Last week I was interested to see a picture of celebrity Tamara Ecclestone pop up on my newsfeed.
Tamara was shocked. Shocked and saddened that her valiant attempt to normalise breastfeeding through a stunning photoshoot had not been received with the blanket adulation that she had expected. More than that though, for Tamara there is nothing but love in the images and it’s such a shame that it brings out anger in some of you it’s sad for you that that’s how you choose to live. Personally, I think that love may well have been the order of the day, but there were also probably more scatter cushions than there were in the John Lewis Christmas sale this year.
I don’t know why she would expect blanket adulation because my experience of being a woman and having access to the internet has shown me that I could post an image of a packet of crisps with a vagina and somebody would try to concern troll over what birth control it was using. Post a picture of breastfeeding and you are guaranteed to uncover that very special type of person who is mortally offended by a nipple. This is annoying and these people deserve to be treated as the newts that they are and I delight in doing so. However, the four of five newts come with legions of likes, shares and messages of support, as I’m sure Tamara’s PR team know well.
The thing is, we’ve seen these images before, Gisele did it, [here]. Body confidence advocate Tess Holliday used the women’s marches two weeks ago to do it [here] and this week, it’s Tamara’s turn [here]. All of these images have striking similarities. We see beautiful, wealthy, white and glamorous women gazing off into the distance while effortlessly nurturing wide-eyed babies (scatter cushions optional). These women are professionals at re-packaging our bodies as an ideal and selling them back to us, they have a team of PR execs and agents to help them in their quest for self-promotion and this is exactly what’s happening here. Usually we are allowed to be angry about the lack of realism and unattainability of things like the thigh gap, but here the product is breastmilk and it’s different rules.
In the UK, 81% or women initiate breastfeeding whilst they are in hospital. Given that figure, it’s hard to keep a straight face when someone tells you that seeing someone breastfeed is some sort of revelation, but they do. By the time the baby is six weeks old that figure falls to 55% and by six months, it’s at 1%. Of those women who stop breastfeeding, 80% of them desperately wanted to but could not. These women have internalised the mantra breast is best and they’ve given it everything they’ve got but come away feeling like abject failures when their breastfeeding dreams didn’t come true.
For them, when they see an image like that with the words powerful demonstration of love and nurturing it feels like a kick in the teeth. As I imagine it does for those among the 20% who don’t attempt to breastfeed because they’re transgender or survivors of sexual violence, on certain medications or adoptive parents, or because it simply isn’t the best choice for their family. For those parents all they can hear is:
A powerful demonstration of love and nurturing THAT YOU CAN’T GIVE.
That you can’t give, written as if by sparkler; bright, hot, fleeting and gas lit. Or worse, that you are too selfish to give. Of course there is anger.
The late John Berger wrote a lot about advertising and how it works. To skim it, a good advertising campaign creates a tableau that we all recognise subconsciously to some extent, like the Madonna and Child. You foreground a product of lifestyle that is difficult but perhaps not impossible to imagine yourself attaining, this creates envy. Then you distribute it far and wide. If it’s something that everybody can have it simply won’t sell as either an image or product. I mean I love my Henry the Hoover, it never lets me down. I’m never going to make it look like Tamara makes breastmilk look because it is so very mundane and attainable.
If you haven’t yet read Berger’s book Ways of Seeing then you should, because he also makes the point that:
“[P]ublicity turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats […] takes the place of significant political choice. Publicity helps to mask and compensate for all that is undemocratic within society. And it also masks what is happening in the rest of the world.” [Berger: Ways of Seeing, p. 149]
Tamara and her photographer’s image, and those that came before are the epitome of the genre. Glamorous and unattainable, always just slightly beyond reach. Why? Because for all of the hashtags and so called ‘normalising’, they do nothing to address the structural inequalities that mean that none of us really gets to choose to live the way we would really like. They are publicity as a mask.
The NHS is struggling and with maternity services, according to the National Health Executive report of January 2017, disturbingly high numbers of women are experiencing so-called ‘red-flag’ events. What are ‘red-flag events’? They’re events that happen because we simply do not have enough care for women, even to the point that of women not receiving one-to-one care during established labour. If we can’t even ensure that women have that level of care when they’re giving birth can we hope for better during the post natal period and with breastfeeding support? No prizes here for guessing that no, we can’t:
During the post natal period, women were most likely to express disappointment with their experience in the postnatal wards and breastfeeding support. (Source: National Health Executive report of January 2017)
On occasions where we have actually spoken to women who found themselves unable to breastfeed over dismissing them as bitter and hateful trolls, we find that something like 80% cite pain as a key reason that they were unable to continue. If a mother simply cannot get the help that she needs from a dedicated professional then she cannot continue.
Since 2010 the UK has faced austerity and whether or not you agree with the necessity, in March 2016 the Women’s Budget Group found that women are hit harder than men and households headed by women such as lone parents […] are hit harder. What does this mean for mothers? It means cash in hand, manual labour jobs where you can’t have your children with you. It means no maternity leave because you’re restricted to short-term, temporary contracts. It means not being able to afford the bus fare to get to the doctors when you have mastitis or to pay for the prescription for medicines you might need to treat it. It means choosing between heating and eating. It means that having the time, energy or will to go through the pain of establishing breastfeeding may well not be at the very top of your agenda.
If you do have a job that you are able to go back to, there is unsurprisingly yet more bad news. The House of Commons committee on Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination, tells us that not only is there more discrimination reported now than a decade ago, but also there is no legal duty to provide a place to breastfeed or store milk. So even women who are able to afford the highest levels of childcare may not be able to continue to breastfeed their babies until two years of age.
These images are beautiful and modern reinterpretations of the Madonna and child tableau, chic and classic, but they do nothing to address any of the challenges faced by women today. Even if women in their droves started saying that had they just seen one more photo they could have breastfed on, I don’t know if this one would really help. We already know that wealthy, well-educated and thirty something are more likely to breastfeed, it’s already normal. Most of us could only dream of owning that many scatter cushions in a lifetime and one of her shoes could probably cover at least a month’s rent. As a twenty-two year old, pregnant dropout who just couldn’t get her breasts to co-operate, the only thing that image would have done for me is amplify my failure on every single count. With the benefit of hindsight, and good research, I now know that I’m not alone.
Breastfeeding a new baby is already normal, breastfeeding a two year old has yet to become the norm. When every parent has the luxury of choice over how and for how long they feed their babies, it most likely will. Papering over the cracks with a few Instagram snaps and calling your critics angry and bitter isn’t going to cut it. We need to meet every obstacle head on. We need to treat our fellow parents with empathy. Above all, we need to support each other.
Stephanie Maia is a UK-based writer for FearlessFormulaFeeder.com and the #ISupportYou movement.