a little offended. I work in a place where I see hordes of pregnant women coming in and out, many of whom I have pretty familiar relationships with. The majority of these are not breastfeeding and have experienced formula propaganda at their hospital births. I breastfed both of my children for almost two years a piece and it was difficult. I was extremely determined but I can see why some women quit, especially with formula advertisements and give aways so readily available. I also know other women who can’t breastfeed for various reasons and therefore stay up late pumping and whatnot so the baby can eat while they work. I think that is an amazingly powerful and selfless thing to do. I think its just too personal of a subject to judge people on. I do believe the stupid onesie could say “milk” and not specify either formula or breastmilk. Don’t think its worth a boycott but it is offensive coupled with the many other images thrown at a new mother in favor of formula feeding…

  • Astrid

    I think the shirt it stupid, but not specifically offensive. But I’m not into most “message” tees, for babies, or otherwise.

    However, boycotting Old Navy for this is ridiculous. I work for one of the brands under the Gap, Inc. umbrella, and as a company we have a really good policy on breastfeeding employees, as far as allowing enough breaks and non-bathroom private spaces to pump, etc., so I really don’t think that one ugly shirt should trump all that.

  • Witty Wife

    I think a mountain is being made out of a molehill.

    Let’s put the argument over breastfeeding vs. bottlefeeding aside. We all know breastfeeding is best (heck, it says so on some of the formula cans) but we all know there are women who choose to or have to bottlefeed. Let’s put that aside.

    Do the over-the-top breastfeeding activists REALLY think that a woman who is contemplating breastfeeding for her unborn child is going to see that Old Navy onesie and say, “You know what, this onesie is SO cute that I think I’m going to throw out all these months of research and decision making and bottle feed just because I saw this cute onesie.”

    Do they really think that’s going to happen?

    People are smarter than that. Give them credit for it. If they decided to breastfeed, they’re still going to breastfeed. If they are currently breastfeeding, they’re not going to switch to the bottle because Old Navy somehow promoted it with their cute onesie. And the folks who are on the fence about bottle feeding? This isn’t going to be their deciding factor, I’m sure of it.

    There are way more pressing things in this world to get worked up about.

  • Catie

    I’m not a mom, at least not yet, but I definitely think it’s just as essentialist and, frankly, rude to demean a women who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed as it is to demean women who do choose to breastfeed. I think women should feel free and safe from judgment by others when it comes to intensely personal choices like whether to breastfeed, and I think what Old Navy is doing here is celebrating an option in a humorous manner. It seems a bit useless to get up in arms about a jokey baby onesie, as I can imagine how they might have made it much more offensive or statement-making. I would certainly be on the side of the boycotters if the onesie had an anti-breastfeeding slogan, just like I’d be on the side of women who don’t breastfeed if they were boycotting because of a onesie that said something rude about women who use formula.
    Obviously there is a lot of stigma on both sides of this debate, so no, I don’t think a onesie being sold by a major retailer can possibly be helpful or well-received either way. However, I’m guessing that they chose to make a formula-themed item rather than a breastmilk-themed item for fear that an article of clothing featuring the word “breast” would be perceived as creepy or icky, which definitely speaks to the stigmas associated with breastfeeding, and that is truly unfortunate.
    For the record, I was a formula/soy milk baby. I was adopted, so my mom (that is, the one who raised me) couldn’t breastfeed. She wanted to, but couldn’t, and she’s said before that it upset her when other women judged her (not knowing that she hadn’t given birth to me herself) for not breastfeeding me.

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