Boobs are for Sex: Body Image, Breastfeeding & the Media – Part 1

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By Elizabeth Ganley-Roper and Julia Fuller-Kling

By now, most of us have heard all about the controversial TIME cover published earlier this month. Here on Adios Barbie, Sayantani DasGupta posted “The Breast Wars,” in response to this troubling representation of breastfeeding. As two women passionate about natural parenting, breastfeeding and women’s body image issues, we saw this as an opportunity to explore the issues surrounding the representation of breastfeeding beyond the recent cover and the effects this has on mothers’ body image in a series of two articles. Here is Part 1.  

The way a woman feels about her body when breastfeeding is incredibly complex. Breasts are so sexualized in our culture that they’re viewed as a means for men’s pleasure alone and not for their true purpose, feeding a child. The breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League notes, “Many articles in popular parenting magazines perpetuate this notion with tips on how to treat the man’s feelings about the baby using ‘his’ breasts.”

The site, The Shape of a Mother, offers a safe space for moms to explore how they feel about the dual and often conflicting role of their bodies. Some mothers express concerns about the stretch marks on their “saggy” breasts and tummy, and want their body to be back to the way it was before they had a baby and started breastfeeding, woefully wishing they had “perky” breasts and flat abs. La Leche League says, “The desire to ‘get my own body back’ can be a very serious concern for some mothers.” The language used around our bodies can lead to some confusing expectations. For example, the term ‘post-baby body’ implies that once you give birth your body disconnects from your new child. As if giving birth isn’t a physical and emotional transformation, but rather a temporary phenomena that your body and identity should go through unaltered.

Other mothers worry about how their husbands or partners feel about their breasts. But the majority of mothers on The Shape of a Mother say that their feelings about their body have changed in a positive way thanks to the experience of being pregnant, giving birth, and breastfeeding. Many report having struggled with anorexia and bulimia before having their baby, and now, they feel respect for their body and proud of its purpose. Surprisingly, many mothers celebrate that they experience a feeling of self-acceptance for the first time in their life.

The media, of course, plays a significant role in how new moms feel about their bodies and breastfeeding. Teenage moms are no exception. Mom Cherry Healey interviewed British teenage mothers about breastfeeding and the media in her BBC documentary ‘Is Breast Best?’, and explains, “Whilst making the film I met a group of teenagers who…didn’t want to give it a try. For them, boobs are for one thing only–sex.” Many of the teenage moms reported that they feel “greatly influenced by what the celebs are doing and they had never seen a famous person breastfeeding.”

So, how do (if at all) mainstream pop culture magazines like People, Glamour, and Elle depict celebrities’ experience of breastfeeding?

In People, Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr is shown breastfeeding her 3-month-old baby (see photo above). Originally posted on Twitter by Kerr herself, People magazine responded to the photo by saying, “Kerr was back in beachwear earlier this month, where she showed off her trim and toned figure in a bikini.” When Kerr’s husband Orlando Bloom was interviewed on TV, he was asked how she got her body back into shape so quickly, his answer was “a lot of breastfeeding.” While People commented on her figure, Kerr hadn’t said anything about her body in her original post; in fact she was talking about going back to work and being able to take her baby with her. “Another day in the office. Back to work for VS. Flynn is with me on set! Lil cutie pie,” Kerr Tweeted. So why did Kerr post a photo of herself breastfeeding? We hope that instead of wanting to flaunt her bikini-ready body, she instead wanted to celebrate the fact that she was able to breastfeed her baby while on set. Or show how happy she is to be able to have a job that allows her to bring her baby with her to work, and to be able to continue breastfeeding. It’s disturbing, but hardly surprising, that People failed to comment on this, and instead chose only to focus on how quickly she had gotten back her figure.

On the other hand, model Gisele Bundchen spoke about breastfeeding in direct relation to her body, saying, “I think breastfeeding really helped me keep my figure.” Beyonce also reported: “I lost most of my weight from breastfeeding…I’m proud that my waist came back so fast…and happy that was mostly from the breastfeeding.”

Kelly Preston did not mention her figure in a People article, saying: “When I stop, it’s going to be really hard on me. I love nursing so much. I love the closeness and knowing that I’m giving him the best as far as nutrients and antibodies.” Similarly, Selma Blair told Glamour UK that she breastfeeds in public, a highly controversial act which has led to recent protests by breastfeeding-mothers, saying, “We all have nipples…I don’t care who I offend; my baby wants to eat.”

Then, of course, there’s the TIME magazine cover featuring a provocative photograph of a young, white, blond mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old son. In an interview, the mom featured on the cover reveals that she was breastfed until age six, and reflects on her experience, “It’s really warm. It’s like embracing your mother, like a hug. You feel comforted, nurtured and really, really loved. I had so much self-confidence as a child, and I know it’s from that.”

So, what does all this mean? Unlike the distorted TIME cover, breastfeeding can be and has been, although less frequently, portrayed in a positive, natural light and as a way for mothers not only to provide nourishment for and bond with a child, but also to feel empowered and in touch with their bodies. While the media focuses almost exclusively on the harrowing task celebrities face of losing their extra pregnancy weight as quickly as possible in order to return to their “beautiful” pre-baby selves, and refers to breastfeeding as a means to achieve this, some positive examples have been given by celebrities who rejoice in the feeling of being connected to their body and discovering its purpose. Now we just need to increase those positive examples, which will surely have an effect on breastfeeding rates and hopefully on new mothers’ relationship to their post-baby body.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Related Content:

The Breast Wars: Why Time Magazine is Part of a Bigger Problem

Boobies, Ta-tas, and Cha-Chas, Oh My! The Sexy-fication of Breast Cancer

Got Milk? Angry Moms Protest Facebook’s Discrimination Against Breastfeeding

 

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Comments

  1. Many, many women do NOT lose weight by breastfeeding. It’s extremely misleading and incorrect for those celebrities to say that breastfeeding helped them lose weight, and it’s definitely not helpful to new moms! I will eat my own toes if none of those celebs had personal trainers and meal plans immediately following giving birth. THAT is how they lost the “baby weight” if they even allowed themselves to gain any.

    And I actually find that photo to be SEXUALIZING breastfeeding, not normalizing it. Pictures of made up women wearing red spike heels while breastfeeding? Great. Just another way to tell women, “Better breastfeed or else you’re a bad mum. Oh, and by the way, we expect you to look SEXY while doing it.”

  2. Clement says: