The supermodel’s breastfeeding ritual may look different than yours, but that doesn’t make her less of a mom.
Last week, Gisele Bundchen shared a Vogue-worthy photograph of herself breastfeeding her 1-year-old daughter Vivian on her Instagram account, while two stylists worked on her hair and another painted her nails. The photo of her looking relaxed and comfortable in a fluffy white bathrobe, combined with her tweet, “what would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only three hours of sleep #multitasking #gettingready,” reflects a reality shared by very few. But is that a reason to launch a fervent Internet and media maelstrom, lambasting and criticizing her for nursing her daughter while working?
Initially, I had little reaction to the image other than a momentary wish that I could’ve nursed my daughter under those conditions. But I’m not a supermodel married to an NFL superstar, so my life’s perks don’t include such things. But hers do, because that’s her job.
Yes, Bundchen is a supermodel graced with mile-long legs and beach-streaked hair who stands in front of a camera or struts down the runway wearing thousands of dollars worth of clothing. But, apparently, because her job is glamorous and she’s not sitting on her couch in the middle of a kiddie mess nursing her child, she has now become the whipping post of angry women who believe that she is portraying an “unrealistic image of motherhood.” So are all beautiful women in glamorous professions not “real” mothers?
Denise Albert, co-creator of TheMom.com, was one of the first to viciously castigate Bundchen for posting the photo. According to Albert’s bio on her website, she is a self-professed “guilt-free workaholic” who is “the mother of two boys…loves business trips because those are the real vacations!…[and] believes she can do it all and doesn’t understand why so many moms feel like they can’t.”
Despite Albert’s confession that she doesn’t get why so many moms feel they can’t “do it all,” ABC News (among other mainstream outlets) chose her as the go-to commentator on Bundchen’s photo.
“I think breastfeeding is a very personal thing and it should be very private,” she told ABC News on Wednesday. “And for her to put this on Instagram while she’s getting her hair and makeup done is a little outrageous, and I think obnoxious.”
Her comments are deeply disturbing because they insinuate two things: Bundchen should not have shown us the reality of her life, which is breastfeeding at a job that requires her to be primped by others, nor should she have breastfed in public.
While both insinuations are disconcerting, the latter, suggesting that she (or any other woman) should breastfeed behind closed doors, has dangerous repercussions. Statements such as these reinforce the often skewed perception of breastfeeding as something akin to indecent exposure and further stoke the fire of the so-called “breastfeeding wars.”
That breastfeeding in the United States is often perceived as something taboo is nothing new. “Barriers to Breastfeeding in the United States,” a chapter from the book, The Surgeon Generals Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, underscores the problem.
Embarrassment remains a formidable barrier to breastfeeding in the United States and is closely related to public disapproval. In American culture, breasts have often been regarded primarily as sexual objects, while their nurturing function has been downplayed. Although focusing on the sexuality of female breasts is common in the mass media, visual images of nursing are rare, and a new mother may have never even seen another woman breastfeeding her child.
Albert’s statements are starting to look less like those of a mother running a high-profile mothering website—replete with celebrity moms and its own fashion line—and more like those of someone who wants women to feel ashamed for feeding their children. Does it really matter that Bundchen was having her hair curled and nails done while she was nursing? Would it have made a difference if she was nursing while sitting in the sapphire waters of some remote island wearing a designer bikini? When her breasts are displayed perfectly in a lacy Victoria’s Secret bra, no one complains that bras should be kept private. It’s only when a baby is attached that criticism begins.
Ms. Albert wasn’t the only one taking nasty jabs at Bundchen.
Singer-songwriter and actress Emmy Rossum was equally outraged, her fury compelling her to recreate the image of Gisele “multitasking.” While Albert wants Bundchen to keep it private, Rossum’s focus is not on the public display but rather Bundchen’s chosen moment to nurse—while she’s being readied for a photo shoot. Perhaps Rossum should have stopped for a moment and realized that for many women, nursing in the workplace (which is what Gisele was doing) is an angst-producing experience that is not always met with employer support.
In 2012, The New York Times published an article discussing how the United States ranked last among the developed world in terms of employer support for breastfeeding. The article emphasized the lack of encouragement both emotionally and monetarily that women receive for wanting to nurse their children. And even if a mother is fortunate enough to nurse her child at work, “employers are not required to pay them for this time.”
If we want to talk about empowerment and giving women options to work and be mothers, then we need to be willing to accept mothers from all sides—the glamorous and not so glamorous. Bundchen’s ability to reach millions of people and show that she’s OK with nursing her 1-year old (we’ve forgotten that she’s kept up nursing her for a year) in front of an entire set of photographers, stylists, and editors, could be used as an effective tool to promote nursing in public and in the workplace. But instead, we’ve chosen to focus on what was being done to her while she was nursing.
All of this points to a deeper issue about ideas of motherhood and what is should look like, and Bundchen’s version is certainly not the norm. But neither is Marissa Mayer’s or Kim Kardashian’s, or that of the woman who lives in poverty, or the woman who nurses too long, or the one who doesn’t nurse at all. The idea that motherhood should—and must—take one narrow form has created a fissure in our culture that only grows larger with comments from people like Albert and Rossum and every other woman who claimed that Bundchen did not look like a “real” mother.
Only when we stop touting some preconceived notion of what a mother “should” be and start focusing on creating laws that enable more women to comfortably nurture their children, will we actually make progress regarding maternal care. Until then, it seems that we will continue the sport of self-righteous jousting—at the expense of mothers and their children.
Maria Smilios is a writer living in Astoria, Queens. Her work as been published in Narrative.ly, Literary Mama, Feministing, Killing the Buddha Blog, The Grub Street Free Press, and Queens Mamas among others. You can visit her at her http://www.mariasmilios.com.