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Olivia Wilde's Glamour Breastfeeding Photo: What's the Point?

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?

In the LA Times, Sarah Rohwer wrote about Wilde's breastfeeding photo:

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?

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Reader Comments (22)

I love everything about it. Clearly it's not reality, but it's not trying to be. I actually think some of the hardest times to be a breastfeeding mom are when you have to be dressed up for a wedding or some other special event. Many women might opt to use a bottle instead just because the idea of nursing in an evening gown feels so awkward. It's a lovely photo regardless.

I love your analysis. I think that your friend makes a legitimate point about the commodification of the women's bodies, of mothering moments, but as a breastfeeding mom, I so hunger for the normalization of this process that I'm totally willing to overlook that. From the way this one picture had been advertised across the web, I had expected an entire series of breastfeeding shots. Now that would be excellent!

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Berney

To be honest, could Olivia nurse like that???? Maybe..,, she has a housekeeper and a nanny, etc..... however, she absolutely can AND look AMAZEBALLS.... My biggest concern would be the eye contact....and she looks engaged with her littlin......:)
Some of these comments depend on your age and stage.... I an 37, and have nursed 4 children, extended, for a total of about 8.5-9 solid years.....not between their ages, but the combined total of each child's nursing length.

However each child was different... Number 1, nursed 27 months, number 2 nursed 30 months, number 3, nursed 35 months, and number 4, nursed 6 weeks , before I had to supplement...., yes, you heard that right.... 6 weeks..... Before completely weaning at 6 months.

Oh, and PS, I am an IBCLC Lactation Consultant, with a Bachelors and a Masters degree in the Biology arena....imagine my confusion....;)

However, I digress....;)

Please, if the discussion is about us lactating...Remember, you are a mammal for a reason... Your mammary glands.... That is what I am, AND what you are......your mammary glands have no other real biological function......

Ciao and aloha! :)

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaparks22@yahoo.com

I have four kids. The first three I breast feed until a year and each was an easy transition to cows milk. No. four has no interest in anything but the breast and he in now past 2. We are just reaching the point where he comes and pulls my shirt up in public and declares he needs milk. I am torn between knowing society standards and knowing he just needs a drink. I say good on Olivia, for doing her part in normalizing the stuff we as women do day in and day out. and a lot of it is grunt work. Lets at least be proud of those intense bonding moments.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Going to make an assumption that's relatively unfounded: I'm willing to bet she asked for that shot. And that conversation of "I'd like to bare my breast in your fashion magazine" is disruptive because 99.9% of photographic conversations about bare breasts are not about nursing.

I would love to see the next frame of her jammed into a bathroom stall nursing the baby, the way most women feel they have to feed. But if she's welcome in the middle of a diner without fancy baby-smothering cover, maybe more women will use their legal right to nurse anywhere they happen to be.
I agree with all the points about commodification and fantasy and ludicrous staging. But the facts that the photo made the cut and that it's sparking conversations outweigh the negatives for me today.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNaptimewriting


As a matter of fact, she didn't ask for it. The editor responsible for the shoot was on the news yesterday and when asked about the photo, she said it was completely unplanned. They were shooting, the baby had to eat, and they said, "Hey, this is pretty beautiful, let's shoot it!" Obviously they had to tweak it for the magazine (no diaper! Eek!) But it was borne of the moment nonetheless. And for that I applaud them.

My only complaint: it should have been the cover.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenternsl1978

Although it's great to see such support of pop culture embrace and "promote" the normalcy of breastfeeding, I would love to see more shots of celebrities doing this when their children are toddlers or preschoolers. It tends to stop at infants. Actress turned advocate, Alicia Silverstone, is often criticized, mocked, and made fun of for her parenting choices (nursing an older child, etc). So it seems to me, when it comes to things "natural" our society has a long way to go.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKC Davis

I do love the picture and I do think we always need to see breastfeeding. We need to see pictures that normalize breastfeeding, that glamourize it and that simply include it as a part of life. We need to see those images until we start asking the right questions about them. Questions like, what does it say about our society that moneyed white women are more likely to 'succeed' at breastfeeding than poor women and women of colour? The fact that (as Sarah Rowher pointed out) this particular white woman gets paid to breastfeed in comfort while other women have to sue for the privilege - or, more likely, simply quite and formula feed - is not a slap in the face, but it is the core issue. How we feed our babies is often influenced much more by our social location - if we can afford professional help, if we get maternity leave, if we go back to a job with flexibility, if we have a partner to help - than by our choice or effort. That's what really needs to be discussed and images like this are great jumping off points for the real discussion.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKrissyfair

