Saturday, October 11, 2008
Talking About Breasts Today
It would appear that the next issue of W magazine is going to feature a cover shot by Brad Pitt of Angelina Jolie breastfeeding one of their twins. It is, as you can see, a gorgeous picture of a tired but radiant-looking new mother. I remember that feeling of being completely overwhelmed and exhausted (and I had my babes one at a time) and yet at the same time, feeling as if I was doing the exact one thing I had been put on earth to do, which was to nurture the baby with the same body which had produced it.
We are, after all, mammals, which means we have mammary glands to produce milk for our young. We don't have to go out and catch bugs to feed them or regurgitate partly digested fish into their beaks. We simply put them to our breasts and with a little instinct on both the part of the mother and the baby and a little learned-skill and some initial pain, milk flows, the baby drinks, all is well.
You can even read while you breastfeed, which for me meant the best of all possible worlds, and probably why I nursed my children for eons.
When a woman nurses, her body produces a hormone called oxytocin, which is a sort of natural bliss-producing drug. You can see its effects on Angelina's face. It was more than brilliant of Mother Nature to develop this system because if there's anything harder than being a new mother I don't know what it is. Especially if you have other children to tend to.
Of course there are a myriad of other reasons to breastfeed our young. And yet, even today, when we know all of the benefits of breastfeeding it's something that many women do as surreptitiously as possible because they never know, no matter how discrete they are trying to be, if some ignorant flight attendant or restaurant server is going to ask her to cover up.
I myself was once told by a mall security guard that nursing my baby in public was indecent exposure. Since my daughter's entire body was under my voluminous shirt at the time I have no idea how he made this deduction but it was completely disconcerting and disturbing and I'll never forget it.
So I love seeing pictures of celebrities breastfeeding their babies. It may be a ridiculous notion on my part but I believe that these images give credence to the fundamental right of mothers and babies to nurse when and wherever babies need to nurse. These pictures say that even famous, extremely busy women know the value and beauty of nursing their babies.
One of my favorite celebrity mother and nursing child images is an Annie Leibovitz portrait of Jerry Hall, former supermodel, former wife of Mick Jagger, nursing her son, Gabriel.
It's a stunning image and strikes me as being, well, ridiculously humorous and at the same time, incredibly powerful.
It shows a beautiful woman, a completely gorgeous woman, dressed to the nines, holding her naked fine, fat cherub of a son to her breast, studying the camera with a powerful, almost cruel gaze. It would appear that in this woman there is at least as much testosterone coursing its way through her veins as oxytocin.
What was she thinking when this picture was taken? Was she thinking about her dinner reservations? Her husband's latest peccadillo? It would not appear that she is worrying overmuch about her child or the damage he may be doing to her fabulous breasts. He is simply there, doing what breastfeeding children do, amusing himself by playing with the neckline of his mother's shirt, nestled into her lap with his foot in her hand. He doesn't know that his father is one of the world's most famous rock stars or that his mother has some of the longest, most celebrated legs in the universe. He doesn't care. He is simply a son, nursing his mother's breast. And she is, along with everything else she is, simply a woman doing what women do, which is to nurse her child.
The image of madonna and child is one of the most rendered works in art and yet, somehow in our culture, the sight of a woman with a baby at her breast is considered a great deal less than sacred and it has taken actual laws to ensure that women can nurse their babies whenever and wherever they deem fit.
I was actually told to go nurse my baby in the mall restroom if I needed to nurse at the mall which just points to the fact that to this young security guard, my nursing was more of an excrement issue than a nutritional one. Let's leave the sacred out of it entirely. And I was the mother of a very young child and I wasn't dressed to the nines but in a very baggy t-shirt and skirt, and I wasn't famous and I was no doubt sleep-deprived and despite the fact that I had already nursed three children and believed to my bones in my right to do so, I was not only taken aback by this stupid guard but I was shamed.
My initial reaction was to feel shame.
And that's so ridiculous.
How I wish I had seen that picture of Jerry Hall before that day. I might have knocked that uniformed and badged yokel to his knees with my powerful, disdainful gaze. I might have whipped out the other breast and squirted him in the eye with a shot of breastmilk.
Or, perhaps, if I had seen that picture of Angelina, I would merely have smiled at him with a blissed-out gaze and told him that surely, he was mistaken and now please, little man, run away because he was disturbing a very sacred moment and was harshing my oxytocin mellow.
I hope that young nursing mothers see these images of celebrities breastfeeding and take them to heart. Give them the courage and spunk to do what they know is right. To not feel shame if some ignorant fool tells them to cover up and go to a stinky public bathroom to nurse her baby.
Because dammit, breastfeeding is our right as mammals, it is our right as mothers, it is as sacred to nurse any infant in the world as it was for Jesus' mother to nurse him.
In my opinion, all nursing mothers are madonna and child, whether they're hanging on the wall of an art museum or sitting at McDonald's and we need to grow up and realize that. That breasts are here for a reason which has nothing to do with titillation. Great word, huh?
And if someone notices a woman nursing her baby in public, he or she has every right to avert his or her eyes if they don't want to see it. In fact, that would be the polite thing to do. Or, they could fall to their knees and worship at her feet.
I think Jerry Hall would have liked that. I think she would have liked it a lot. And Jesus? He would appreciate it too.