Ah, the power of supermodels.
With one instagramed snapshot, Gisele Bundchen revealed the Victoria’s secret of ideal motherhood. Privileged, serene, and perfect, while simultaneously nurturing her child in a way that earns both the AAP and Mothering.com’s seal of approval. In doing so, she is now credited by fellow celebrity Ricki Lake as “starting the conversation” about breastfeeding. Funny, I was hoping that conversation was finally wrapping up.
I don’t see anything wrong with Gisele’s photo, or her caption (“What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking#gettingready”).
She’s being pampered by a team of professionals, which she graciously acknowledges. The fact that her child is nursing is an afterthought; it’s not the point of the photo, nor should it be. But that didn’t stop the media from turning it into a mommy war, confusing the issue of normalizing breastfeeding with what really rubs some of us like a poorly fitting bra: our resentment of how society has shoved us back into the same stagnant gender roles we’ve been trying to escape for the past century or so.
Before you stop reading, thinking this is just another second-wave feminist rant on biological essentialism, hear me out: I am not suggesting, as Jennifer Block writes for the Pacific Standard regarding feminism and breastfeeding, that any of us should be “politically afraid to admit that women are biologically different and demand support for those differences.” My problem is that once again, I am being reduced to my body parts and how they operate.
As a young woman, I struggled with anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder. I spent hours staring in the mirror, raking my fingernails over my face in hatred for its contours (too ethnic) and pinching my skin (too fleshy) until it bruised. It didn’t matter that I excelled in school, that I was smart and creative – I couldn’t “think” myself taller or blonder, or create a world where looks didn’t matter. And my adolescent brain wouldn’t allow me to escape the prison of these imperfections, especially in a world where the prettiest people always won. Chelsea Clinton entered the White House as a gawky tween while I was in high school; despite the fact that she was probably the smartest and coolest First Kid we’ve had this century, all anyone could talk about was her frizzy hair. And when her father decided to have a very public affair, people seemed more concerned by his mistress’s girth than his indiscretion. These messages permeated my psyche, imprinting one clear message on my young mind: Being a woman meant being judged on your body.
Flash forward to my early thirties – eating disorder solved, happily married, but still staring in the mirror wishing for more here, less there. And then I got pregnant. Watching my body grow didn’t fill me with wonder or pride, but rather horror and disgust. I cherished the child growing inside of me, but hated feeling so out of control. When my pregnancy went south and it turned out my body hadn’t been nourishing or protecting my son properly, when I had to be induced early, when my son couldn’t latch, when my milk was essentially poisoning him – all these things made me resent my physical body even more.
But as he grew, I finally grew up (it only took 36 years). My son loved me for me. Not because my breasts provided him with food (they didn’t). Not because I gave birth to him naturally (unless one considers 18 hours of pitocin and an epidural “natural”). He loved me because of my mind: my ability to reason with him when he was worried, to teach him about the world, to listen to his stories, and to make him laugh. He loved me because I was there for him. Because I was his mother. And none of it had anything to do with my body.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I still hate my body – perhaps even more than ever. Unlike many women, I don’t embrace my stretch marks as “battle scars” or my fleshy lower belly as proof of my ability to give life. I just think, yuck. I wish I was lithe and firm and young. If I had the money, I’d gladly go under the knife for a tummy tuck, or get rid of those pesky laugh lines. I haven’t learned to love my body, or become immune to our beauty-obsessed society just because I am a mother and I was able to reproduce.
But something has changed. I don’t define myself by my body, anymore. I revel in my mind.
And that is what bothers me about our current “conversation” about motherhood, and breastfeeding, and feminism. We are still so focused on our physical selves. It’s great to embrace our differences, and discuss ways that the workplace can better accommodate mothers and their biological processes. But by focusing so much on these constructs of birth and breastfeeding and smacking the labels “progressive” or “feminist” on them, we’re once again defining ourselves by our bodies and how they operate. We accept the way male physicians discuss our feminine capabilities in reverent tones; we discuss our births as ways to reclaim our power as women. We sport slogans on t-shirts and social media like “I make milk- what’s your superpower” with no hint of irony. And what we say to the world, to each other, is “You are your body. Your worth is your body. Your worth is your body’s ability to conform to its biological purpose, and that is what makes you a Woman.”
What message does this send to women who are infertile? Who cannot breastfeed? Who choose to remain childless? What message does this send to our daughters, who observe their mothers spending hours online arguing about what comes out of their breasts (or doesn’t) or what they did with their placentas? Why are we asking are you mom enough, when we could be asking, are you woman enough? Are you person enough?
It’s not that motherhood or birth or breastfeeding can’t be feminist; they can be. But we also can’t dismiss the fact that focusing so much on our physical selves is going to have an impact, in a society so obsessed with perfection. Replace Barbie with the breastfeeding doll, but in the end, they are both dolls. I’d prefer my daughter play with Legos.
Of course, none of this is Gisele’s fault (well, except for the asinine comments she’s made about women gaining too much weight during pregnancy or making it an “international law” to breastfeed for 6 months). Come to think of it, her breastfeeding image might be the perfect representation of today’s “conversation” about breastfeeding, and motherhood in general. If we are going to reduce motherhood and womanhood and personhood to body parts, they may as well be pretty ones.