I was totally fine with it, appreciated, actually, that a celeb seen mainly as a sex symbol was like, yep, this is what they're actually for. It also helped that she (unlike Gisele) tweeted about the shot in a very relatable, honest way: no, she doesn't usually look like that, and yes, he did pee on her. We can't yell that we want breastfeeding "normalized" and then say that we're commodifying nursing women for being photographed breastfeeding. Would it be more helpful for anybody to leave those pictures out of magazines? And hey, at least she gets to take her baby to work.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkarengreeners

I want to say I really enjoyed your comment. Particularly the point about how women will not have seen many nursing moms before they themselves are faced with how to get a baby to latch. I was fortunate that I had my sister before me who I saw nursing her son but in some of my darkest moments I recall being up late at night with a crying baby and being so uncomfortable and looking online for pictures of women with similar breasts like mine who were nursing. I found the lack of images of how to nurse with big nipples very disheartening. I thought I literally would not be able to nurse.

I also will never forget going to a high-end nursing and maternity shop looking for a sling for my second child and needing to stop to nurse. Since I was in a shop like that I didn't use my cover. The women who ran the store looked at me, doing my thing (supporting my large breast so as not to suffocate my kid, while cradling the baby's head with the other), and said "you know, we have foam wedges that can help large breasted women nurse". I wanted to slap her in the face. I was comfortable, my baby was eating, all was swell. And that comment enraged me. I said "thanks but this is my second baby and I've nursed his older sister for 13 months. I think I know what I'm doing with my own body".

Not everyone has tiny tear-drop shaped boobs that they can whip out and nurse while walking. For me, I had to always use the pillow, I loved nursing lying down and am forever grateful that I have had a sister that served as a role model for me. If I hadn't, I would probably have quit. I am so proud to have nursed both of my kids and while I'm not having anymore kids, I would do it all again in a heart beat.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNursing Mom

I've been fascinated by the uproar, although truth be told I've missed anything related to being against a nursing photo, it's all been about what she is wearing and what the baby isn't.

Magazine images are calculated, they are staged, manipulated, and retouched. This is nothing new. Nor is the lifting up of the idea that life can be portrayed as effortless. I am pretty tired of the attacks, whether on this magazine, or on companies like Dove for not being without motive with their Real Beauty campaign. It's a business, but if there are times when their business can benefit a cause, I wish we wouldn't make it so black and white.

I am not sure that this is going to change the dynamic of feeling uncomfortable in public as a nursing mom or of employers giving you just the option of using the bathroom. I was forced to use a unisex bathroom to pump, people would knock on the door which would make me tense and be unable to pump. It may open the idea of nursing to a new mom...

All that said, unrealistic or not, I appreciate that in the library of media, this image and others of high profile women nursing their kids are out there.

Not sure if that makes any sense.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

KC Davis:

I won't criticize Alicia Silverstone for her own choices, but much like with Gisele Bundchen and Jenny McCarthy, I wish she would stay quiet sometimes. She makes statements that have absolutely no basis in facts or science, such as the idea that vegans are less likely to get postpartum depression.

August 8, 2014 | Registered Commenterphdinparenting

Personally, I like it. Obviously she doesn't usually dress like that when breastfeeding, but it's the fact that she *can* dress like that when breastfeeding. In a diner. Wearing whatever she wants and nursing wherever she wants. That's how I interpreted it. I hope this turns into something LESS picking her apart and MORE accepting breastfeeding as something that is normal that can be done anywhere without shame.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJen Wilson

I love this piece, and the multi-faceted dialogue it (and the other words written/spoken in response to the photo) are sparking. Last night I watched a bit of it on Undone with Amanda de Cadenet. Truth be told, I am conflicted by the photograph. On the one hand, it's beautiful. Olivia, her baby, the fashion, the lighting, the breastfeeding moment...all of it. It's the very reason that people buy these kinds of magazines--to catch glimpses of fantasy (whether it be for escape or aspiration) and threads of reality that perhaps bind us all. I like that it encourages women who want to breastfeed, to do so. That said, the first thoughts that jumped into mind as I saw this photo (which was well before any commentary about it) were things like, "Would they have staged this if she was holding a bottle?", "Of course she wouldn't get kicked out of a diner for breastfeeding--look who it is!", "This diner MUST be empty." "I never looked (or arguably felt) like that for the majority of times I breastfed." Incidentally, I breastfed for a little over a year, but around 9 months supplemented with formula too--I am a staunch supporter of moms doing what works for them and their child. That's what I did, and we should all have that freedom without judgment.

