Tamara Ecclestone, breastfeeding, and how it feels to see representations of love that you’re unable to give

Last week I was interested to see a picture of celebrity Tamara Ecclestone pop up on my newsfeed.

 

Source: BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

Source: BBC.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/38932320

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. baby-jesusEven 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.

#ISupportYou.

Stephanie Maia is a UK-based writer for FearlessFormulaFeeder.com and the #ISupportYou movement.

Our bodies, ourselves: Gisele’s breastfeeding photo and our obsession with our physical selves

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.

Source: http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/entertainment&id=9356910

Source: http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/entertainment&id=9356910

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.

 

Celebrity culture and infant feeding: Does breastfeeding need a makeover, or a makeunder?

There’s a startling disconnect inherent in the way our society views infant feeding. On a daily basis, I see vomit-worthy comments posted on Twitter disparaging mothers who are committing the mortal sin of nursing in public – some recent gems included a tweet from a guy who got his jollies waiting for a nip slip from breastfeeding moms, and several women taking cheap shots at “exhibitionist” moms who were “grossing them out” by feeding their babies in plain sight. Seeing this, I can absolutely understand the need for breastfeeding to get an “extreme makeover” in our culture; I can start to see why online discussions about the need for bottle-feeding support devolve into defensive diatribes about how we (FFFs) are in the majority, and have no comparable need for sisterhood.

And yet, my Twitter feed serves as a stark contrast to my other guilty pleasure – celebrity culture. We may live in a “bottle feeding society”, but breastfeeding has become a rite of passage among the pop-cultural elite. Just for fun, I spent a few days googling every single famous mom who had given birth in the past year or two, and almost every single one had a photo, interview, or online mention about how they were breastfeeding, or at least planning on it. The few who didn’t either adopted, or made it a point to explain why they weren’t (Tina Fey, Bryce Dallas-Howard). From hard-living rockstars like Pink, to pin-ups like Alyssa Milano, January Jones, and Beyonce, to girls-next-door like Sarah Drew, Alyson Hannigan, and Jenna Fischer, to the French first lady Carla Bruni... it seems as if everyone on the A, B, and C-lists were using their A, B and C cups (even the enhanced ones, a la Tori Spelling) for their evolutionary/biological purpose.

I’ve talked before about how important perspective and environment are in this discourse: two women in the same city could have markedly different experiences with infant feeding support, depending on their socioeconomic and cultural surroundings, as well as their individual peer groups. I live in Los Angeles, a stone’s throw away from Hollywood, so looking at this list of happily-lactating celebutantes clarifies why I felt so alone in my bottle-feeding days. But I realize my breastfeeding-friendly area is nothing like where so many women live, places where they feel ostracized every time they lift a shirt to feed a crying baby. I know this alienation is real; one look at Twitter proves that, and then some. I’m not sure what’s worse – enduring the threat of borderline sexual harassment each time you breastfeed, or having famous physicians tell you that you are harming your baby by not trying hard enough to give them their birthright of mother’s milk. I think it’s probably a toss-up, or at least depends on your psychological makeup and personal triggers.

However, I think lactivism needs to take a serious look at US Weekly before focusing more attention on “glamorizing” breastfeeding. It’s been glamorized. And yet, women are still experiencing ignorance and intolerance about nursing their babies (or toddlers). Celebrity culture has tremendous influence – the advertising industry capitalizes on this; think about how many famous folks endorse the products you purchase, directly or indirectly. Numerous articles have been written about how celebrity post-baby weight loss has a negative impact on our collective psyche; we supposedly watch them shrink in a matter of weeks and believe that’s how postpartum bodies should act (incidentally, most of them attribute their miraculous weight loss to breastfeeding).  If we see a Kardashian pushing a certain type of stroller on their insipid reality show, it becomes a hot seller the very next day. Depressing as it is, our society looks to the bobbleheads on the television for guidance on style and substance. So why isn’t it working with breastfeeding?

Seeing Victoria Beckham or Miranda Kerr or Hilary Duff breastfeed doesn’t make an impact, because of course these women are breastfeeding. They have the resources to do so – flexible and accommodating work environments, nannies, housekeepers, access to superior healthcare providers, support, and most importantly, they live in breastfeeding-friendly environments. How is this making breastfeeding look any more do-able to the average woman? It might make it look more attractive, but not more attainable.

