The Indian magazine cover that caused an outrage and a breastfeeding mother’s reply to those offended by it
Words By Silpa Satheesh & Monty Majeed
Why is a breast that feeds a child seen as such an inconvenience? Why does it make people uncomfortable? Why is this natural act of a hungry child being fed seen as such a threat to modesty? Why do we want to cover up breastfeeding mothers?
These questions become important in the light of a magazine cover that has caused an outrage in India. Why? Because it shows a woman breastfeeding a child. The campaign, run by the Malayalam language women’s magazine Grihalakshmi, was aimed at increasing awareness about public breastfeeding and shedding the taboo that surrounds this topic in the country.
However, it has caused such a stir on social media, big enough to be picked up by even international publications. The reasons for the outrage are many. Some say that it is not a good representation of a real breastfeeding woman. Some say that the magazine made a bad choice by choosing to have a model with a child not her own pose for the cover.
While some were offended by how the model’s unbuttoned blouse fell far down her arms revealing one of her breasts entirely, others were irked by the fact that she was represented as a married, upper-class Hindu woman, thus reaffirming the ‘good, respectable woman’ stereotypes already prevalent in the country.
A worldwide debate
Breastfeeding in public is a much-debated issue not just in India, but all over the world. And, it is not the first time that a magazine has stirred up a controversy by featuring a breastfeeding mother on its cover. TIME magazine featured then 26-year-old Jamie Grumet, breastfeeding her 3-year-old son, on its May 2012 cover on attachment parenting. The cover caused a huge backlash; even death threats were sent to Jamie. But both the magazine and Jamie stood strong by their decision, claiming that the attempt was to normalise breastfeeding.
Another case in point is that of Elle Magazine, Australia, which released an issue in May 2015, with two different covers featuring model Nicole Trunfio and her son. One of the covers showed her breastfeeding him and this was never put on stands by the magazine, instead exclusively mailed to their subscribers. Justine Cullen, the editor of the magazine, explained her decision of publishing the twin covers: “Not everyone walking through a supermarket is our target demographic, nor are they all going to be understanding of the message behind this cover… If we’re not willing to throw our entire business behind a message, does that mean we shouldn’t make the statement at all?”
In India, it is safe to say that not everyone is disgusted by public breastfeeding. As Sowmya Rajendran notes in her piece on The News Minute, “in rural parts of the country and poorer sections of urban India, public breastfeeding is still quite common. It is in the urban upwardly mobile social classes that the act is associated with shame and new mothers have resorted to poncho-like covers to keep prying eyes away or are left to desperately search for breastfeeding areas in public spaces”.
The cover story of the magazine, in fact, features many women who speak about exactly what Sowmya points out–the “pressure to conform to a morality code”.
One such breastfeeding mother, Silpa Satheesh, took to Facebook with her thoughts on why she thinks this image and the reactions around it have opened old wounds for mothers like her. She touches upon why we need such images out in the public eye, why society needs to stop judging women by their own set of ideas about motherhood and, in short, why you should just let a woman decide what’s best for her and her child.
So here’s that note which uncovers the many layers of the politics of breastfeeding. This note has been translated exclusively for Clay Pot readers from Malayalam.
The breast that offends you
I was prompted to write this after reading the many discussions happening around the cover image of a breastfeeding mother on Grihalakshmi. The cover, which was released as a precursor to the upcoming International Women’s Day, has sparked such an outrage by now. Some called it a vile marketing tactic and others seemed to be offended by its vulgarity.
What seemed quite interesting to me in these debates was how soon women, who had identified themselves as staunch feminists, jumped sides. They were quick to bring in a yardstick of modesty to measure and dismiss this image as one that didn’t quite fit within ‘accepted standards’. Some even went to the extent of equating this image to flashing in public.
I am amazed, yet not so surprised, that a breast that feeds a child is being compared to a horny man’s penis.
But I am still wondering why they care to compare a woman’s breast to a man’s penis, and not his breasts. Isn’t that a false analogy? Anyway, I digress.
I believe that it is each woman’s personal choice whether to cover up or not while breastfeeding her child. Why is a woman breastfeeding in public so offensive? This squeamishness is only reflective of our collective social conscience. And, this is exactly what scares so many women into grabbing that shawl and, even though it may suffocate your hungry child, covering up while breastfeeding. The modesty of a breastfeeding mother and the ‘divine’ bond the act of feeding inculcates in both parent and child is often glorified by society.
I say if your moral codes are so fragile that it would shatter at the sight of an openly breastfeeding mother, then just let it.
As a breastfeeding mother, I am certain that my child and I would any day choose to breastfeed in the open. Unfortunately, being an introvert and having been victim to such unflinching stares and pieces of advice on many occasionsns, I, too, find myself suffocating my son under a blanket while I feed him. Go on, you can call me a coward. And, that’s exactly why I felt happy to see the image of the openly breastfeeding mother on that magazine cover.
I don’t believe that this image would topple over the belief systems of the people here nor bring about a huge change in opinions about open breastfeeding. But let it be. I also agree that there are many issues with the image itself. Yes, it is not fully representative of every breastfeeding woman. Yes, it reeks of a savarna (upper-caste) formula of the depiction of a ‘good woman’. Yes, it ignores everyone who lies outside a heteropatriarchal idea what a family should be.
I am a divorced single parent, by virtue of which alone, I am already an outlier. And, that’s why I ask you not to shun this image too soon.
If looking at it disgusts you, then look at it again. And, then again, and again. Till you don’t feel disgusted anymore. Let values that are crumbled by the sight of a breast be crushed forever.
Now, assuming that this picture was, indeed, like many have claimed it to be, a marketing strategy, let it be. So aren’t you also a part of a society that can’t wait to get its hands on anything that has an image of a breast on it? And, why is this so? Is this society so deprived sexually? So who are those who can’t wait? Are they the same men who claim (in Facebook comments) to “genuinely cooperate and help” breastfeeding women? What a furore a breast and a baby has created! And, funnily, no one is offended by such perverse perspectives. Instead, all the blame lies, of course, on the photograph.
And, it’s not just men. Why do women torture fellow women who don’t subscribe to their versions of glorified motherhood? Some mothers prefer to cover up and some prefer open breastfeeding. There is no question of right or wrong here.
Why do women torture fellow women who don’t subscribe to their versions of glorified motherhood?
In fact, motherhood is something that is always stuck in between. There is glorification from both the ends. Often, even feminists do not openly talk about the problems and pains of motherhood, thanks to this undue ‘glorification’. When they succumb to such assertions that glorify this abstract moral code, they must realise that it is not much different from the right-wing outcry about our lost values and culture. Don’t you think it’s time we let these old habits die and replace them with a wider viewfinder to look at this world through?
I am, however, interested to hear what breastfeeding mothers have to say about this. Representation, you see. But I know that no ‘good, respectable Indian woman’ would dare to speak out about the difficulties of motherhood or breastfeeding, as this would rip them off of their prized possession–their “motherliness”.
There will also be yet another group who would claim that “No one stared at my wife when she breastfed”, or “no one stared at me when I breastfed”, and stay in their bubbles forever, refusing to even acknowledge the realities of so many women world over.
Such photographs are, thus, a good way to bring out those rotting ideas of patriarchy that are deeply imbibed in the minds of the people here. So let that image be out in the open. It presents to all of us an opportunity to deeply introspect. On why a baby having its food bothers you so much. On why a breast that feeds a baby makes you livid. And, on why a woman exercising her choice is just unimaginable and unpleasant to even look at.
Silpa Satheesh is a mother and doctoral student in Sociology at the University of South Florida. She has written earlier on being an undercover breastfeeder here.