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What Gwen Stefani’s Breastfeeding Instagram Photo Says About Motherhood

Gwen Stefani, Gwen Stefani's baby, Apollo, breastfeeding in public, nursing in public, is breast always best?, celebrities breastfeeding, celebrity moms, should women cover up when breastfeeding?

Recently, Gwen Stefani received some attention for posting an Instagram photo of her breastfeeding her five-month-old son Apollo. Many have reacted wondering if the photo was meant as a statement.

As a mother who also breastfeeds, I was heartened by how casual Stefani looked. The picture wasn’t hyperfocused on what she was doing, but neither did Stefani look in anyway embarrassed about nursing her son in public. She just looked like a happy mum doing the most natural thing in the world: nurturing her child.

gwen-stefani-ig

Stefani is certainly not the first celebrity to share breastfeeding photos. Take Gisele Bündchen, an outspoken promoter of breastfeeding, who last December posted a photo of her and her daughter Vivian “multitasking” while three stylists beautified her hair, face, and nails for an event. Or Olivia Wilde, who poses with her son Otis in the forthcoming September issue of Glamour and adds, “Any portrait of me right now isn’t complete without my identity as a mother being a part of that. Breastfeeding is the most natural thing.”

So, if breastfeeding is the most natural thing, why is it a “statement” to post such a photo?

The answer is because many people don’t like to see others breastfeed. I think the technical term is, it squeebs them out. As Denise Albert, co-creator of TheMoms.com, told ABC News, commenting on Bündchen’s photo, “I think breastfeeding is a very personal thing . . . and for her to put this on Instagram while she’s getting her hair and makeup done is a little outrageous, and I think obnoxious.”

This attitude against breastfeeding photos was behind Facebook’s photo policy where, until recently, such photos could be categorized as “nude photos” and not allowed. Facebook’s revision of their photo standards to allow breastfeeding photos is a sign that the culture may be shifting to better accommodate today’s moms and hungry babes.

For some, it’s not even a matter of seeing the breastfeeding as much as knowing it’s happening in their proximity. At least that’s what seems to explain the recent case of a Victoria’s Secret employee telling a customer she had to leave the store when she asked to breastfeed her infant in an empty changing room—an event so bizarre that its best news coverage was that of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. “A Victoria’s Secret in Texas banned a woman from breastfeeding her son in the lingerie store,” Cecily Strong informed viewers. “Apparently, they don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about what breasts are for.” The humiliated mom left Victoria’s Secret and ended up feeding her baby in a bathroom stall.

Stories like these are what fuel people to start ad campaigns to inform the public about the how undesirable it is to breastfeed infants in a bathroom. You only have to do it once as a mom to feel like you’ve hit rock bottom. (Oh, who am I kidding? We haven’t even gotten to what it’s like feeding a fussy baby while knocking elbows with your fellow airplane passengers, or forgetting your breast pump on a business trip and facing the choice between milking yourself like a cow or feeling your breasts explode with pain.)

The point is, nursing mothers have enough crap to deal with—yes, even literal crap—that the last thing they need after nights of no sleep and days of childrearing is to be socially relegated to the outhouse. And the last thing the little baby needs is a tense mommy and a grimy lunchroom. These aren’t second-class citizens; they are our next generation and those making sacrifices to sustain them. They both deserve to be treated like human beings.

Does this mean it’s OK for a breastfeeding mom to just whip it out for all to see? There’s always the story of that belligerent mom who freaked out when shamed for baring her breast in public. Others have raised concerns that the recent rash of celebrity breastfeeding photos creates unrealistic standards for new moms that not only must they breastfeed, but they must look fabulous while doing so.

I think stories of breastfeeding moms who snap at offended onlookers largely indicate how mentally and physically taxing it can be to be a new mom. When one’s baby gives a hunger cry, a breastfeeding mom experiences an intense instinct to meet the baby’s needs. Given this context, I am not surprised some women care less about covering up and just get down to business. Balancing a precarious piece of cloth over your child can be an overwhelming challenge, especially if your baby isn’t cooperating. I myself haven’t completely mastered the art of incognito feeding and feel I need to see my baby’s face to make sure he’s feeding right. But that’s why I’m thankful for practical nursing covers like Bébé au Lait’s that hang over your neck and keep things just between mommy and baby.

The way I see it, if I’d like others to respect and accommodate my breastfeeding in public, I should respect and accommodate those who feel uncomfortable seeing a bare breast in public. Breastfeeding in public—or sharing a breastfeeding photo on Instagram—need not be an opening salvo in the milk wars. The Jamie Lynne Grumets who flaunt their exposed breast on the cover of TIME are the outliers. The majority of us just want to feed our children while maintaining a shred of dignity.

