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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)

  • Scarabus

    You raise an interesting question in wondering about likely reaction  to just the woman on the left vs. just the woman on the right. Be fun to test that in a little informal survey.

    Whatever else is going on, I think the composition sexualizes the woman to our left. There’s a strong triangle defined by the woman’s head and the kids’ heads. The visible part of the breasts echoes the shape and color of the babies’ heads.

    The triangle is definitely closed, no interaction with the surrounding space. All three are looking inward and to some extent at each. In fact, just to gaze at that closed and private world seems almost a violation.

    • ColinN

      I don’t see how that can be categorized as “sexualization”.

  • T Perky
  • Thomas

    The kerfluffle, obviously, is but a tempest in a tea (D?) cup, but to say it boils down to a defense of male privilege is a bit reductive and dismissive.  I think the complaints about the image (like most positions we don’t agree with) are a lot more interesting if you take them seriously. 
    The empowering, integrative read would probably have more weight if we had a winning military. There is a strong precedent pattern for the narrative (the Navajo code talkers incongruously beating the Nazis, and so on). The problem is we have a military that doesn’t win wars. After years and years and years of getting our asses severely kicked, our military now more than ever looks like the massive, bureaucratically expensive, ineffective, self-perpetuating, training and maintenance jobs program it really is. 

    And the anxiety over the costs of defeat compound as time wears on. The sole great relief from the endless stories of PTSD, amputations, wrecked families, and prolonged trauma was the killing of OBL. For one moment, the armed forces (or at least one exclusive group of guys therein) were the ruthless, fearless, terrifyingly effective killing machine America’s dreamt of since WWII.   The complaint doesn’t seem to be that nursing moms have career opportunities and health care and money for college, but the deal is vectored through an institution whose purpose is triumph in war.  In America, win and all is forgiven. And really, a picture of contented army moms tending to their babies in the park is far less likely to strike fear in the hearts of evildoers everywhere at any time, let alone if it caps a decade of nearly uninterrupted military failure.
     I don’t know, maybe the negative response is also tied to a broader resentment over broader institutional failures, how the banks aren’t really focused on doing what they’re supposed to be doing, nor colleges, churches, etc. And maybe its unconventionality and that it is two moms together overlays all of the DADT and conversations about the institution of marriage? 

    And then there’s a whole different set of loaded associations with what could be taken as the image’s explicit endorsement of the militarization of culture. The claim that the military is so integral, so crucial to family and civic life for Americans that even a mother and child’s most intimate and powerful bond is wrapped in uniform. It’s notable that both OBL and Timothy McVeigh spoke of civilians—specifically including children—as acceptable targets. There are no civilians, both said. We’re all soldiers. Is this a monstrous idea?

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