The Unlikely Origins of Modern Mommy Shaming: The Health Movement of the 1970s

“You’re going to have to take the blame for everything once you get your body back.”
—John Feltman, Prevention: The Magazine for Better Health (July 1977)

IMG_0612In the 1970s, the success of the natural health movement spread a new orthodoxy across North America, with an unforgiving approach to motherhood. Countercultural health gurus like Adelle Davis helped redefine tragedies such as crib death and miscarriage as punishments meted out to mothers who failed to obey the natural laws of health. They promised to free modern women from the tyranny of Western Medicine. Yet they replaced Doctor God with an equally demanding deity: Mother Nature.

If you want to know where we went wrong, Adelle Davis’s bestselling advice book Let’s Have Healthy Children (1951) is a great place to start. Written “primarily for the expectant mother,” Let’s Have Healthy Children is an extended diatribe against American mothers, who, Davis inveighed, “seem to have shifted the responsibility for their children’s health entirely onto the shoulders of these physicians.” She insisted that this error threatened the very strength of the American nation on the world stage. It had to be stamped out; “the responsibility for the infant’s health must again be shouldered by the mother.” The truth, argued Davis, was that “every woman, by her choice of foods before and during pregnancy, largely determines the type of baby she will produce.” The crux of her message to mothers was clear and unambiguous: “The responsibility is yours.”

Failing to heed Davis’s call could prove disastrous. In one cautionary tale, she told the story of Margaret: “She was thrilled to be pregnant again but had refused to eat intelligently. More than once I had tried to get her to improve her diet. ‘Phooey on that stuff,’ she would answer gaily. ‘I have two beautiful children, and I ate anything I wanted when I was pregnant with them.’” Margaret’s luck ran out a couple of months later: “In her seventh month,” recounted Davis, “she developed toxemia. Her baby was born dead, and she was frightfully ill. If she and other pregnant women could know more about nutrition and recognize the danger warnings, this tragedy and thousands like it could be avoided.”

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A more accurate title might have been: You’d Better Have Healthy Children! Adelle Davis lectures mothers in a harsh, insulting manner, completely devoid of warmth or compassion.

Let’s Have Healthy Children, despite its cheerfully nonchalant title, is preachy, highly prescriptive, and even, at times, downright angry. A more accurate title might have been: You’d Better Have Healthy Children! Davis addressed herself directly to mothers in a harsh, insulting manner, completely devoid of warmth or compassion. It is inconceivable to me how any mother could have read this book and not come away feeling grossly inadequate. Davis proffered a perfectionist ideal that was as unrealistic as it was unattainable. She argued that anything less than an easy pregnancy, a flawless birthing experience, and a perfect child was completely unacceptable and inexcusable. Davis maintained that a healthy newborn could be “expected to meet the following conditions: Be perfectly formed without defects. . . . Sleep soundly. . . . Cry little. . . . During the first year, he continues to sleep soundly, cry little, and eat with a good appetite.” The healthy child was, she avowed, a happy child: “he smiles early, [and] laughs aloud by the age of six months; his tears are rare and of short duration; he is neither irritable nor whiny, but relaxed and happy.” He should also, averred Davis, be free of all the supposedly normal afflictions of infancy. Included in her exhaustive list of “abnormalities” were cradle cap, colic, diaper rash, diarrhea, constipation, colds, infections, allergies, eczema, indigestion, vomiting, smelly stools, and thrush. “At no time,” she added, “has he needed or been given antibiotics, aspirin, tranquilizers, or drugs of any kind.” The number of ways that each reader’s child deviated from this standard, Davis maintained, made manifest the degree to which she had failed as a mother.