So if Gwen Stefani’s photo tells us anything, it’s not that breast is necessarily and always best, it’s not that everyone need celebrate breastfeeding, and it’s certainly not that breastfeeding is always beautiful and glamorous. It’s much simpler: It’s that a mom nursing and nurturing her child in the beautiful outdoors, not a bathroom stall, is a happy mom. As she should be.

By: Mary Rose Somarriba

Mary Rose is the Executive Editor and Culture Editor for Verily Magazine with years of experience in magazine publishing. She has written articles and organized events on women’s issues for several publications and organizations. Among her favorite things in life are Latin dancing, karaoke, and a Basil Hayden manhattan on the rocks.

23 Comments

  1. Risa says:

    There is an implication here that there is something offensive, sexual, or disturbing about seeing a small portion of breast while a baby nurses. Telling women to use a nursing cover (ever tried eating with a sheet covering you?) is not supportive. And I am trying to understand why Jamie Lynne Grumet “flaunting” her breast (while breastfeeding!) on a magazine cover is an issue to you, but every other magazine cover with a celeb or model in a bikini is not. Bottom line, I am still hearing from this article that breastfeeding is natural, but people might be uncomfortable so you should accommodate them and use a cover. I had higher expectations from a site that promotes itself as body positive and empowering to women.

    • Melody says:

      She’s just saying that we can all be considerate of each other. I can be considerate of breast feeding moms, they can be considerate of me. One group of people does not get a corner on consideration.

      • Michelle says:

        Seems to me all the accomodating is being done by one side.  Nursing moms have to find a way to do it discreetly by either covering up or removing themselves from the room.  You do it by… allowing them to exist?

        The law, and thousand of years of nature, are on the side of the nursing mom.  Recent western culture is on the side of breasts being obscene and needing to be covered.  Get over it.

    • Monique says:

      I have to say that I agree with Risa, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am disappointed by the article. I am all for being considerate of others in public spaces, but 99% of the time, if the non-nursing person is uncomfortable, it would be extremely easy for them to look away (the only exception I can think of is sitting next to a stranger on a plane). It is much easier for that person to look away and reflect on why they are squeebed out than for the nursing mom to struggle with a cover.  

      The point remains that our culture needs to shift away from squeebishness towards breastfeeding in public, and that only really happens when moms nurse in public the way that they need to nurse, whether or not it makes someone else uncomfortable. Right is right, no moral relativity here.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I agree Risa. this author contradicts herself. its the culture that needs to change NOT bresstfedding mothers. Extremely dissappointed by this messed up mixed message

  2. Agnes says:

    I don’t think this article says that at all Risa. Its true, breastfeeding isn’t glamorous, despite the fact the beautiful people make it so, it should be neither shameful nor “celebrated”, it should just be, I still don’t wish to stick my tits out for all to see but If I am discreetly in the outdoors and I need to feed I wouldn’t be embarrassed or flaunting it, we just need to find that perfect balance.

  3. JannElaine says:

    I’m all for breast feeding, in public (if duty calls), however support the author’s call for modesty for the mothers. And yay for Gwen Stephanie for leading the way! Also, a blanket or something to cover the act itself not only allows for modesty of the mother, but a bit of intimacy for the little one (sorry, but in don’t like strangers staring at me chowing down in public either). 

    As to the prior commentor who says that because women pretty much bare all in swimsuit ads, it should be ok for breast feeding moms too…although I would agree that at least the latter has an honourable  purpose, let’s not work on LOWERING the (already low) bar as far as modesty goes. Let’s raise it and support the dignity if women and the value of their bodies! 

  4. Emily says:

    If you need a cover to feel comfortable – go for it. If you don’t – don’t. The world is not embracing moms, in general, so let’s give some breathing room to one another. It is true – most nursing moms are not comfortable exposing their chest to strangers, so why won’t that stereotype die? And why can’t you just look away if you get a glimpse of something you didn’t want to see?

    Another note to add to the urgency when baby gets hungry – let down! If you don’t want to see Mother’s Milk all over the place, then let mom and baby accomplish their “hook up” whenever and wherever they must. I had many moments when I wanted to be covered, but simply could not juggle it until my child was safely latched on and drinking.

  5. Leia says:

    Then don’t stare. I’ve had people spend a minute looking at me trying to figure out what I’m doing just to shake their heads at me. My daughter doesn’t like to be covered, she actually gets more distracted if I try to go to a quiet place because she wants to be part of the action. I still try to be discreet but mainly just so I don’t have to deal with others negativity not because I’m ashamed of what I’m doing or how it may make others feel.

