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.