Recently, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen posted a photo to her Instagram account in which she is nursing her baby while a team of stylists are doing her hair, makeup and nails. There's nothing wrong with breastfeeding; the science is well known, and the benefits are far-reaching for both mom and baby. Gisele is also the owner of a line of personal care products, Sejaa, a company whose products, according to its website, are made without any harmful chemicals or excessive packaging. I applaud that good work. However, the supermodel's Instagram photo to me is not about breastfeeding, but rather a stealth co-branding effort to link a "healthy lifestyle" with a scrutinized cosmetic industry relative to concerns for potentially harmful chemical exposures. All I can think of upon seeing the photo is that someone is going to think it's a good idea to nurse a baby while in the chair at her local hair and nail salon.
Very likely, this photo of the model, who is also known for her work with Pantene, is staged. The photo is fun; however, there are far-reaching implications for the behavior being modeled. Most people would never question anything but the breastfeeding, which, to me, is the only healthy element of the picture. To me, the healthy act of breastfeeding is canceled out by the potential for harmful exposures -- not dissimilar to the idea of smoking while riding a bicycle.
Gisele could be a supermodel for healthy choices. The picture is the perfect example of all the things we allow into the landscape of our lives, not recognizing that there is potential harm to both human health and the environment. Very likely, an informed working mom such as Gisele would have been breastfeeding in the boardroom instead.
Scientists, physicians and public health experts extol the benefits of breastfeeding but they also alert mothers to the dangers of exposing themselves and their babies to chemicals that may get into breast milk. The President's Cancer Panel reported in 2008-2009, "It is important to recognize that children are far more susceptible to damage from environmental carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting compounds than adults." The report further recommends that "to the extent possible, parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children's exposure to toxins. Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals and the known or suspected carcinogens before a child's conception and throughout pregnancy and early life, when risk of damage is greatest."
If we are ever going to change the tide on the condition of human health, we need to be making informed choices about all the things in our everyday lives that have health consequences. This is not about panic but rather precaution, and until we can really get a handle on increased incidences of cancer, we need to be paying close attention to those exposures -- the ones that are known to increase risk as well as those suspected of increasing risk for cancer. There is not yet a mainstream knowledge of the chemicals in things like hairspray, makeup and nail polish, which is why Gisele has the opportunity to be a super example in her actions and messages.