So, maybe the focus should be less on giving breastfeeding a makeover, but rather a makeunder. Focus on making it more accessible and attainable to those who are struggling to make ends meet, to those who not only are lacking a nanny and personal trainer, but also a supportive partner; the ability to switch to a breastfeeding-friendly pediatrician; money to see a private lactation consultant, or a car to drive to see that consultant.

And from a formula feeder’s point of view, I want to make one last point: breastfeeding moms have their choice of role models. Maggie Gyllenhal, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Gardner… Women who are opting not to breastfeed have Snooki, who recently was accused of saying breastfeeding is “kind of like you’re a cow” (although for the record, she was just talking about pumping, which she intends to do – she was scared of breastfeeding because her friends had experienced trouble…but I digress):

Source: http://www.hollywoodlife.com/2012/06/11/snooki-breastfeeding-cow-interview/

Speaking of makeovers….

When Lingerie Models Attack*

Oh, Gisele.

I tried not to judge you when you stole Tom Brady away from pregnant Bridget Moynahan, assuming there could be more to the story than the media was reporting. I fought my urge to hate you when you talked about how easy childbirth was for you, and how you made waffles after delivering your baby, and how easily you lost the baby weight. I told myself that I should be happy someone was delivering a positive message about childbirth, rather than the usual scaremongering, and decided my negativity regarding your statements was mostly due to envy.

But in the immortal words of REO Speedwagon, I can’t fight this feeling anymore. I think the public needs to be rid of you, Gisele. Want to know why? Because you don’t think before you speak. You take your good fortune for granted, never stopping to think how your words or actions might affect others. (I bet Ms. Moynahan, who has more talent in her little finger than you have in your entire 5’10, admittedly spectacular body,  has something to say about that).

This morning, as I woke after a mere 5 hours of sleep in my hotel bed, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning (or what I assume a kid feels like on Christmas morning, since I’m Jewish, and Hannukah morning is a relative concept, as we have 8 days of the holiday… kind of takes the oomph out of it, you know?) because I had two amazing interviews scheduled, with women whose work I’ve studied and admired for a long time. I turned the television on as I got ready, and my ears pricked up when the newscaster said something about Gisele Bundchen and breastfeeding. I skipped my chance for a free continental breakfast to stick around and watch the segment, which reported on some choice quotes from a Harper’s Bazaar interview with the world’s highest-paid supermodel. Quotes like the following, per the Los Angeles Times:

“Some people here [in the U.S.] think they don’t have to breastfeed,” (Gisele) told Harper’s Bazaar UK, excerpted by the Daily Mail, “and I think, ‘Are you going to give chemical food to your child when they are so little?’ I think there should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.”

On one hand, I don’t think the opinions of someone who stole a pregnant woman’s husband and made a name for herself hawking expensive and hyper-sexualized lingerie matter enough to be discussed on this blog. But on the other hand, in our celebrity-idolizing culture, famous, beautiful people tend to wield a special type of power. Think about how movie stars can make or break a political candidate or issue (ie, Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon). Hell, Jenny McCarthy – another woman who’s career was based solely on her looks – was primarily responsible for the anti-vaccination movement in the United States. Like it or not, if you’re sexy and in the limelight, you have the ability to effect change.

If the reaction online is any indication, I actually don’t think Gisele’s comments are doing much besides annoying people and giving the talking heads something to laugh about (the morning radio shows here in Boston were having a field day with this one- although some of the comments I heard on one show were noteworthy, and I’m trying to get some transcripts, because I think you guys might find it interesting). The breastfeeding advocates I follow on Twitter and the blogosphere have been conspicuously silent on the Brazilian model’s comments, which I’m thinking might be a pretty loud response in and off itself. I do wonder if this silence is due to embarrassment over the source of the comments, rather than the content – if, say, Gwenyth Paltrow had suggested we make breastfeeding mandatory, would more lactivists be supporting her? I mean, the feminist conundrum that would be caused by taking Gisele seriously on breastfeeding policy boggles the mind… here we are, fighting to de-sexualize our breasts to help more women nurse freely, and she’s the poster child (literally) for the damaging media imagery we rail against.

I’m choosing to believe the more positive alternative – that breastfeeding advocates, as much as they want a world where all mothers breastfeed, would still shudder at the concept of making it a law that women had to do so. Therefore, Gisele’s comments don’t help the cause; rather, they just bring negative press and more fodder for those that accuse well-meaning lactivists of being “breast nazis”.

