What's Wrong With This Picture?Rebecca Odes
Today, TIME Magazine sent around an email to drum up attention for their upcoming issue, timed for Mother’s Day. They probably needn’t have bothered including any actual copy: The cover says enough to grab anyone’s eye…and get forwarded all o’er the internets.
The image, as you can see at left, features a very attractive young blond woman breastfeeding her son. The boy is 3, but looks more like a school-aged kid than a toddler. And if his height weren’t enough, he’s propped up on a chair, which brings him to breast-height. Both mother and son are eyeing the camera; she, confrontationally, he, slyly.
Both the cover and the article are clearly meant to be outrageous. I kind of have to hand it to TIME for touching on so many ways of being provocative at once. The picture manages to titillate, nauseate, and maybe even educate, depending on your angle.
Which is exactly why people find the picture so damn disturbing.
This image says a bucketload (check out Carolyn Castiglia’s translation guide). But what strikes me most is how utterly (it took everything I had to avoid replacing those TTs with DDs) manipulative it is. Take the choice of cover model(s). On the one hand, it’s nice to see a representative of a parenting style that defies our expectations (she’s not the crunched out Earth Mama stereotype, visually, anyway). But it’s too hard to put aside the reasons for that choice. Jamie Lynn Grumet is on the cover because her beauty and body make people think about sex, which sells magazines in itself. But it also makes the image 100 times more controversial than it would be if it were a woman who looked less sexy.
By choosing a woman who slides directly into our ideals of sexual attractiveness, TIME calls attention to the fact that people see breasts first and foremost as sex objects. By standing her big-looking son (dressed in camouflage, no less) on a chair, they bring him to the height of a near-adult. And they put both models into a position that has a lot more to do with sex than breastfeeding.
The mother’s stance may have been meant to convey her strength, but that jut of the hip puts her into the classic S-shape, emphasizing her curves. Which, you’ll note, are conveniently of manageable size so as not to threaten the readers with any surplus of flesh. (Imagine the photo with a woman who has breasts larger than a B cup and you’ll get a very different picture—one that would likely have been deemed too explicit for TIME’s readers.)
Having thoroughly enjoyed applying my Art History and Women’s Studies knowledge to the cover photo, I haven’t—and probably won’t—bother reading the actual article. I’ve read enough about Attachment Parenting to last me the rest of my life. (Been there, done that, don’t feel the need to explore it further.) I also don’t feel like taking TIME’s bait. It seems clear that this issue is primarily intended to make people upset, to create a division among women in the name of cultivating controversy and magazine sales. Like many other mothers (and others), I’m not buying it.