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.