Moi aussi, j’aillaite: Can a Nursing Mom Be Sexy?

by Svea Boyda-Vikander on November 13, 2012

Earlier this fall, a public health campaign in Québec, Canada, ruffled feathers all over… well, all over Québec, Canada.

The 15-second ad aired on public TV during prime-time viewing hours, invoking public outrage on social networks and in the media. A good friend of mine wrote a letter to the government agency responsible, elaborating her grievances: “In Québec we have worked hard as women to be able to make informed choices about our bodies and our lives. Take this ad off the air, and please apologize to the public for insulting our intelligence.” (translated)

What was so offensive about this campaign? Watch it and see how you feel.

(the text says: “I too breastfeed; breastfeeding, it’s glamorous,” with a little pun on ‘amour’ and glamorous)

The complaints made about this campaign – that it depicts breastfeeding in a sexualized light, that it further objectifies women, and that it puts pressure on new mothers not only to nurse but also to wear lingerie while doing it – are valid. I’m the first to say I find it gross when someone makes a sexual comment about me breastfeeding my son (“I’ll have what he’s having!” and “Hey little man, I like boobies too!” are a few of my personal outrages). But I have to admit, there are a few things I like about this public health breastfeeding campaign.

First, it’s a public health breastfeeding campaign. Good public health campaigns draw attention, get people talking, and are effective. They give the public the benefit of the doubt, assuming that we have some agency in our own health choices. And they aren’t commercial advertising. Like many countries with a minor socialist bent (or major – in Cuba they run soap operas about recycling), Canada has a vested interest in preventing sickness in its populace through simple, affordable lifestyle changes. Like breastfeeding.

18 months ago I was sitting in a public health clinic in Montréal and looked up to see a poster of a mother tandem-nursing her toddler and newborn (YES!). The poster had great information about the benefits of full-term breastfeeding, including, “My husband appreciates the fact that I have a secret weapon in combatting toddler tantrums.” Since moving to the US almost a year ago, I have seen precious few public health campaigns, and none about breastfeeding. Instead, I see more advertising and sponsorship from large corporations. Hospitals advertise formula on baby incubators and breastfeeding is no longer shown on Sesame Street.

Second, the mother, Mahée Paiement (a TV personality-cum-spokesmodel), is actually breastfeeding her baby. An image surprisingly rare on either side of the border. Even on products that are supposed to ‘promote’ breastfeeding – from the Boppy Pillow to nursing bras to nursing pads – real baby-on-the-boob nursing is still taboo for advertisers. This refusal to show the actual process of the “beautiful and natural experience” (as one “I-nurse-my-baby-through-my-shirt” nursing bra purveyor calls it) sends a message that, while breast is best, it’s still kinda’ dirty.

Finally, I think this ad could make a difference in some women’s lives. A small but significant proportion of women choose not to breastfeed because their husbands/boyfriends/significant others want the boobies all to themselves. This kind of pressure disproportionately affects poor women without formal education, for whom the social and financial support of their baby’s father is more likely to be a matter of survival. The men don’t want to share; the women can’t afford to lose their men.

This ad could help a man see that he need not lose attraction to his partner if she breastfeeds their child. In becoming a mother, she need not be entirely reconceptualized as sexless. She could be sexy and still nurture their child. Why is this so hard to accept? It links back to the millennia-old madonna/whore dichotomy. A culturally ingrained idea that women can be either sexual or maternal, and nothing in between.

This kind of thinking is damaging because it forces women into the extreme ends of the continuum of human sexuality. You’re seen as either a depraved slut, or a sexless, beatific mom - neither of which is an accurate characterization of any woman 100% of the time. As Robert DeNiro explains in the film Analyze This, he has to have a mistress. Why? Because hey, his wife, “…that’s the mouth she kisses my kids goodnight with. What, are you crazy?”

Some other feminist critics have said that this ad is ‘completely unrealistic’ and that, “Not a single mother nurses like Mahée Paiement does in this ad,” (translated) but that’s simply untrue. Obviously, Mahée Paiement breastfed, at least once, in the way in which she breastfeeds in this ad. Let us not forget, Mahée Paiement is a mother. The assumption that if a woman is dressed up (or not dressed at all), she must not be a ‘real mother’ is false and simply exacerbates the polarization in our thinking about the roles women play and the choices women make.

