How Sexy Backfires

Photo source: Elle magazine

Photo source: Elle magazine

I totally agree with the sentiment.

Breastfeeding is normal. We need to normalize breastfeeding through actions, words and images.

But I’m not sure the viral June issue Elle magazine cover does much to “normalize” breastfeeding, as Nicole Trunfio said on her Facebook page.

Don’t get me wrong! I think Ms. Trunfio should be able to wear whatever she wants while she nurses her son, and she should be free to nurse him in public, on set, or wherever. She should be able to look sexy, oily and slim. She should also be able to look frumpy and tired. It is her right to pose however she wants for this or any photo shoot.

But it doesn’t really normalize breastfeeding.

The only complaint I’ve ever heard against public breastfeeding is that men and children, and maybe even women, should never ever have to be exposed to the view of any part of a woman’s breast. This is because, thanks to movies, billboards, MTV, and yes, magazines, our society sees breasts as purely sexual. It sees breastfeeding as sexual.

The breastfeeding part of Ms. Trunfio’s photo is not sexual. Because breastfeeding is not sexual. The breast part of Ms. Trunfio’s photo is, to me, not sexual. Because breastfeeding breasts are not sexual. But the coat slowly falling off the shoulder… that kinda is. And the fact that she’s not wearing anything else beneath the coat… that’s kinda sexy too. The choice to have the baby naked rather than in a cute onesie was probably a conscious one by the designers, since even though skin-to-skin baby time is not sexual, more of that glossy skin is visually sensual. And the chin-up, open-mouth, cheekbone-accentuating head tilt is something we associate with, well, sexy super-model photos.

It’s a sexy photo.

And a sexy breastfeeding photo is totally fine. But it might backfire by confirming a lot of the anti-public-breastfeeding crowd’s bias against breastfeeding. Photos like these say, “breastfeeding can be sexy,” which in many minds could translate to: “breastfeeding on a public park bench is sexual.” This is what a lot of people already falsely believe. They think that women who whip out their nipples to feed a hungry infant or toddler are “flaunting it.” To change that mindset, to normalize (de-sexualize) breastfeeding, images of normal women, in normal clothing, feeding their children in normal scenarios will go the farthest.

It’s the word “normalize,” used by Ms. Trunfio, that I’m picking at. The photo does encourage thoughtful attention to society’s perception of breastfeeding. The photo does underscore the right of all women — even celebrities — to breastfeed wherever they choose. It does say “breastfeeding is not shameful.” It may be, as in Ms. Trunfio’s words, “encouraging, positive and healthy.” But it doesn’t say anything about normal to me. It might even send the wrong message to the people who most need to be convinced that breasts exposed for the purpose of feeding a child are not intended to arouse anybody. That the mother feeding her crying baby halfway through the Target shopping aisle is not trying to pull a Nicole Trunfio.

People who already support public breastfeeding say: “Stunning photo! Beautiful! Simply lovely.” They are not the audience for this campaign.

The audience for this campaign, people who think breastfeeding should be confined to the solitary indoors, the bathroom stall, the blanket thrown over the shoulder, will say: “See?? I don’t want my 7-year old boy to see THAT at the playground.”

It’s fantastic that Ms. Trunfio, Elle and others are keeping the conversation rolling, and working to remove the public shaming of breastfeeding women. Beautiful baby, beautiful woman. Beautiful photo. But it doesn’t really normalize breastfeeding.

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One thought on “How Sexy Backfires

  1. Melissa says:

    Agreed. It doesn’t normalize breastfeeding. It reminds me of watching popular portrayals of heroines in film. Why do the strong and savvy women always have to be super sexy in movies? I’ve heard people say it is because women need to feel sexually free. I agree that women should feel free, in all ways, but that doesn’t free women, because it is catering to the same old ideas that we are here only for other people’s pleasure — even under the guise of our own freedom. It makes me sad and angry, because it is OK to look like this on a magazine cover or in a movie because we (women) are there to look sexual. That is OK in society. But if I want to use my breasts for anything else, that’s not really OK…. My body is not mine, even in a “free nation”. Few things bother me as much as this sentiment.

    And one more thing, is there anything creepier than thinking of someone being turned on by breastfeeding? So creepy.

    Thanks for a great post!

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