“As young girls, breasts create a sense of shame and inferiority complex. However, the very same breasts quell world hunger, turning the woman into an angel,” says Malayalam writer Indu Menon.
Indu is a proud participant of Malayalam magazine Grihalakshmi’s ‘Breastfeed freely’, a campaign which promotes free and open breastfeeding among women, as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations.
The magazine has pictures of two women breastfeeding infants (one of them is a model), and is filled anecdotes from mothers.
What inspired this radical campaign was a Facebook photo of a 23-year-old mother, Amritha, feeding her one-and-a-half month old baby. Published by her husband in January, the photo sparked a lot of conversation on open breastfeeding and the campaign was launched immediately after this.
In an interview to Grihalakshmi, Amritha said, “Even when I was in the hospital, I had breastfed openly. So many people told me off for this. Some even said that if I fed my child without covering my breasts, they would dry up very soon. These are all age-old superstitions which are still being spread by young people. Some would even throw a towel on me while I fed my baby and then check if I was trying to remove it.”
The magazine’s cover features a woman model smiling into the camera as the baby suckles on her breast.
Gilu Joseph, the poet, actor and model, who featured on the cover of the issue, said that she dedicated this to all the mothers who want to feed their babies openly and with pride.
“Whatever criticism this picture elicits, I will celebrate happily, as it is for all the mothers who want to breastfeed openly,” she says in the cover story.
Gilu says it was not a decision that her conservative Christian family endorsed. She told Indian Express Malayalam that her mother and her sisters, of whom one is a nun, did not approve of her posing for the campaign.
Saying that breastfeeding is indeed a privilege for mothers, Gilu Joseph, in an interview with Mathrubhumi TV said, “This is nothing to be afraid of or embarrassed about. It is a very genuine need. In today’s society which shuns open breastfeeding, a campaign like this is a great thing and I am proud to be a part of it.”
Moncy Joseph, editor-in-chief of Grihalakshmi says that the campaign is intended for men and women. “So many times, new mothers are helpless when their children cry of hunger, simply because they are unable to feed in public. This has to change. Breastfeeding is a matter of pride, and women have to be able to feed their children freely and openly. You don’t need feeding rooms to feed your children. So we figured that having a discussion around this would be the most relevant thing to do this Women’s Day,” said Moncy.
“Breasts are perceived in a sexual manner, even when a mother feeds her child. Here it is not just men, but even women who stare if a mother feeds her baby in public,” said Moncy.
“When women are asked to go to the feeding room and feed, it is almost like the society is collectively teaching us to hide this very natural thing. This has to change,” said Rose Maria, one of Grihalakshmi’s sub-editors.
However, the campaign has also received considerable flak on social media, for portraying a very sanitised version of motherhood and breastfeeding. Many have questioned why a model and not a real breastfeeding mother was used in the cover page – especially when the baby in the picture was not hers.
A Facebook user, Hasna Shahitha, pointed out how the picture is an unrealistic portrayal of motherhood and breastfeeding with a deliberate emphasis on aesthetic appeal.
“Grihalakshmi’s breastfeeding cover shows a good-looking woman with fair and flawless breasts, a red sindoor symbolizing a married mother, a calm, upright and composed posture while feeding,” she wrote.
However, those working in the magazine said that it was not easy to make real breastfeeding mothers pose for pictures, though many were ready to speak on it. They are however hoping that the first edition of the campaign will motivate more mothers to participate.
The campaign is inviting new mothers to share pictures and experiences of feeding their babies in public, and this will appear in future editions.
Another FB user Dhinil CA wrote, “This is Indian society’s specialty. However, progressive and forward thinking we become, any representation of this progressiveness has to have a Hindu symbolism attached to it.”
Senior journalist Preethi Nagaraj who works in Mysore said, "When one breastfeeds, they don't open their entire blouse and do the job. This picture looks less about mom and baby but more about breast itself. The intent is excellent. I don't know if this is the best way to do a campaign."
Despite the conversations, both positive and negative, campaigns for open breastfeeding have been done by many across the world, but perhaps it’s a first for Indian media.