Friday, May 11, 2012

About that Time cover...

So yeah, everybody's seen it, right? A lot of my Facebook friends are nursing moms, a lot of them are AP moms, a few of them are even extended-nursing moms, so there's been a lot of talk about this in my circle. I was initially pretty positive on it, though I've grown more ambivalent now that I've started to understand more of people's objections to the cover. I'm going to list the major objections I've heard, and my response to them.

A sensationalist photo will create a backlash against public breastfeeding/extended breastfeeding.

I just flat-out disagree with this one. Social change doesn't occur by staying within boundaries hoping to avoid a backlash. Social change happens by going way outside the boundaries. Even if you go "too far", the overall effect over time is to create more room in the mainstream for moderates.

Did over-the-top Gay Pride parades create a backlash against LGBTQ people? Nope, it normalized being gay, by extending the boundaries and thereby moving the middle. "I don't mind gay people, I just don't like those half-naked leather-wearing dancing dudes in the Pride parades. They are so in your face about it!" That's kind of a crappy thing to say, but the same person fifty years ago probably very much would have had a problem with gay people, even "normal-looking" ones.

By the same token, I don't really believe anybody is saying to themselves, "Well! I was okay with breastfeeding in public, but now I see these people are sick, and I won't tolerate it!" Rather, I think a more likely scenario is people who are leery about public breastfeeding subconsciously saying to themselves, "Well, I don't like that... but at least it's not like that crazy lady on the cover of Time!"

But it's not being sensationalist in order to create social change -- Time is just trying to sell magazines!

Um, yes they are. Is this supposed to be surprising? Next, please.

The woman is too sexy. Show normal breastfeeding moms!

This objection has some merit. But if they'd shown a less attractive woman, wouldn't there be outrage that Time was deliberately trying to stereotype AP moms as plain-looking or homely?

I think the problem here is not so much the Time cover itself, but rather the fact that women in our society are constantly judged on the basis of their appearance, by both men and women alike, far more so than men are. The way a woman looks, and her perceived attractiveness, is already a highly-politicized issue. This is not a good thing. And if you want to argue that this Time cover is contributing to the problem, I think you might have a point. But it's just so hard to say what they should have done. That's one of the most depressing things about misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc.: in a world where privilege operates so pervasively and so invisibly, sometimes it's nigh impossible to figure out the "right" thing to do.

I find the Time cover unremarkable in this regard. It did neither a particularly good job nor a particularly poor job of navigating the depiction of women and the irrelevant criteria on which they are often judged. They probably could have done better, but there's not an easy fix here.

This relates to the next objection, which is:

That's not what breastfeeding looks like at all.

Nope, it's not. This is not what the economy looks like. This is probably not a fairly accurate depiction of what dripping petroleum looks like. This is not what two dogs hanging out together typically looks like.

The intention of a magazine cover is not necessarily to accurately portray anything; rather, it's to create an eye-catching image that captures the flavor of the topic under discussion. We can debate whether this cover did so in a responsible and effective way, but the fact that it doesn't look like real-life breastfeeding is totally irrelevant.

The "Are you mom enough?" headline is insulting to women who don't live up to some imaginary ideal.

Now this, I agree, is problematic. I hadn't really thought about that when I gave my initial reactions to the cover, because I was focused on the image itself, which, as I've described, I don't really have any major problems with. But the caption is troubling, especially since, as I've written about previously, there's a huge minefield when it comes to promoting breastfeeding: pressuring women to do something they don't want to do, treating them as baby factories rather than fully-realized individuals, etc. The relationship between breastfeeding and feminism is complicated, and this headline strikes a really unfortunate tone in that regard.

My wife interprets it as being intentionally hyperbolic, as in, they are picturing a woman doing something that is perceived as pretty extreme, and then the "Are you mom enough?" thing is an acknowledgment that, holy crap, this is some pretty extreme mothering. In other words, it's not supposed to be shaming women any more than a depiction of BASE jumping with the caption "You think you can handle this?" is supposed to be shaming everyone who is not a BASE jumper. She has a point... but it's too easily misinterpreted. I agree this was a mistake, and it is the main factor which has made me more ambivalent about the cover.

In summary...

I don't see anything wrong with the image itself, beyond the fact that it's gotten itself inadvertently tangled in the broader web of gender politics in general, and in that regard it is neither great nor terrible. The headline, however, is extremely troublesome. I think the intention was positive, and that was the way I perceived it initially... but there is just way too much potential downside. In a society where women are constantly dumped on for failing to live up to some ideal or other ("too fat!" "too thin!" "too ugly!" "too slutty!" "too prude!" "too wimpy!" "too bitchy!"), even the possibility that it could be interpreted that way is unacceptable. I like the image, I don't like the headline.


  1. I see nothing wrong with it other than for the fact that my guess is that it would be the smallest percentage of nursing mothers that would fall into this category. There is absolutely no benefit whatsoever to the child at this point in his life to be breastfed, therefore most/many/going on there on a limb to say almost ALL nursing mothers would not be engaged in the practice.

  2. Yeah, I *mostly* agree with that... In places where food is plentiful, the health benefit seems to start plateauing around 12 months and is completely gone by 24 months. Of course, the extended breastfeeding moms that I know don't necessarily do it for health benefits. They do it for the emotional closeness, and for the fact that it's a really useful parenting tool: Nothing calms an upset kid faster than breastfeeding, y'know?

    And in places in the developing world where food may be scarce and nutrition is an issue, the picture is very different. In that case, breastfeeding to 4 or even 5 years old can be a pretty good idea.

    In any case, there is no evidence of emotional harm to the kids for even really extreme extended breast-feeding. For many parents it gets weird after a while, and that drives them to stop; or other considerations may drive them to stop (my wife weaned our oldest at ~18 months after he started biting her too often, for example).

    In any case, the takeaway is: If they feel comfortable doing so, mothers should attempt to breastfeed until at least 12 months (though they should not feel be made to feel like a failure if they don't succeed!). After that, just do whatever works for you and your family.