Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi is in the eye of a storm after they featured a woman model, Gilu Joseph, posing as if she were breastfeeding a baby who is not her own. The point of the campaign, the magazine has said, is to increase public breastfeeding and do away with the taboo of baring one's breasts in order to feed a baby.
While one cannot vouch for the sincerity of the magazine's purpose (breasts, after all, are used to market everything from bikes to beverages), it's nevertheless necessary to examine the weight of the arguments made against the picture.
To start with, India is a country of contradictions and it's important to acknowledge that the discomfort with public breastfeeding does not exist across social classes and communities. In rural parts of the country and poorer sections of urban India, public breastfeeding is still quite common. It's 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.
It's dishonest to dismiss either reality. Grihalakshmi's cover speaks to the latter half of society which pressures young mothers to conform to a morality code even as they're managing a baby who is crying for a primal need - hunger. The story featured in the magazine is full of anecdotes by breastfeeding mothers on the difficulties they face and also includes the account of Amritha, a real life mom, whose breastfeeding photograph inspired the campaign.
Why use a model on the cover and not a real mom?
Ideally, the magazine should have used a real mother with her own baby on the cover. The model's body, several have pointed out, does not look like that of a woman who has just given birth. Most women who've delivered a child and are breastfeeding have sagging breasts, with or without stretchmarks, and don't usually look as fresh and rested as Gilu does on the cover.
However, it's important to ask how many new mothers would have been willing to strike such a pose in a conservative society like ours? The magazine has claimed that while the new mothers were happy to share their experiences, they were hesitant to be photographed for the cover. It took a professional model like Gilu to say yes.
A few years ago, Tamil actor Kasthuri was in the news after she did a motherhood photography project for Jade Beall. Kasthuri had posed with her baby boy and this included visuals of her bare breasts. The project was done in the US and it was only later that the pictures created a furore in India after she was recognised in them.
Speaking to TNM, Kasthuri says that she has nothing but respect for Amritha's husband who had put up her breastfeeding photograph on Facebook.
"It's high time we changed this mindset," she says, adding that she found herself to be a subject of discussion once again after the Grihalakshmi campaign.
"When I did it in the US, all I received was appreciation and everyone saw those pictures as a celebration of motherhood," Kasthuri says.
In India, even though several people - men and women, celebrities included - called her up and congratulated her on the pictures, many media outlets used them to titillate and create a "sensation".
"We have to understand that breastfeeding is about the children first," she asserts.
How can you stuff a stranger's breast into a baby's mouth?
In India as well as several parts of the world, lactating mothers have frequently fed the babies of others. It was a common practice for neighbours and relatives to breastfeed a hungry baby if the mother was not available. In fact, rich families employed wet nurses (a lactating woman) to feed their babies. And surely, we've all heard of the Hindu myth in which Putana breastfeeds infant Krishna?
In the urban, modern, nuclear setup, the onus of breastfeeding falls entirely on the mother, making the task quite difficult and exhausting. As anyone who has breastfed will attest, babies demand the breast not only for hunger but also comfort. This is why cranky babies are consoled with nipple-shaped pacifiers when the mother is unavailable or does not want to offer the breast.
Beyond the stress of the photo shoot, which we may outrage about for ANY advertisement featuring a baby, it's highly unlikely that the child in question was traumatised by the model's breast.
The question comes up because we think of the breast only in a sexual context while the organ has an entirely different meaning for babies. They are not conditioned as yet to believe that breasts have no purpose beyond that of titillation and sexual pleasure. For them, a woman's breast is a source of food and comfort and hungry young babies are known to rub their noses against the chest of any woman who picks them up, trying to find the nipple.
It really isn't the end of the world.
Why is the model made up like a typical Hindu wife?
The campaign's purpose, as one understands it, is to make public breastfeeding acceptable among ordinary women. The 'sumangali' image, with kungumam and thaali, completes the 'kulastree' stereotype.
However, if she'd been dressed differently and in a more "modern" way, would the cover have found any more acceptance? It's likely that it would have been dismissed as "jaada" or "parishkaram" or "feminichi" - at the very least, it would have alienated the target audience.
The name of the magazine, let's remember, is Grihalakshmi and not Cosmopolitan. The stereotype is a deliberate strategy.
Why is the model looking at the camera and not the baby?
Pictures in the magazine do have the model as well the real mother looking at their respective babies in hand. However, it's ridiculous to make this an argument against the campaign.
Breastfeeding is not a one time event - women do it for months together, even years, for several times a day. It's unreasonable to expect a mother to constantly look at her baby's face all through the hours spent in breastfeeding. As a mother who breastfed her baby for 1.5 years, I did several things while feeding her - from reading the entire A Game of Thrones series to staring at the ceiling and wondering when my baby would grow up, if ever.
It's fine to look away from the baby when it is breastfeeding - most times, the babies have their eyes shut in bliss as they are feeding anyway!
Why display breasts like this, why not be more discreet?
Actually, pediatricians advise women to display the whole breast to a young baby so the child can latch on properly and feed. Just as you would not like to eat a plate of biryani when stuffed under a blanket, young babies are not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of needing to have their food under wraps. The mother has to "adjust" with the squirming baby and get the job done because of society's (people of all genders included) discomfort with the female body.
Certainly, it is currently unrealistic to expect people to exercise discretion and compassion and give the young mom her privacy when she's baring her breasts. However, moving towards that goal is the expressed purpose of this campaign and it would be self-defeating to have a woman hiding and feeding her baby on the cover.
Is this a defence of the campaign? No. I don't think pictures of breastfeeding women will revolutionize the thinking of those who are not already converts. Not without dismantling the fundamentals of a patriarchal society that is far too used to seeing a woman as an object, no matter what she is doing. It may encourage some women to shed the shame associated with needing to unbutton in public because their baby is bawling. It may do nothing at all, beyond making some perverts happy. I don't know.
What I do know is that human beings are called mammals because of mammaries. Our ability to feed our own. Because women have breasts that produce milk. From there, we've come to a state when we're outraging about whether or not it's okay for a woman to breastfeed on a magazine cover - when most magazine covers have plenty of breast on offer minus a baby. We're okay with sexualized breasts but not breasts that nurture, breasts that sustain life. Breasts that bloody work hard.
It's a sobering thought, ahead of Women's Day.
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