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At first glance it is difficult to understand why anybody other than a masochist would read Let’s Have Healthy Children from cover to cover. Yet upon further consideration it becomes clear that Adelle Davis’s effectiveness as an author of prescriptive literature stemmed precisely from her harsh tone, and, perhaps more importantly, from her adroit assessment of the type of women who comprised her target audience. All mothers worry about the efficacy of their mothering to some extent. But for the most part it has been educated middle-class women with adequate leisure time who have consulted advice literature. When a woman buys and reads a “how to” book on mothering she enters a self-selected group. She has indicated by that very act that she is open to new and perhaps unorthodox ideas. She probably lacks confidence in her mother’s advice and would like to distance herself from her mother’s parenting style. She believes truth is often to be found in books. And she does not think that she is adequately prepared for what is to come. Let’s Have Healthy Children played on all of these insecurities. Yet at the same time Davis’s book was also empowering. For it argued that the power to create a perfect child was in every woman’s hands. A happy result could be guaranteed by the right kind of behavior. Pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing—experiences so fraught with danger, uncertainty, and the unknown—could be controlled. Adelle Davis’s message was in this respect comforting. Control is what people who are attracted to the health-conscious lifestyle are looking for, even if its costs are high, even if it means that they will have to shoulder an awesome weight of responsibility. A sense of control is precisely what Adelle Davis gave her readers.

The editors of Prevention magazine published many of the letters that they received in a section entitled “Mailbag,” which often engulfed a goodly portion of the magazine. The lion’s share of these letters consisted of testimonials, such as the following from Janet Stensel, a woman who had recently given birth to her first child: “All during my pregnancy I followed Prevention’s suggestions for a safe, comfortable pregnancy and healthy baby. I avoided caffeine, alcohol, diuretics, common household drugs and junk foods. I added good sources of protein to my meals along with prenatal supplements . . . .” Moreover, alleged Stensel, “I faithfully practiced exercises to strengthen my back muscles.” She insisted that the “benefits reaped from this regimen were tremendous.” “I had,” she claimed, “enough stamina to work full time . . . right up until the day before the delivery. And I still had enough energy to go home and bake my own recipes for cheese breads and wheatgerm muffins!” Apparently, halcyon days persisted to the end: “Early one Monday morning last November, my uncomplicated speedy labor and delivery . . . produced our first child—a healthy 6½-pound son.” Declared another proud parent, who had adhered to a similarly virtuous regimen: “I sailed through my pregnancy starting with no morning sickness at all and ending with a very smooth labor and delivery.” “My labor and delivery [was] a breeze, too,” crowed yet another. “In fact, the whole thing took only three hours. And just 10 days after my daughter was born I was out jogging.” The didactic function of letters of this kind was to promote and normalize precisely that kind of ideal birthing experience that Adelle Davis described in Let’s Have Healthy Children. “In my opinion,” Davis groused, “labor should be measured in minutes, not in hours; and prolonged labor is typical of women whose diets have been inadequate during pregnancy.” If an expectant mother was doing everything right, Davis maintained, she should not experience any nausea, nor, in fact, should she develop varicose veins, hemorrhoids, leg cramps, exhaustion, or stretchmarks. Contrary to popular belief, she insisted that these were not normal side-effects of pregnancy; they were all “abnormalities” that could be avoided by virtuous behavior.

With labor, delivery, and nine months of pregnancy behind her, the health-conscious mother could now, assuming all went well, gaze into her child’s lovely eyes and breathe a sigh of relief. But not for long. The woman would soon realize that she had merely left one exacting jurisdiction and entered another. Choices of monumental importance lay ahead. For instance, health gurus insisted that her toddler could not consume any commercially-canned baby food. Instead, she would have to make her own mash from high-quality organic ingredients. As the child grew older, the very same authorities claimed that she would have to be sure to give him or her plenty of vitamin and mineral supplements. Still, the new mother’s most important decision was immediate: to breastfeed or not to breastfeed?

