Toxins, motherhood and “shopping your way to safety”


Regular readers of this blog know of my ongoing interest in natural parenting as both a function of privilege and a marker highlighting privileged status. It seems that many people have a need to signal their privileged status to others by adopting lifestyles and routines that require substantial steady incomes to support.

It’s pretty obvious when it comes to conspicuous consumption of expensive cars, designer clothes, and monstrously large homes. It is less obvious, though no less important, in never ending task of avoiding “toxins” involving the purchase of organic foods, supplements, homeopathic remedies, etc. etc. It turns out to be very expensive to avoid “toxins.”

The concept of natural parenting as a visible marker of privilege raises an interesting and ironic possibility. Is natural parenting, often viewed as a rejection of contemporary consumer culture, merely a niche form of the very same consumer culture that is purportedly being rejected? In other words, just as the women who feed their children McDonald’s take out, let them play with plastic toys, and allow them to watch TV are obviously responding to rampant consumerism, are natural parenting advocates who hire doulas, treat everything with homeopathic remedies, and wear their babies in slings unwittingly responding to the exact same consumerism they claim to deplore, albeit consumerism carefully targeted specifically, at them?

Is natural parenting about health or is it just a giant marketing tactic created to sell worthless products to gullible people? Do purveyors of natural parenting goods and service promote “shopping your way to safety”?

Rutgers sociologist Norah MacKendrick raises this disturbing possiblity in her paper More Work for Mother; Chemical Body Burdens as a Maternal Responsibility published in the September issue of Gender and Society.

… This article advances … the effort to mediate personal exposure to environmental chemicals through vigilant consumption as a new empirical site for understanding the intersections between maternal embodiment and contemporary motherhood as a consumer project. Using in-depth interviews, I explore how a group of 25 mothers employ precautionary consumption to mediate their children’s exposure to chemicals found in food, consumer products, and the home. Most of the mothers in the study situate their children’s chemical “burdens” within their own bodies and undertake the labor of precautionary consumption as part of a larger and commodity-based motherhood project…

MacKendrick firmly situates attachment parenting [intensive mothering] as a consumer choice:

The ideology of intensive mothering infuses spaces of consumption by urging mothers to buy with the best interests of the child in mind. Consumption is therefore entangled with other routine activities that parents—and mothers in particular— view as integral to securing a child’s future outcomes. Indeed, women’s transition to motherhood is marked by the consumption of specific material goods. As a form of daily provisioning, foodwork is gendered labor, as women do most of this work …

Mothers create elaborate rituals around shopping for and purchasing items that they believe are necessary to avoid “toxins.” For example:

Megan, a middle-class woman with an infant, has a complex precautionary consumption routine … She consults books, magazines, and websites to find information about chemical avoidance and organizes her shopping list according to what items should be
organic and nontoxic (e.g., meat, dairy, produce, cleaning products). …

So Megan peruses magazines and websites (filled with ads for products she might purchase), then makes specific product choices in areas ranging from food to cleaning products. What’s the difference between Megan and the woman who peruses Vogue and then makes specific product choices among designer options? Nothing, really.

And, of course, like most natural parenting, the conspicuous consumption is traditionally gendered.

Megan explains that her husband “is on board with it, but he definitely doesn’t initiate. It just wouldn’t enter his realm of thought.” When he does the grocery shopping, she “send[s] him out” with a list of specific brands of items to buy for their child, as she
would not trust him to make the “right” choices. This contrast of her knowledge against her husband’s relative ignorance rationalizes the gendered division of precautionary consumption within her household.

Living a privileged life in a privleged neighborhood is almost a necessity:

Megan lives in a neighborhood with stores selling free-range chicken and discount organic foods. During our interview, she shows me a baby chair that she bought at a local store, and speaks enthusiastically about the natural wood and organic cotton. Megan clearly feels that shopping in a precautionary way is enjoyable. She talks positively about the range of choice of organic goods in her neighborhood: “It’s great . . . it’s a foodie
neighborhood for sure…” When Megan frames precautionary consumption this way, we see the privileges afforded by her social class position, where buying green commodities is easy,
enjoyable, and affordable.

Moreover, shopping your way to safety offers women an unmerited sense of superiority, as another mother demonstrates:

Cara considers precautionary consumption as an expression of vigilant mothering that protects against health problems: “I want it to be organic, to be as pure as possible—you know, they can put a lot of crazy ingredients in there . . . that’s why all these kids are medicated, they’re eating all this crappy stuff and then they can’t behave themselves and what’s it doing to them?” Her approach to precautionary consumption evokes both
a natural mothering and an intensive mothering ideology… By pointing to “all these kids,” Cara furthermore situates herself in relation to a hypothetical, careless parent who fails to connect a child’s ingestion of chemical additives to behavioral problems.

While Megan and Cara claim, and probably even believe, that they are protecting their children’s health by avoiding “toxins,” they’ve actually been tricked into paying top dollar for products they doesn’t need, don’t make their children safer, advertise their privilege, and provide no additional value for the additional expense. They are no different from the less privileged women they look down upon for responding to the consumerist culture in which we live. They, too, has been manipulated into buying stuff in response to aggressive marketing campaigns, just different ones.

Simply put, “toxins” aren’t a health threat, they’re a sophisticated marketing tactic designed to trick privileged women who imagine themselves as “educated” into buying an endless array of consumer products in an orgy of conspicuous consumption that they don’t need, don’t work, and merely enrich charlatans.