Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Apparently Breasts Are Provacative

This week's Time Magazine cover of a woman breast-feeding her 3-year-old son sure has a lot of people talking.  My own feelings about the Time cover are conflicted.  On one hand, I think Time is making an important point, and the controversy surrounding it is ridiculous.  I vigorously defend the following ideas:
  • Breast-feeding is normal and healthy.  
  • Breast-feeding is normal and healthy for toddlers, including 3-year-olds like this one.
  • Breast-feeding is normal and healthy for boys, not just girls!
  • It is okay and normal to be a sexy woman and also breast-feed your child.  Women can be both mothers and sexual beings at the same time.
  • There is nothing wrong with breast-feeding standing up, either!
This cover does not show anything inherently sexual or abnormal or unhealthy.  The fact that so many people have looked at this cover and had an immediate negative reaction is about the ways we have hypersexualized women in this society, and see breasts, in particular, as only sexual.  It is also about how we have, correspondingly, not supported breast-feeding.  Our society has taken something that is normal and healthy, and made it something pathological--something so rare that women have to fight a ridiculous battle to engage in what our bodies are created to do.  Breast-feeding past three is the world-wide norm, and children continue to receive important nutrients for toddlers' developing brains and immune systems.  Breast milk actually adapts to a child's changing needs as the child grows--it's a pretty amazing thing.

The comments I have seen against this picture range from the uninformed, suggesting that there's absolutely no reason to breast-feed at this age and that the mom is just weird, to the downright ridiculous, suggesting that this boy will need psychotherapy, or the mom should be indicted on charges of corrupting a minor.  And overall the level of talk around this cover shows that as a society we are just profoundly screwed up on the subject of what should be seen as just a natural and good thing.  The controversy is an extension of the fact that women are routinely tossed out of restaurants and other public places in many states for breastfeeding, because women's breasts are viewed as inherently indecent. 

All that being said--and it's important, and comes first--I think Time did something of a disservice to the issue of making "extended breast-feeding" accepted in our society.  They took a picture that made extended breast-feeding look as freakishly weird as possible.  I say that while still supporting that there is nothing wrong with what is depicted.  But given that in our society extended breast-feeding is seen as unusual at best and as "wrong and perverted" as some comments have said about this picture, the cover photo is a picture that did everything it could to make the situation look even more abnormal and wrong.  It has a very tall-looking three-year-old as the child portrayed, and having him standing makes the picture look even stranger, and putting him on the chair extends his length, making him appear even older.  The picture doesn't capture the toddler's baby face, but makes him look older, and the fact that he's looking at the camera makes it weirder, as well.  Compare that photo to another one with the same mother and son, and it's easy to see that if this second photo were the cover story, a lot of the "shock" factor would be gone.
With both mom and son sitting, and the son's eyes closed, you can see how natural (and comfortable) they are. 

The other way, and to me the more significant way, in which Time does the issue a disservice is by the cover title, "Are You Mom Enough?"  The title does two things--both immediately sexualizes the mother to the viewer, and, simultaneously makes breast-feeding the latest battleground of the "mommy wars" perpetuated by magazines like Time for years.  The title sexualizes the mother by connecting the image to the saying "Are You Man Enough" which is often paired with sexy images in our society.  The viewer is instantly ready to see the woman as sex object, and the confusion of seeing her as sex object and also in a mothering role produces immediate discomfort for some viewers, who have placed women's lives into two separate categories of mother and sex object, with women not allowed to be both simultaneously.  As for the mom wars, by giving extended breast-feeding with this title, it both suggests that to not do extended breast-feeding is wrong, and, at the same time, suggests this woman has gone to an unnatural extreme with the subtitle, "Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes..."

What a magazine like Time could do, and should do, rather than look to shock and provoke is have an article on why extended breast-feeding should be accepted, and how this is just one of a range of acceptable choices for a woman to make.  Instead of creating mommy wars, we should acknowledge that there are a wide range of acceptable choices to make in mothering, and support all of them, as a society and as individuals. 

