Along with “work/life balance” and other tired topics, an evergreen issue in the media remains the controversies surrounding breastfeeding. Less than six months ago, Jamie Lynne Grumet lit up the blogosphere by posing for the cover of TIME Magazine while breastfeeding her standing toddler. Outcry included pronouncements that the image was almost pornographic, psychologically damaging to her child, and exploitative of her white, twenty-something good looks. The drama of the image worked as the magazine flew off shelves and was named one of the top ten most controversial covers by the New York Daily News.
Within the “lactivist” community there seemed to be double-edged concern — on one hand, glee that an image of a breastfeeding woman was so publicly displayed — on the other, anger that the image so clearly did not depict the intimacy and bonding between mother and child that they insist breastfeeding promotes.
Sensing an opportunity to “set the record straight” as well as launch their own uptick in cover attention, the nonprofit quarterly magazine Pathways to Family Wellness persuaded Grumet to pose for them, this time surrounded by her husband, adopted son, and cradling her nursing naked now 4-year-old child in her lap. The inclusion of other family members changes the image from one of solo defiance to a message about her family system. On the cover, Grumet still looks directly at the camera, not at her feeding child, but her glance is far from defiant.
Grumet agreed to pose again in order to send a different message about breastfeeding, one she preferred. Grumet has said that this image portrays toddler breastfeeding more realistically, “incorporating the husband and siblings.” Yet, the multicultural family portrait has its own sense of staging. The idyllic family pile-on seems hardly part of everyday life, much less every feeding. Both images – part of the wider debate over breastfeeding — are carefully crafted to tell a particular story.
Some critics have mentioned that while Grumet’s intention may have been to reframe the image of breastfeeding, perhaps unwittingly again, she has contributed to the fanning of the flames around this issue. Others have accused her of “milking the moment.” The breastfeeding support website KellyMom tracked down the three other mothers who were all photographed for the TIME cover. KellyMom interviewed them about their experiences during the shoot, then reaction to, and fallout from the cover. Unfortunately, given the nature of the debate, individual women can often seem like pawns in these ever-intermittent media storms.
Elline Lipkin, PhD, is a Research Scholar with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women. She is the author of Girls’ Studies and The Errant Thread, recipient of the Kore Press First Book Award for Poetry. She tweets at @girlsstudies.