Babble has two fascinating features up this week that sit firmly on either side of the breast vs. bottle debate. One, a slideshow of celebs breastfeeding in public, features photos of famous moms like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Salma Hayek and Gwen Stefani gleefully feeding infants. (In Hayek’s case, she was photographed feeding someone else’s infant – one of the 10 biggest breastfeeding controversies, according to TIME magazine.) The other is an opinion piece by Being Pregnant blogger Monica Bielanko on why she won’t apologize for formula feeding. Titled “Not Breastfeeding is Fine,” Bielanko’s central argument is that because of her strict Mormon upbringing, she has “always associated nudity, especially breasts, with sexuality and then sin and shame,” a correlation that makes breastfeeding difficult, to say the least.
Bielanko has essentially been told to get over her insecurities by breastfeeding zealots who seem to be completely callous toward her emotional and psychological issues yet obsessed with the health of her baby – a child they don’t and will never know. I think it’s one thing to advocate breastfeeding in general, but to attack specific individuals for their choices is a bit much. (Those same breastfeeding advocates willing to attack an individual for choosing to bottle-feed would likely never attack a gay person for choosing to be in a same-sex relationship.) Beyond a certain point, these extreme lactivists are not trying to help anyone, but rather are choosing to attack other mothers in an attempt to legitimize their choices amidst a culture that can seem to be anti-breastfeeding.
Then there are those, like most of the celebrity moms profiled in Babble’s Celebs Who Breastfeed in Public feature, who are simply trying to lead by example. To make it known to the world at large that they are breastfeeding their children, perhaps in the hope that a new mother on the fence about breastfeeding will feel inspired, or maybe just because an essential element of breastfeeding is doing it on demand no matter where you are, even if you’re in the park/at a store/on the cover of a magazine. (Don’t you hate it when your baby bugs you for food while you’re trying to pose for Vogue? Kids!)
Michelle Obama has taken heat from conservative women for announcing last week that she supports the mantra, “Breast is Best,” in the same way that Bielanko (and many others like her) have been ridiculed by La Leche Leaguers. Bielanko says, “Other women breastfeeding in public make me feel uncomfortable, too, even though I think it’s good that they’re doing it. I can’t help that reaction, it just happens. I can disguise my discomfort, I can smile at the breastfeeding mothers, and I do, but I can’t control how I feel on the inside.” She’s certainly not alone. Kim Kardashian famously tweeted about how gross she thought it was that a mother seated near her was breastfeeding in an LA restaurant (though I doubt K.K. made any effort to hide her feelings). As an aside to the First Lady’s new focus on breastfeeding, the Surgeon General has made it clear that “No mother should be made to feel guilty if she cannot or chooses not to breastfeed.” Yet clearly Bielanko does feel guilty, and some would suggest she should.
I understand the guilt Bielanko feels for choosing – in advance, no less – to bottle-feed her unborn son. I did breastfeed my daughter, but only for the first two months, and I felt terrible about having to switch to formula, but my daughter hadn’t gained any weight and my doctor was concerned. Surely I could have continued to supplement the formula with breast milk, but I chose not to. I didn’t want to drive myself crazy trying to feed my child, something Bielanko, in her essay, assures other mothers is okay to avoid. She writes, “If you absolutely hate breastfeeding for whatever reason, stop. Let it (and the guilt) go.”
But what of these celeb moms, many of them photographed dripping in fur and wearing fishnet stockings while feeding their kids from the breast: What kind of message are those images really sending? It’s one thing to be photographed by paparazzi while breastfeeding your kid in the park. It’s entirely another to be dressed for a photo shoot in full makeup and fishnets during suck-suck time. What those images tell me is, “Hey – if you find breastfeeding difficult, it’s got to be your fault. I’m such a natural mother, I don’t even notice this kid hanging off my tit.” I’m looking at you, Jerry Hall (pictured, from the cover of Vanity Fair). All images like Hall’s do is reinforce the bogus idea that mothers really can have it all (a naked baby and a dead tiger draped off of them!) if only they try hard enough, and all that does is continue the cycle of shame and feeling like a failure. (Paging Erica Jong…)
Breastfeeding is a personal issue and should remain a personal choice. I don’t have a problem with anyone advocating for breastfeeding, until that advocacy becomes intrusive. If you’re a mom who really wants to make a difference in the lives of other mothers, try lending an ear or a hand instead of telling a fellow mom where she’s failing and how she can improve according to your standards, which, are likely disappointing someone else out there who’s judging you.