In light of all this, I propose that we call for an unofficial boycott of Gisele. I think she’s just as counter-productive to the cause of positive breastfeeding advocacy (and providing support for all mothers) as those who don’t adhere to WHO Code, and I see boycotts of those products all the time. Shouldn’t be too hard a boycott – just don’t buy any Victoria’s Secret bras when they employ her as a model. Don’t buy magazines with her face gracing the cover. Maybe send a slew of letters to the editor of Harper’s, like many did to speak out against Hannah Rosin’s article… when you break it down, how are Gisele’s comments any less harmful to mothers (and I mean all mothers, nursing and not) than Rosin’s article was? Plus, I bet if you ask 100 college-age girls (the potential nursing mothers of tomorrow) who Hannah Rosin was, and who Gisele Bundchen was, the vast majority would give you a blank look at mention of the former, and an immediate, Wikipedia-worthy bio on the latter. Like I said, celebrity has influence.

Okay, so maybe a boycott is taking this a bit too far. But seriously, Gisele – do everyone a favor and stop talking. Your mouth may be beautiful, but the words that fall out of it are, on average, rather ugly.

* Please note – I hope I’m not offending lingerie models. Especially considering Fearless Husband shoots (as in photographs, not bullets) a lot of lingerie, which contributes significantly to our family income… I’ve come to know quite a few lovely women who model for the company he works for, and they are nothing like Gisele. I might have some jealousy issues concerning their unbelievable physiques, and I am no fan of the social constructs that propagate the need for sexy lingerie ads,  but I have considerable respect for the models I personally know, and hope my lame attempt at humor isn’t too off-color.

Another Tale from Tweetville

I don’t watch the Real Housewives of anywhere, so the only reason I know Bethenny Frankel is from her books (the “Skinnygirl” series). I appreciate her natural, vegan outlook on things, since it’s the same kind of diet I follow. But it’s not like I’m her biggest fan or anything.

Right about now, though, I wish I could shake her hand. She did something incredibly brave, although I doubt she knows it.

Bethenny recently became a mom, to a barely 5lb little girl, Bryn, born one month early. A few days ago, Bethenny tweeted the following:

@Bethenny: Supplementing w formula, but the dairy one doesn’t agree w bryn.what r the healthiest formulas?

And with that, the dogs were unleashed.

I knew it the minute I saw it. I wished I had some way of contacting her, to tell her the hellfire and brimstone that was about to be hurled her way; to warn her; to protect her. A natural food chef, supplementing with formula? The horror. Plus she had the gall to ask what the “healthiest formulas” were. She-devil.

Sure enough, the celebrihousewifechef was slammed with responses. Many were trying to be helpful (although there were a bunch of sweet, but extremely misguided suggestions for what to feed Bryn). Then there were the guiltmongers.

“There is no such thing as a healthy formula.”

You are the healthiest for her don’t cave! Formula is disgusting, she needs and wants only you you can pump and store your milk”

Trying not to judge, but as a natural food chef, how is formula (hi fruc corn syrup) something you want to feed your infant?”

And so on, and so forth.

Bethenny never mentioned why she was supplementing. Nor should she have to. Maybe she’s having supply issues, or maybe it’s a matter of her daughter’s low birth weight (many preemie moms supplement at first to help their tiny babies gain precious weight). Or maybe it’s none of our damn business.


What kills me is that every time a celebrity announces that she is breastfeeding, she gets virtual high-fives from everyone in the lactivist community. But should the same celeb admit that she is supplementing, she just as quickly becomes persona non grata. Women turning on each other at the drop of a hat (or, rather, drop of a bottle). How is this helpful to anyone’s cause?


Breastmilk is amazing. Breastfeeding is wonderful. Why is it all or nothing? Obviously, I believe that we need to support all women in whatever choices they make for infant feeding, but I get that this comes off as an “extremist” stance to some. That’s not even what I’m talking about here, though. Bethenny is a breastfeeding mom, giving her child the best nutrition she can possibly give her – even if that nutrition comes from a few different sources. Maybe I’m missing some fundamental point here, but shouldn’t supporting a breastfeeding woman mean supporting whatever it takes for her to continue the nursing relationship, whatever that relationship ends up being? Three months or three years? EBF or combo-feeding?


I’m confused.

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