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May 31, 2012

Breast of Times, Worst of Times: “Nursing in Uniform” Photos Draw Fire

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The optics of breastfeeding have, once again, set off the chattering classes, causing them to speculate on whether or not such activity is “conduct unbecoming to a military mom.” Anyone who has ever breastfed knows that it requires military-grade grit and determination, but BagNews readers are less interested in a defense of public breastfeeding (for that, see Jezebel’s hilarious rebuttal to critics) than in a reading of the imagery that has set off the latest digital diatribe.

First, let’s examine what makes this week’s photo different from the recent Time magazine cover that also purported to promote public breastfeeding. Whereas the Time cover sensationalized and exaggerated the issue of public breastfeeding in order to promote sales of the (dying) news weekly, this photo emerged in a non-profit context: it is slated for inclusion in a set of images to be released as part of National Breastfeeding Awareness Month in August. Additionally, whereas the Time cover commodified maternal dedication, resuscitated the Mommy Wars, and played on women’s insecurities, this image portrays women as happy, nurturing, and strong. So, what’s the problem? Why is this photo described by some viewers as “disgraceful and disgusting”?

The first question that came to my mind was whether or not the outcry would have been so strong if the picture would have consisted only of the service member on the right. Because she is feeding a single child, her breast is not exposed. Ironically, although we have a high tolerance for exposed breasts in certain contexts in U.S. society (beer commercials, Victoria’s Secret billboards, Hooters restaurants), we’re positively Puritan if a baby is attached to those breasts. Indeed, the nursing blanket is the American equivalent to the niqab.

But I think something more elemental is going on here. What this photo represents is the juxtaposition of things that are not supposed to exist in tandem: women and the military; femininity and strength; nurturance and militarism; the life-giving power of the breast and the life-taking potential of the uniform. Opposition to the breastfeeding service member epitomizes skepticism about women’s ability to be “real” soldiers and “real” women. And it raises the question: if breastfeeding mothers are on our fighting force, does that weaken us? These attitudes, of course, ignore the realities of the modern military in which many jobs are not front-line (or even full-time) positions. And it negates the competence of many working moms whose performance often meets or exceeds that of their male counterparts. Ultimately, the outcry over this image is fueled by military male privilege—something that has been taken for granted for centuries but is now being challenged. In today’s military, women are bringing out the big guns in more ways than one.

– Karrin Anderson

(photo: Brynja Sigurdardottir/ Facebook page)

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