“Every mother,” Adolphus Hohensee maintained, “who resorts to artificial feeding when she is capable of nursing her child will be held responsible . . . on judgement day.” Health reformers have never wavered in their denunciation of bottle feeding. “To say it is deplorable that countless mothers will not nurse their offspring is putting it mildly,” declared Hohensee. “These mothers are lacking in some of the essential qualities of motherhood.” In health-conscious circles, the good mother was the mother who breastfed her children—she was a mother who understood, in the words of one Prevention writer, that “breast milk is God’s gift to babies.” The zealous founders of La Leche League—a breastfeeding advocacy organization—argued, as did Carlton Fredericks and Mark Bricklin, that it was fundamentally irresponsible to bottle feed a baby. They claimed that the mother who chose to bottle feed consigned her child to a lifetime of unnecessary suffering. Her child was, they alleged, more likely to develop a weight problem later on in life, as well as allergies, asthma, eczema, learning disabilities, and a host of other medical conditions.

In the short term, the health conscious maintained, in the words of one Prevention staffer, that “bottle-fed babies are far more likely to be victims of crib death than are breast-fed babies.” “Many of the unexplained ‘crib deaths’ have been attributed to cow’s milk,” asserted Prevention in 1971. “Mother’s milk contains food factors that are designed specifically for the human baby,” the article continued. “At a critical time, their presence could spell the difference between life and death.” “The number of infants,” read another Prevention article published in the same year, “who actually owe their lives to breastfeeding is probably quite high.” As usual, Adelle Davis took the most unequivocal position. “Crib death,” she insisted, “which takes the lives of some 20,000 seemingly healthy infants each year, does not occur among babies who are breast-fed.”

In the long term, even if a bottle-fed baby managed to survive infancy, Davis maintained, he or she would never be as happy, warm, friendly, or emotionally stable as a breastfed baby. She claimed that a wide variety of deviant behaviors could be traced back to bottle feeding, a practice that “often causes compulsive eating, drinking, and smoking, and results in obesity and alcoholism. It can take the form of psychosomatic illnesses such as arthritis or asthma,” she added. “Certainly,” Davis continued, “it plays a role in such social problems as crime and drug addiction. There are, for example, fewer child delinquents among children who have been breast-fed than among bottle-fed ones.” The damage done to those who were deprived of the breast as youngsters, she argued, manifested itself in adulthood in dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. Adults who were bottle fed as children found it hard, Davis alleged, to “give and receive warmth and love.” “The child,” she reasoned, “who has not been nursed unconsciously feels a lifelong rejection, knows less security, and has more difficulty in adjusting as a social being. He unconsciously harbors hostilities toward his mother which prevent a close relationship between the two.”

Bottle-fed babies tend to be ugly, declared Davis, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Let’s Have Healthy Children, aptly titled “Your Child Has the Right to be Beautiful.” “Children should be beautiful,” she insisted. But this was so often not the case in the United States: “I have been repeatedly impressed by the gorgeous, smiling babies seen in every European country and in the Orient. Almost without exception each child is beautiful. In contrast, the pinched, pale, unsmiling, narrow faces of American babies break my heart. In all other countries except ours, most babies are nursed.” This “tragedy of ugliness” was, Davis maintained, much more serious than was usually recognized. “Almost every child hates himself if he is not reasonably attractive.” Mothers had an obligation, therefore, to raise attractive children “with superb minds and beautiful bodies,” she wrote. “The goal outlined here,” she observed, “is no higher than the standard of perfection farmers and pet breeders expect of their animals.” Besides, beautiful children were, at bottom, a testament to virtuous mothering: “As these superior children go into the community and eventually into the world at large, their straight bodies, excellent bone structure, attractive appearance, athletic prowess, mental alertness, and quick grasp of social needs are all advertisements of your own efficacy as parents.” Permissive mothers who allowed their children to eat junk food could, she contended, expect a lifetime of resentment from their adult children. Referring to a woman she knew, who allowed her son to eat junk food, Davis wrote: “the time would come when this boy would hate his mother for allowing him to grow up with a nearly deformed body.”