While I love that it helps to normalize breastfeeding in the public eye, I also feel like it almost sets an unattainable standard if that is the bar we are advertising as acceptable. Yes, of course we have to start somewhere, but how many of us had to scramble in these locations under ill-fitting, spit-up stained T-shirts, with nursing bras that didn't exactly cooperate, with crying, hungry babies, and hot flash inducing hormones? A lot of us, I imagine. So, I guess part of what I'm conflicted about is that while I certainly want way more of these photos--that is, those that show breastfeeding moms (AND bottle feeding moms!)--ALSO show me when she's trying to do this while having hair and makeup done, or the corporate CEO nursing on a conference call from her home office. Too often, those kinds of relatively unstaged moments of breastfeeding are in the media more as "gotcha!" photos because the mom might look less than stellar. I think magazines like Glamour have some real power here and could do some good by showing a bit more reality alongside the fantasy, and it would be refreshing to see once in a while. It would certainly prompt me to buy more magazines because the older I get, I am less inclined to buy magazines that don't at least on some level reflect back a bit of myself.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

I think it's fantastic. It undercuts the madonna/whore dichotomy that is at the root of so much breastfeeding bias. She is absolutely a Hollywood sex symbol AND she is a breastfeeding mother without conflict. It also de-stigmatizes public breastfeeding in many, many ways.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDeb Rox

The target demo for Glamour needs to see images of Celebs. Breastfeeding. Many women emulate their fave celebs. and while we may not look like Olivia Wilde while doing it I think that it's a lovely thought that a woman would feel beautiful while breast feeding. It's an incredibly intimate moment with your child and those are moments Moms should treasure. I think the photo captures that sentiment well.

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterT. Jones

I'm a fan of Olivia Wilde, and I think the photo is gorgeous. I could stare at it all day long (except that the ring is distracting - it must be annoying to wear a huge cocktail ring while holding a naked infant). My problem with the whole thing is just what you touch on right here--Facebook/Instagram are shutting down accounts like the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, claiming that naked infants violate their child pornography policies. Has Facebook removed this image of Wilde and her naked baby? Nope. Meanwhile, a heated debate happened in a Facebook group I belong to for mamas who also happen to be "geeks" about whether or not a husband's request that his wife, the original poster, refrain from putting photos of her and their child nursing, lest his colleagues and employers see these photos and feel uncomfortable. So I'm not cool with touting this photo as a celebration that breastfeeding has "made it" - I am happy about all the conversations I see around it about the way women in non-glamorous situations feel about breastfeeding in public and photos of breastfeeding publicly displayed.

Another note: I fought with myself about formula feeding, when I just needed some darn sleep, for the sake of my mental health, and I feel like it was a huge victory to give my son a bottle, or let anyone else do so. But a glamorous bottle feeding photo would cause a whole other storm! I just want to feed my baby, without all the extra voices shouting at me in my head from all the things I read that tell me the Right Way to do it. And my baby? He's 21-months-old. The voices just don't shut up about it. (You're not one of those annoying ones, for the record. I like your "voice"!)

August 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne-Marie

I think you are correct! There are definitely two sides to the article. On the other hand, as women, we should appreciate that the popular magazine paid attention to this beautiful act and maybe now, even the broader public would start to understand it and take it as a normal thing. Nowadays, we can still meet with gazing people who can cause that the woman might feel embarrassed. Hopefully, this article would spread higher acceptance among people!

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterElli

Great post! Well, posting or showing images in magazines is not a problem for me because this gives a lot of awareness to all the mothers out there how important breast feeding is to their babies.

September 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterShannonG

It's nice to see how lots of women are already into breastfeeding. I know that it offers a lot of benefits and whether you are a celebrity mom or not, you should be proud of what you're doing.

Great post! Breastfeeding is a natural thing and so I have no problem with seeing images of breastfeeding in magazines.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterViviane

I have to say that all three breastfeeding pictures are beautiful! I believe at this moment in time we need to support every breastfeeding picture that makes it public! Yes, Olivia Wilde's breastfeeding picture is complete fantasy but then again it's complete reality. That look that she's giving her baby is 100% pure emotion and love, her child is clueless in the fact that it's being photographed, that baby only knows that it's getting the love, comfort and meal that it desires. (I apologize for not knowing the sex of the baby) I for one have breastfed a naked baby plenty of times, I have also breastfed in a bridesmaid dress & was captured unknowingly by the photographer, that picture is the most beautiful picture I own. {Link here: http://omlivin.com/breastfeeding-toddler-part-one-family-friday/ } Even when I had thrush or sore nipples, the love that I was producing was still 1000 times stronger than that horrible pain.

But the point shouldn't be if it's a realistic view of breastfeeding or not. The real point should be how we handle the picture. If young women are to be brave enough to test the status quo, then they need to be applauded. Judgement is a very dangerous thing when it comes to how are children are raised, educate yourself and be prepared to educate others who try to put you down. :)

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAshleigh

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