Women of all stripes and colours breastfeed: women who dress revealingly and women who wear burqas; women who work in the sex industry and women, like Licia Ronzulli (below), who work in parliament; women with all the riches in the world and women who cannot afford formula. The problem with this campaign is not that it shows a conventionally sexy young mother breastfeeding her child. It’s that this is all it shows. A better campaign would show women of all social classes and from a range of ethnic backgrounds nursing their infants.

We should all be free to nurse our children and to define our sexuality as we see fit. Moi aussi, j’allaite.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Morgaine November 13, 2012 at 11:35 am

I can see both sides of this, but, personally, it doesnt bother me.

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Nicole November 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I have to say I like this ad! There are plenty of ads that show nursing as ONLY maternal, or the beast health option, but we’re not complaining about those; so we can’t make the argument that we’re angry because THIS ad only shows one side also… Not to mention, I don’t agree that it only shoes her as a sex symbol, becuase she’s nursing! That right there shows she’s more than sex on legs.

And as for sexualizing breastfeeding I have a few thoughts. Breastfeeding IS intimate, and therefore, in a way, sexual! The problem with sexualizing breastfeeding isn’t that it’s a sexual act, the problem is that it’s no one’s place to proposition that from you; (“I’ll have what he’s having”). If someone were to talk about wanting your breasts while you were not breastfeeding it would be sexual harassment! Instead of trying to de-sexualize breastfeeding, I believe we need to teach people manners!

I think it’s important to see breastfeeding women can still be sexy. Too many men and women are accustomed to those ads that show breastfeeding mothers completely covered “nursing through your shirt” as it was described. Ads and breastfeeding literature describe the health benifits, using cold, sterile, medical terms. These terms have been carefully chosen for the past decade to purposefully desexualize breastfeeding. This intentional desexualization of breastfeeding has lead to parents who feel detached while breastfeeding and created the idea that the breasts need to be ‘off-limits’ while a mother is nursing. I love this ad for showing that the breasts (and the entire woman) is sexual and maternal, and that the two must not be mutually exclusive!

As for the ‘no one ever nurses like this argumen’ I have to disagree much more than the ‘she obviously did’ argument. In the past few months alone, I’ve nursed at least 3 times in a gown and heels. I think it’s great that we’re showing the multiple sides of breastfeeding, and if that means showing them separately (some ads show only the sexual, some only maternal, and some only medical), that’s a start. And this is a great starting point! So instead of criticizing the ad for not being perfect, lets salute it for making a step in the right direction, and have a dialogue about how this ad can be combined successfully with others to help empower all women, not just those who fit into some arbitrary definition of what breastfeeding is ‘suppose to’ be like. Because let’s face it – breastfeeding should be what YOU want it to be, and not what anyone else tells you it should be.

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Brittany November 13, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Personally, I think the snapshot of Pink breastfeeding her daughter is equally as sexy. Photos from other cultures depicting nursing are breathtaking to me. The women nursing in uniform who had their photos taken were patriotic in my eyes. The 4 year old on the cover of TIME magazine with his skinny-jean wearing mother is just as beautiful. And at the end of the day, it may not be the direction all lactativists would prefer, but it is A STEP. And on a personal note, my husband thinks I’m even sexier than before because I carried his children (and I have the stretch marks to prove it) and because I am nourishing them with the best baby food on the planet. That’s sexy. Men are attracted to wide hips and big boobs for a reason. Just saying.

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Chelsea November 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Love what you have to say about this. I completely agree!

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quest November 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm

I wish they would include familes in the breastfeeding ads. Its not just about mom nursing. My husband enjoys being around when I nursed and alwas talked to DS even though he joked he was foinf to steal DS milk lol the baby wasnt having that.

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sj November 15, 2012 at 11:04 pm

I love it. So many moms I know will not breastfeed because they think you can’t dress up or be sexy while being lactating. I like this, I wish it was shown in the US.

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Sasha November 16, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Wow. The connection between sex and motherhood is so obvious it doesn’t bear stating. Breastfeeding is the culmination of a woman’s sexuality. Perverts will be perverts, which is why women in burkas still get raped. Only in a culture of fear and patriarchy could this even be an issue.

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Crystal November 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

I liked the ad… It could be equally as offensive to say that moms who breastfeed AREN’T sexy. Every woman wants to feel sexy, whether or not she’s breastfeeding.

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ThoughtfulBirth January 4, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I just had a conversation with a friend whose wife just had a baby and who felt weird about helping her breastfeed, in front of her mother no less. I told him that breasts are like hands: it’s okay for them to have both sexual and non-sexual functions.