Davis claimed her beautiful daughter was a perfect example of what American babies could look like if American mothers breastfed their children. Let’s Have Healthy Children included a number of photographs of her daughter as a baby, as a toddler, and as a high-school graduate. Her daughter was, quite clearly, an adorable baby, a cute toddler, and a beautiful young woman. Davis took credit for it. “A mother,” she argued, “largely determines whether her children will be beautiful or homely, depending on the adequacy of the diet during the first few months.” Still, beautiful babies had to be properly nourished after birth, too. “When nutrients are deficient or poorly absorbed,” wrote Davis, “a baby who had been beautiful at birth often becomes homely by the time he is three to six months old; and once allowed to develop, this homeliness remains throughout his entire lifetime.”

Prevention writers maintained that the bottle-fed baby was more likely to be an underachiever in the dog-eat-dog world of work. Indeed, failure to succeed in the capitalist marketplace was often, they chided, the result of motherly neglect. The poverty that was a necessary concomitant of this failure was therefore also, they deduced, the mother’s fault. “Poor nutrition,” declared Joan Jennings, “makes poor brains and poor brains make poor people.” In one fascinating Prevention fable—“Only Well-Nourished Babies Achieve Their Potential”—this line of reasoning was taken to some decidedly illiberal conclusions. The article tells the tale of two boys named Paul and Mike who grew up together as close friends. As adults, we learn that they “are still good friends, but Mike is now a clerk and Paul is his supervisor.” “Even though the two men have practically everything in common,” the narrator claims that “Paul was able to develop himself more fully than Mike.” The unnamed storyteller insists that the difference between the two men has “nothing to do with any negligence on Mike’s part, for it stems from something that happened long before Mike had reached the use of reason. Mike’s mother took the option,” we are told, “recommended by her pediatrician of feeding her infant a formula, while Paul’s mother followed her instincts and breast-fed him.” Although Mike seems perfectly fine to those around him—“Mike wasn’t retarded. He never failed a grade in school, and he has lived a normal life.”—the fabler insists that appearances are, in this instance, deceiving. The mistakes that Mike’s mother made long ago have, in fact, had dire consequences: Mike is paying the price for his mother’s woeful lack of judgement each and every day of his boring, mediocre life. Had young Mike been “breast-fed when the only things he knew were eating, sleeping and crying,” the raconteur confidently assures us, “the additional nutrient elements that were intended for him by nature would have laid a foundation for a richer and more satisfying life.” Apparently, from time to time Mike wonders “why he is working for Paul instead of with him.” “He doesn’t realize,” the narrator solemnly declares, “that the decision was made for him a long time ago.” This stunningly didactic piece concludes with a question, posed directly to the expectant mother who is, presumably, still weighing her options: “Why be the one responsible for making your child wonder why he is the clerk and his friend is the supervisor?” “Most people,” lamented Adelle Davis, “believe that intelligence is largely inherited and if a child fails to be smart, it is because he had the wrong ancestors.” Nothing, she claimed, could be further from the truth. Stupid children, she insisted, are the result of bad mothers, and they are a constant drain upon the American society. “The cost to our nation of supporting malformed persons is staggering.”

The natural health movement seemed so naturally allied with feminism in the 1970s. Health reformers shrewdly diagnosed the gendered nature of conventional medicine, time and again, and they promised women freedom from the oppression of patriarchal professionals. Yet health reformers forged new forms of oppression that were often more onerous than those that they replaced. As many women discovered, much to their chagrin, striving to be an Earth Mother Goddess wasn’t particularly liberating. If the biomedical model of health disenfranchised the female patient, took away all of her responsibility, and placed it in the hands of a patriarchal male doctor, the natural health movement’s backlash against that model swung the pendulum all the way in the opposite direction. Women became personally responsible for every aspect of their child’s fate. If a woman had a difficult pregnancy, a miscarriage, a complicated delivery, or a child born with birth defects, the assumption among the health conscious was that she must have done something wrong. Perhaps she had a glass of wine at Christmas or forgot to take her prenatal vitamins. Chance and bad luck had little place in this worldview. If something went awry, anything, there was a reason; someone was guilty, and that someone was almost always a woman. We’ve replaced Doctor God with an equally demanding deity: Mother Nature.

—John Faithful Hamer, Parenting in the Age of Studies Have Shown (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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