  6. Shelley says:

    Breastfeeding has been going on for eons….. As a mother who breastfed, I will tell you that I did it often in public. I preferred to cover up, because I am a modest person. I find it quite amusing that it is all the sudden an issue because celebrities are choosing to breastfeed. It’s not hard to cover up, nor is it unnatural or uncomfortable. I also find it funny that a woman in a bikini or low cut shirt doesn’t evoke the same response. Much a do about nothing.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I was excited to see the subject of this article in my inbox but disappointed in the actual content of the article. I breastfeed my son when he’s hungry, wherever we happen to be — at the dinner table, in the park, at the mall. I try to be fairly discreet, but I don’t use a cover, and I don’t apologize for feeding my baby. As the author suggests, I have enough to worry about being a new mom. I’m not going to make it harder by also trying to juggle a nursing cover with a squirmy baby. People who may be uncomfortable seeing a bit of breast (not more than they’d see at any swimming pool or on a magazine cover) can look away. If the author herself wants to use a nursing cover, that’s great. But I find it unhelpful to suggest that those who choose not to use a nursing cover are somehow being inconsiderate. 

    • Sarah Siders says:

      Elizabeth, I don’t usually use a cover in public either but I didn’t get the sense that Mary thought it was inappropriate not to use one. I think the moral is that her angle is simply to respect others and be aware of your environment but don’t stress out too much cause a mamas gotta do what a mamas gotta do. 

  8. Jenna says:

    Do you know how filthy public bathrooms are? There are thousands of microscopic particles of fecal matter. Yuck.

  9. Katie Sciba says:

    As a nursing mom, I can say that when you need to nurse, you need to nurse. It can be a dire situation and a stressful one at that, because while I’m hoping for a let-down (which happens only when I’m relaxed), I’m also trying to be cognizant to others’ sensitivity. But honestly, it’s more about me not wanting to reveal myself publicly. Yes, breasts are for nursing, but in American society, the purest of functions can be and often are distorted. Breasts are primarily seen as sexual, and I’d like to conceal myself because both nursing and sexuality are intimate, private aspects of life, and I don’t want them to have insight into my private, physical being; nor do I want to be a stumbling block to others who may see that part of me and think of only sex.

  10. Ellen says:

    Risa, well said!

  11. May Flower says:

    Mary Rose,

    Nice compassion! Excellent read. Thank you! Keep it up.

    xo

  12. Sarah Siders says:

    Thank you for these thoughts here, Mary. I agree with you completely about being respectful and accommodating and asking for the same in return. I am a breastfeeding mom and I sometimes cover up in public but it doesn’t often go well. Nevertheless I do my best to be discrete. I am not embarrassed of what I am doing, but neither do I feel the need to flaunt it. Frankly, I just don’t get all the fuss about breastfeeding. Do it in public but be subtle, if you can, and the world will adjust. 

  13. Gabbi says:

    Feeding is natural, but there are many other natural things that I don’t want to see. Diapering, burping, getting sick…In my opinion this shouldn’t be such a big deal. A child needs to eat when he needs to eat, sometimes in a crowd. Because breasts are sexualized in our culture, why is it so negative to ask a mom who is breastfeeding to use a cover up? 

  14. Meredith says:

    As the third of eleven kids, all of whom my mom breastfed, I remember telling my middle school friends that breasts are for nursing and them being grossed out. I considered their reaction a lack of maturity and understanding of what exactly our bodies are for. Despite what certain factions of feminism and society at large may think, one of the main differences between men and women is that women bear babies and have built-in equipment to feed them, and men do not. The reason people are uncomfortable seeing a mother breastfeed in public is because breasts are over-sexualized and not appreciated for their proper function (much like the rest of female body). I for one get happy when I see a mother breastfeeding her child. I don’t stare or interrupt, because I want to be respectful and stay out of the way, but I appreciate that she’s going the natural route in nourishing her child.

  15. Michelle says:

    I am actually annoyed and bored at the whole breastfeeding issue.  No woman should be discouraged from breastfeeding in public, women feed your babies the best way you can, it is only natural.  Know what else is natural SEX? You know, how you made those babies you are breastfeeding.  I wonder how many women in the throws of passion discouraged their partners from showing any appreciation to that part of the female anatomy.  Expecting people to not see breasts as sexual is never going to happen because it is like saying that a but is only for pooping so why sexualize it? Why admire the gentle curve of a taut bottom?   These things are sexualized because people are sexual creatures.  It just seems so asinine to yap about it all the time. Is public shaming for breastfeeding really such a huge deal?  Does it cause long term damage like post traumatic stress disorder?  Does it stop many women from breastfeeding their little ones? I seriously doubt it.  There are much worse evils in the world, women with REAL problems are being victimized in unimaginable ways. I think I’ll save my sympathy and encouragement for them.

  16. Marcella says:

    I thought the focus of this article was to point out the “outliers”. I have breastfed in public before, and have always felt there is nothing wrong with it. To have a celebrity breastfeeding pic on the cover of a magazine, however, seems like complete overkill to me. Do it in public? Of course! Shove it in the public’s communal face? Well, now we’re just asking for it, aren’t we? I felt her point was that there is a very fine line between empowerment, and antagonism, and I thought that point was beautifully made.

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