by Norah Mackendrick
Maybe you’ve seen her in the park or in your neighborhood: a mother using a glass baby bottle, feeding her child organic baby food from a reusable bamboo spoon, and applying “natural” sunscreen to her skin. You might wonder, why is this woman so paranoid? If you see her in the grocery store, you find her studying the label on a bottle of Babyganics shampoo. In this article, I examine the growing trend of “precautionary consumption” and explain how it is more than just mommy paranoia.
I call precautionary consumption a “better safe than sorry” orientation to consumption, where consumers make their own judgments about what products are safe and what products might harm their health. Precautionary consumption can be as complex as eating a diet of certified organic foods, making homemade cleaning products and avoiding all plastic food containers, to single actions, such as checking a water bottle to ensure it’s “bisphenol A-Free”. This approach to consumption has become increasingly significant in response to national surveys showing that most Americans contain hundreds of synthetic chemicals in their bodies, including brominated flame retardants, pesticides and bisphenol A.
Women do most of the household shopping, so they’re most likely to practice precautionary consumption. Women are also more likely to practice it because of environmental health research linking fetal and infant chemical exposure to maternal diet and lifestyle. Some studies suggest that early-life chemical exposure leads to future health problems like cancer, behavioral disorders and infertility.
In this paper I report on in-depth interviews with 25 mothers, where I ask women to talk about their experiences using precautionary consumption. Through these interviews I uncover some important themes related to gender, the reproductive body, and the individual responsibility to manage environmental health risks.
I find that the mothers in my sample were aware of the risks of synthetic chemicals in their food and consumer products, and were turning to precautionary consumption to address this problem. Some began practicing it even before they conceived a child, but most started precautionary consumption during pregnancy or immediately after the birth of their child. These women thought of their bodies as chemical repositories and felt a tremendous sense of responsibility for what went into (and stayed in) their child’s body. None of the mothers reflected on the possible role the child’s father might play in the process of ‘contaminating’ children’s bodies. I tie this finding to the concept of reproductive equations, where men’s contribution to reproduction and children’s health is thought to end after conception. Especially interesting was how some mothers tried not to involve their male partners in precautionary consumption and preferred to take charge of this task.
The truly puzzling piece of this research is that most of the mothers I interviewed did not describe precautionary consumption as onerous, despite the time, research and money it requires. I expected more women to express anger or resentment toward the failure of regulatory agencies to prevent potentially harmful chemicals from being used in food production and consumer product manufacturing. Instead, women seemed to be responding to contemporary mothering ideologies and the cultural discourse of mother-blame, whereby “good” mothers devote themselves fully to raising healthy and well-adjusted children. If they do not make this investment, they risk being blamed for inadequate mothering.
Finally, not all women in my study were able to practice precautionary consumption in the same way. I found variations in their practices, depending on whether they had a partner at home, a middle-class income or lived in a neighborhood with access to non-toxic products. One woman I interviewed wanted to practice precautionary consumption but couldn’t manage it on her very low income. Her interview is a warning that the standard of good mothering are based on middle-class lifestyles. As this standard intensifies, low-income mothers are left on the sidelines.
Mothers who practice precautionary consumption are not just paranoid, but are responding to larger cultural messages that pins children’s wellbeing on the actions and choices of mothers, rather than on governments, chemical manufacturers or even fathers. But it also raises the question of who can afford to avoid synthetic chemicals in their baby food and shampoo, and whether changing personal consumption habits is even the best strategy.
Norah Mackendrick is a professor in the department of sociology at Rutgers University. Her article, More Work for Mother: Chemical Body Burdens as Maternal Responsibility, is forthcoming in the October 2014 issue of Gender & Society, and currently available here. To read the press release, click here.