It is World Breastfeeding Week and Glamour magazine released its September 2014 issue with series of photos of Olivia Wilde. The photos feature Wilde in a diner. In some photos she has her baby with her and in others she is alone. One photo, a glamourous breastfeeding picture, shows Wilde sitting in a booth nursing her naked diaperless baby.
Do we need breastfeeding images in the media?
As with all breastfeeding imagery in mainstream media, this one is causing quite a fuss. I would argue that as long as they continue to create a fuss, we do need them. Until the photo of her glamorously nursing her baby causes no more fuss than the picture of her glamorously looking into her baby's face or glamorously sitting on a diner stool, then I think the photo is very much needed.
Why? Because breastfeeding is still seen by way too many people as something shameful or disgusting. Because mothers who want to breastfeed their own baby have often never seen another woman breastfeeding before they try to latch their own baby for the first time. Because breastfeeding is a part of mothering for the majority of women and there is absolutely no reason to hide it away and pretend it never happened.
But even if breastfeeding imagery is important in general, do we really need famous people breastfeeding in the pages of fashion magazines?
On facebook, my friend Rebecca asked:
Apparently, it's national breastfeeding week, which I suppose partially explains Olivia Wilde's couture-ballgown-nursing-in-a-diner "glamour shot"... I'm feeling conflicted about that. On the one hand, normalization and increased visibility of breastfeeding is great. On the other, commodification of a vestige of non-capitalist exchange by selling images of mother-child moments (and, let's be honest, cleavage) to sell magazines is something I find... troubling. Any thoughts?
Of course, I have thoughts and while I started to answer them in the comments on Rebecca's facebook post, I thought my blog might be a better place to share my thoughts. Of course I agree with Rebecca that normalization and increased visibility of breastfeeding is great.
But what about the commodification part?
In general, women's magazines are about commodifying images of women. For the most part, the images are of thin, white, young, heterosexual, able-bodied, tall, beautiful, childless women. Every time those magazines feature a woman of colour, a plus-size woman, a disabled woman, a mother, or anyone else who doesn't fit the very carefully crafted image of what the media considers to be "beautiful", then I think we've made progress. With that image, we've told a girl or a woman who identifies with that celebrity that she deserves to be seen too.
When I asked my readers last year what it means to them to support breastfeeding, I received a variety of incredibly insightful answers. Many of them touched on normalizing breastfeeding and one in particular said: "pop culture should be immersed in the normalcy of nursing to help reverse the sexualization of breasts". I would agree. Every time I see breastfeeding on a television show or in a movie, particularly if it isn't the subject of the scene, I think that helps. Every time I see a breastfeeding image in a magazine or a newspaper, I think that helps. Every time we see images of a celebrity breastfeeding her child, I think that helps (although sometimes I think it would be better if the image stood on its own without their words to go with it...take note please Gisele Bundchen).
Maybe Olivia Wilde's photo shoot will help a young expecting mother consider breastfeeding or maybe it will help mothers who never would have thought to take pictures of themselves breastfeeding to take the opportunity to document that special time with their baby through a photo session or at least a few iphone pictures. Like it or not, people try to mimic what they see in pop culture. So let's at least give them something worth mimicking.
My own breastfeeding "glamour" shot
With my son, I had a huge battle in order to be able to breastfeed him. I was proud of the way I persevered and what I had accomplished. I was thankful for those who helped me. I was grateful for the breastfeeding relationship that we were able to develop. Although I have a few pictures of me nursing him, for the most part, the hours and hours and hours of nursing went undocumented. It was a big part of mothering for me and one that is not nearly proportionally represented in the imagery of his first few years.
With my daughter, I knew that I wanted to have more breastfeeding pictures. I got others to take some, I took some myself, and we had a professional photographer (Annie Lance) come to the house to take family photos and breastfeeding pictures.
Yes, I too had my breastfeeding glamour shot. I wasn't nearly as made up or dressed to the nines as Olivia Wilde (but then again, I never really am). But we did move furniture out of the way and I was sitting in a place that I wouldn't normally nurse because we wanted to get a particular type of photo.
Capturing and sharing the real moments
My friend Jill who blogs at Baby Rabies had her third baby last year. “Why do I always forget how miserable I am after having a baby?”, she asked her husband in a post where she writes about the difficult aspects of her postpartum recovery.
In the post, she included this picture of her sitting on the bed, nursing her baby, with laundry strewn around her, a half consumed drink and off-kilter lamp shade on the bed side table, and the breastfeeding pillow on her lap and more pillows behind her back to provide the needed support in those early days. Then there is the part the image doesn't show. The nipple pain that she said was absolutely horrible (see also: Does breastfeeding hurt?). This is reality.
Is Olivia Wilde's Photo a Slap in the Face to the Rest of Us?
Olivia Wilde's reality is not reality for most of us. In fact, the breastfeeding experience portrayed in her image it isn't even reality for her on most days. She doesn't usually nurse in a designer dress and heels and her baby isn't usually diaperless when they are nursing. I would assume this is probably true of most photo shoots with models, whether there is a baby on the breast or not. How many of them would lounge around the pool in stiletteo heels, diamond jewelry and a designer bikini on their day off?
She embodies the public image that has become ubiquitous in the world of celebrity mothers: that not only can you be both a mom and a glamazon, but you can do so while effortlessly breastfeeding your infant.
It’s a fantasy and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. But when regular women are still being kicked out of public (and virtual) places for breastfeeding, or have to sue their employers for appropriate accommodations in which to pump breast milk for their infants at home, the glamorous fantasy of the publicly breastfeeding celebrity mother can be a slap in the face to the rest of us.
She goes on to say that "We could all stand to see little less fantasy about motherhood and a little more reality."
I can't disagree with that. But I do think Wilde's photo could be a tiny step towards making mothers feel like breastfeeding is something to talk about, take photos of, and not simply hide away. If we all feel like mothering deserves to be seen and talked about, then maybe more mothers will be willing to talk about it and maybe we won't be called "mommy" in a condescending fashion by the media when we do.
What do you think? Is Wilde's Glamour breastfeeding image the commodification of fantasy-style mother-child moments or is it a small step towards telling mothers that they deserve to be seen and that their stories matter?