The recent cover photo of TIME Magazine depicting a mother breastfeeding her almost four-year-old son has caused quite the stir all over America (and has been covered in the news in other countries as well). As part of the parenting style “attachment parenting”, a number of women depicted in the magazine have chosen to breastfeed their children longer than most other women in America (and in the rest of the Western world). Breastfeeding has long been a controversial topic in America as some women choose not to breast-feed at all, while others choose to do so for six months, one year, or much longer than that.
What we will be doing is to shortly discuss the benefits of breastfeeding, for both the mother and the child. We will then discuss why we believe this story received so much attention, focusing on the sexualization of women and the supposed sexualization of the mother-child bond, which was the main concern of some individuals who commented on the story.
Breastfeeding is very beneficial for both mother and child. It creates a connection between the two and has health benefits for both people involved. Breast milk strengthens the child’s immune system and promotes growth and well being (among other things). For the mother, breast-feeding can positively impact the levels of hormones in the body and result in less chance of developing breast cancer. In fact, the only real drawbacks of breastfeeding are that most women cannot further reproduce while breast-feeding (although exceptions certainly exists, such as when women are well fed). Secondly, women who face a lack of resources might have to stop breastfeeding in order to preserve energy (Trevathan 2010).
In the US, only a small number of women breastfeed their one year olds. The reasons for this are plenty. Some women do not want to breastfeed (but prefer using formula or pumping), while others are not able to breastfeed for various reasons. Often, the attitudes towards breastfeeding are culturally dependent. We believe that the article in TIME Magazine received so much criticism because it was produced in a Western country. In many non-Western countries women breast-feed their children longer, while breastfeeding older children is considered natural (Trevathan 2010).
We believe that some of the adverse reactions to the article stem from the notion of sexualization of women’s bodies and the sexualization of the mother-child bond.
The woman on the TIME Magazine cover, Jamie Lynne Grumet states in an interview that some opponents of her attachment parenting style believed that she was engaging in child molestation, and that the CPS should intervene. These comments infer a sexualized relationship between the mother and the child. Women’s bodies and very much so women’s breasts are highly sexualized in our culture, and are viewed as a source of erotic and sexual pleasure, especially so for men. Grumet states that breasts are mammary glands, designed for breastfeeding a child and that there is nothing sexual about breastfeeding. Since the sexualization of women’s bodies (and breasts) is so pervasive in Western culture, many of those who believe that breastfeeding an older child is too intimate or too sexual perhaps view breasts as sexualized pleasure points rather than providing nutrition to children. We believe that the implied sexualized bond between mother and child contributes to the belief that breast-feeding an older child is viewed as inappropriate.
As women in Western culture are often viewed as sexual objects (existing much for male pleasure) mothers are viewed as the exact opposite, much like the Madonna (mothers)/Whore (sexual objects) dichotomy. The mother thereby is supposedly asexual while the sexual object is highly sexualized (often inferred as such by the “male gaze”). The love and bond between the mother and child appears to be compared to the intimate and sexual love and attraction between a heterosexual couple (with heterosexuality being portrayed as the norm and most appropriate form of love). Therefore, the physical act of breastfeeding becomes sexualized.
Another example of the suggested sexualization of mother-child bond could be seen in pictures taken of the former model Stephanie Seymour as her and her son embraced and kissed while on vacation. Seymour received much criticism as the relationship between her and her son was questioned and referred to as too intimate.
How long, or if at all, a woman decides to breastfeed is up to her and either decision should be respected. If we stopped viewing women’s bodies’ and breasts as a place of pleasure for adult men, to be of use only in heterosexual love relationships, perhaps the sexualized bond between mother and child would not be the main focus. What we find worrying is the inferred sexual bond between mother and child, along with the sexualization of women’s bodies. Women should be able to choose, and neither choice should be criticized as “poor mothering”. We need to be more accepting of women’s choices when it comes to child rearing, because they try to do what works for them and their child. There is a constant policing of mothers (very much so from the media and the overall society) where mothers are expected do be perfect, while they can never live up to the impossible expectations placed on them.
Trevathan, Wenda (2010). Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives: How Evolution Has Shaped Women’s Health. New York: Oxford University Press.