A magazine used a model for their cover page. How could they!
Yes, that in a nutshell is the outrage for the week in Kerala. This controversial cover page of the Malayalam womenâ€™s magazine Grihalakshmi has a woman gazing at the reader with a gentle smile on her lips and an infant at her breast. The topic it intended to push was the troubles of breastfeeding in public places. That, sadly, has been drowned in all the noise about whether this was little more than a marketing gimmick, on how they did not use a real mother but opted for a good-looking model (and somehow thus eroticising it), on how no woman would expose her breasts in this manner when feeding in a public place, how it is unfairly critical of all men (#NotAllMen, anyone?), and even how the model is looking at the camera rather than at the baby.
Grihalakshmi has for years been known to do little more than put out recipes, fashion and beauty tips, interviews with film stars and serialised soppy romances. A magazine that propagated very conventional and traditional views of womanhood. It has hardly seemed capable of change and that is what several people have pointed to in this debate.
The strongest criticism against the cover image has probably been that it was merely meant to grab attention and sell copies. Is that a problem? Every media house has its commercial interests to protect. It has to sell its wares, no matter how principled youâ€™d want to sound about it. They are not in it for social work. Yes, media has the power to lead social change, to influence opinions and to provoke thought. But that is not the be-all and end-all of it.
Even if it was only a marketing trick, does it take away from the campaign itself? If you go past the cover and actually read the related article, you would see a healthy discussion on a topic that does need to be talked about. Women are taking to public spaces more than they ever were; public spaces that conventionally catered mostly to men. Where does a breastfeeding mother fit into it? How does she fare when she tries to feed her baby? How often does this issue get space in mainstream media?
When everyone has come to peace with the fact that magazines do indeed hire models for their pictures, that they do need to make the cover page look appealing in order to compete with the dozen other magazines on the news stand, maybe we can start talking about the more uncomfortable topic of how people react to breastfeeding mothers. They get stared at by both men and women, they get told off, they are asked why they donâ€™t carry a bottle of milk instead when they are taking their baby to a public place, they are told they will get the evil eye if they let people see them as they breastfeed.
As for the other criticism being hurled at it â€“ that no woman would expose herself thus in a public space â€“ of course, they wouldnâ€™t. The responses are bad enough when they are covered up and that is the point of the campaign.
Let us not get too literal and claim that the magazine is calling for the freedom of women to breastfeed irrespective of how uncovered they are. The call is for women to be left alone as they engage in that most natural process of feeding their offspring. Here is a forum finally for women to share their experiences on what, to many, can be quite a traumatic process. Let us ignore the commercial intent behind it and grab this opportunity that may eventually lead to safe spaces for mothers.
And the most juvenile response one saw to this entire debate: A picture showing a man urinating outdoors and a woman looking at him, with the caption, â€śKerala donâ€™t stare, we want to peeâ€ť. It does not even merit an eyeroll.