During the past year, opinion within the scientific community that breastfeeding is healthy for mom and baby has reached what I would consider an absolute and enthusiastic consensus. Armed with proliferating studies about the myriad health benefits, in January 2011 Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin released "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding," a comprehensive report on the institutional barriers to breastfeeding. Around the same time, Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign took up the cause and brought breastfeeding to the headlines. Officially, the federal government recommends that moms breastfeed for at least one year, including exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.
This is great! Two problems though. One, the same federal government that "recommends" breastfeeding for one year has failed to mandate paid maternal leave for even one day. It's impossible for some women to follow these recommendations (unless they want to lose their jobs). Yet the media failed to grasp this nuance, and heaps of articles and blog posts told moms to breastfeed for one year without also mentioning that moms might not have the freedom to do so. And thus women were again assaulted with friendly reminders that the nation's health is in their hands (or breasts, as it were), while the finger-waggers in the media don't seem the least bit concerned about family-friendly workplace policies. (Not to mention lack of access to breastfeeding education, lack of access to healthcare that enables breastfeeding, and so on.)
These highfaluting accolades for breastfeeding also stand in awkward contrast to portrayals of breastfeeding in TV and the movies. Bitch has previously covered our media's (read: men in our media's) sophomoric attitude toward breastfeeding, and in honor of Halloween, I offer you some more ghoulish portrayals.
In this scene from HBO's Game of Thrones, Lysa Arryn breastfeeds her sickly six-year-old son before a group of dismayed and horrified onlookers. (Notes: According to YouTube commentators, the boy was aged six in the book, yet the actor looks much older. Also, in the book this scene was a private conversation between two sisters. This is not the first time the TV series Game of Thrones toyed with the book's material in ways that make me squeamish as a woman. For example, they turned a love scene into a rape scene that was meant to be a "tender" rape scene. More on that later.)
Here's another gross-out scene of mom breastfeeding a post-toddler in the unfortunate flick Grown Ups. How much are you willing to wager this scene was not written by a woman?
And in The Hangover, Heather Graham plays a stripper who casually breastfeeds her infant. There's nothing gross about the scene itself, but in this video, Graham inexplicably calls the scene "raunchy" and "weird." I don't think it was raunchy, but it does sexualize breastfeeding, what with Graham playing a stripper and the three men gaping at her. YouTube wouldn't let me embed this video, but here's the link.
These and many other scenes treat breastfeeding as either: 1) sexual, 2) gross, or 3) simultaneously sexual and gross. I applaud any portrayal that lies outside this framework, such as a recent scene from The Office. Celebrity moms, I think, have done a lot lately to normalize breastfeeding.
Hopefully more positive portrayals will move us in the direction of policies that make breastfeeding possible for all women who want to breastfeed. Our current laws are pathetic: federal law requires that "nonexempt employees" be allowed "reasonable break time" and a "non-bathroom place" for women to "express breast milk." (Express means pump. I think we need a better word for this.) There's now a bill under consideration, The Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2011, that would ensure job protection for breastfeeding (errr, pumping) women and extend rights to "exempt employees," who turn out to be just about everyone. Click here to support this bill.
Hey, here's an outrageous thought: Why can't women bring their infants with them to work and breastfeed them there? Whoah, I know, that's a scary thought. Happy Halloween!