7 comments:

Christine Robinson said...

What is "normal" and "natural" is not necessary best made public for the use of creating mommy wars or making money. And neither of the breast feeding pictures look comfortable or natural to me. And, while it is certainly ok to be a nursing mom and a sexual being, I would maintain that being both at the same time with a three year old boy is not a good idea at all...indeed, I would say that it boarders on child abuse.

Because the fact of the matter is that breasts are sexual as well as maternal, and the connections between those two are deep and strong. That's why breasts are private and kept covered in this and most societies. Time Magazine has certainly exploited women to the hilts with this cover. And this poor boy. How mortified he will be in three or four years. Has his mother no sense of his rights to privacy?

I breast fed my child. It was sweet and we had no problems being discrete in public and we were both ready to move on long before age three. I accept that some kids are not and I don't think that's the main issue here. It's not that the kid is still nursing at his age (carefully dressed and posed to look much older than 3) it is that he's doing it in such a silly way for the benefit of Time's bottom line. This Time cover isn't a picture of breastfeeding. It is a picture of exploitation. It only worsens the problems you speak of.

Cynthia Landrum said...

By saying "It is okay and normal to be a sexy woman and also breast-feed your child. Women can be both mothers and sexual beings at the same time." I am not implying in any way that women should be sexual with children. What I am trying to say is that it is okay for a woman to be a sexy woman--to be perceived as desirable and beautiful--and still be a mother, even while engaging in the act of breastfeeding. A lot of the criticism has centered around the fact that this woman is beautiful, thin, and dressed in tight clothing. One shouldn't have to be ugly, fat, or dressed in baggy clothing--in other words, to be de-sexed in the eyes of society--to be allowed to breast-feed.

villemezbrown said...

I heartily agree with your entire post and thank you for saying it so well. When you said your own feelings were conflicted I was curious, but you make excellent points about Time doing extended breast-feeding, and mothers in general, a disservice with the picture. I personally breastfed my daughter until she was about 3 years and 9 months, something I never would have dreamed I would do in the first couple months after she was born, though I considered myself adamantly pro-breastfeeding even then. I never breastfed in public much though, even when my daughter was an infant. I am torn between feeling that nursing is somewhat private knowing that it was easier and more comfortable for us when we were alone, and realizing that extended nursing is never going to be commonly accepted if people never see it and those who practice it keep it hidden as if it were something to be ashamed of. I don't know if things like the Time cover end up being a net gain or a net loss for breastfeeding. I sometimes get discouraged when it seems like I am surrounded by attitudes that breastfeeding is just a choice from women who seem to honestly believe it makes very little or no difference if they breastfeed at all. :-(

Adele

cjmr said...

Just because we adults have been socialized to view breasts as primarily sex objects (and therefore, extended breastfeeding must be a sexual experience for at least one of the parties) does not mean that a three year old is going to view breastfeeding in that way. A three year old extended breastfed child still sees them as 'comforting part of mom/food source'.

We are the ones projecting sexualization into the picture--not the kid. It's all in our head.

Cynthia Landrum said...

Amen to that. Well said.

Karessa W. said...

Beautifully put. I agree with everything you said. I too have no problem with this photo but have a LOT of problems with the headline. The article is actually really well-written and very informative on the benefits of attachment parenting. We considered Dr. Sears' The Baby Book as our bible for all our infants and would highly recommend it to anyone. It just felt right and coincided with what it felt natural for me to do. I nursed my boys until their fourth birthdays (sadly I was ashamed and refused to let even family know) and I know now it was the right thing to do. I only wish my daughter had lasted that long :)

Karessa W. said...

P.s. As for three year olds viewing breasts as sexual objects, my sons did then and still do call them "nurses" and not breasts (as in "Mom, your nurses make great pillows."). That may cause some confusion when puberty hits but until then, I love it!