I like this ad for that same reason. It’s okay, and I dare say healthy, for a woman to be sexy AND be a nursing mom. I love Sasha’s comment that breastfeeding is the culmination of a woman’s sexuality. If we could recognize the beauty and health of woman’s sexuality, maybe we could respect and enjoy the intertwinement and natural flow between sexuality and motherhood, instead of causing so much cognitive dissonance by trying to keep them separate!

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Caitlyn January 19, 2013 at 5:36 pm

I ADORE your response! And what a great way to look at it (comparing breasts to hands)! Thank you for posting!

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Scooping it up January 19, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I just wanted to chime in that I LOVE the argument that breasts are like hands. They can be used for more than one thing. They have a place in sexuality and sex, and are tools for other important wonderful, nurturing acts. They are not one or the other. Thanks Thoughtful Birth, the commenter above me.

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Rosie January 19, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I love this add…it makes me feel…sexy. Many days I feel frumpy and dishevled. I have four kiddos, homeschool, take care of our home, etc. etc. and am EBF my 8 mth old daughter (after 3 boys)…this add makes me remeber that YES, I am beautiful and sexy even though I’ve only worn makeup like 5 times in the last 8 mths, darn it!!! People need to calm down. She’s not naked, not showing her breasts, and is a beautiful (dressed up) woman!! She shows me that that yes I can still be sexy (for my hubby) and be a mom of four with a crazy schedule..tired, overwhelmed sometimes etc. This add is inspiring and makes me feel good as a woman. :)

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Rosie January 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Actually, to correct, the picture does it more than the ad, but the ad didn’t make me feel dirty or anything. I thought it was a great play on the imagination. You think it’s going to be this provacative sexy ad and then BAM, it’s a a beautiful mama breatsfeeding. I think it portrays to men, hey – your beautiful wife can is MORE than either your just your lover or just your child’s mother..she is many things and plays many roles as a woman and they are ALL beautiful. ♥

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Caitlyn January 19, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Personally, I really like this ad. First of all, it’s a beautiful, glamorous woman making a wonderful choice by breastfeeding her baby. A viewer could see that and think “Wow, if she’s doing that, I can too”. Secondly, I saw that and actually felt a little better about myself. It made me feel like the message they were putting out was that breastfeeding makes you beautiful, or makes you feel beautiful. I can see myself sitting on the couch, being a few days overdue for a shower and feeling frumpy, seeing that commercial and it making me feel better. Just my two cents. :)

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Rose January 19, 2013 at 6:30 pm

The ad doesn’t bother me. I bought a few sexy nursing bras for myself recently. :)

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Missy January 19, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I think the ad is pretty cool! I breastfed all 4 of my kids and not once did I ever have anyone complain or ask me to move/stop. Some of my favorite times (besides in the middle of the night) were when I got home from a fancy night out, and I was all dressed up! <3

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leah January 20, 2013 at 12:14 am

i liked the ad, i think women can be sexy and be moms, of course! but i personally don’t like it when my husband goes near my breasts because i spend so much time with my daughter on them, it makes me feel uncomfortable. i think it’s personal preference. just like sex during pregnancy. i’m grossed out by that too, so maybe my mind can’t compartmentalize like that. one at a time.. one at a time.. he can wait. and if not, he wasn’t worth it to begin with.

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Cara January 20, 2013 at 8:27 am

Love this ad! :-) This would accurate depict my breastfeeding life from time to time.

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Jeanne Medina January 24, 2013 at 11:19 am

I do not see why anyone would complain about this ad. It’s not sexual at all. So it shows high heels. No, probably not great for her feet or back, but she’s preventing breast cancer, so it still counts for public health for both her and the child. Nothing offensive here at all.

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Riley Romatz March 2, 2013 at 6:10 am

I understand what they were trying to get across. Even though my dad thinks my mom is the hottest thing since pop-tarts, she didnt think that she was allowed to be hot when she was nursing, and she was constantly pregnant. When I had my daughter (who I’m still nursing) my husband told me how hot I was and that a pregnant or nursing woman is the most beautiful kind of woman out there. He always encourages me to stick with nursing when I get frustrated. That and he’s not looking forward to my boobies getting smaller again when I stop nursing! :P

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Melissa July 17, 2013 at 10:55 pm

I was expecting something really edgy when I pushed play to that ad, so I prepared myself mentally… And then it was over, and I thought, “Really? Was that it?”

AMEN to ThoughtfulBirth’s comment a million times over.

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