The actress made headlines for posing in the pages of Glamour breastfeeding her infant, joining Gisele Bündchen and Gwen Stefani in proving that women can balance motherhood and a vibrant career.
A decade or two ago it would have seemed unimaginable, but now it’s a trend that is almost stunning in how non-controversial it is: Female celebrities have taken to publicizing glamorous photos of themselves breastfeeding. “Glamorous” is the key word here, as these pictures hardly show women looking tired or harried, but always put together and fabulous. While everyone agrees that breastfeeding is a good thing for new mothers to do if they can, is this trend of glamorous celebrity breastfeeding photos a good thing for women?
That it’s a trend is now undeniable, with Olivia Wilde’s upcoming photo series for Glamour. In one photo the actress, wearing expensive designer duds and generally looking #flawless, has one breast out and her 3-month old son attached to it, blissfully suckling away. “Breastfeeding is the most natural thing,” Wilde said to E!, explaining that nursing her son is a big part of her self-image as the mother of an infant.
While Wilde is probably the first to do such an elaborate breastfeeding shot as part of an official fashion photo spread, being beautifully photographed while breastfeeding is already a trend. The model Gisele used Instagram to post an elaborately staged photo of herself getting dolled up for a shoot while breastfeeding a few months ago. Miranda Kerr made a point of being photographed breastfeeding in red pumps to announce her postpartum return to modeling. Gwen Stefani went for a mellower but just as flawless presentation in an Instagram breastfeeding photo with mountains as a backdrop. Pink also got in on the “being dolled up” action with a glamorous Twitter photo of herself working in a breastfeeding session while getting her hair done backstage.
"These photos are not about reducing women to sex objects—or reducing women to mothers, either."
Of course, most women don’t have access to a team of stylists and professional photographers to make them look like beautiful models who just happen to be breastfeeding right now. It would be understandable to feel like these pictures are setting an unfair standard on new mothers, where they feel they not only have to breastfeed constantly but also look perfect while doing so. It would be nice if someone was a little more honest about the exhaustion and bad hair days that go along with new motherhood in the real world.
However, it’s hard not to feel that this trend is generally a good thing for mothers and for women. If nothing else, it’s always good to see breastfeeding normalized. Non-celebrity women have been doing the hard work in this arena, demanding state laws change to protect women breastfeeding in public and having sit-ins of breastfeeding to shame companies that have been caught trying to shame women for breastfeeding in public. Having a little celebrity assistance is sure to help those efforts, and further quiet down the remaining voices that exclaim that there’s something indecent about women breastfeeding in public.
But really, this trend is about more than just normalizing breastfeeding. These photos also push back on the still-persistent idea in our culture that women who become mothers should hang up everything else they are in order to build their entire identity around motherhood. Even though most mothers have jobs outside of the home, there’s still a massive amount of pressure—much of it coming from mainstream media—to believe that you’re failing as a mother if you don’t stay at home. That’s why it’s so cool to see that many of these breastfeeding pictures are “action shots” of women on the job. Sure, their job is to be beautiful for the camera, but by being photographed at work doing something so strongly identified with motherhood, they are making a statement about how having a career and being a mother should not be considered incompatible.
It’s also, let’s face it, a statement against the still-persistent belief that once you become a mother, you’re no longer a vibrant or sexual woman. That’s been slowly getting better in recent years, of course. If nothing else, there’s at least some maternity clothes available that aren’t festooned with duckies and ribbons, when it used to be the case that all the clothes for expecting mothers made them look like they were children themselves. But much of the change towards accepting that women continue to be sexual beings after becoming mothers has been objectifying and male-controlled. (Think of the gross term “MILF”, which reduces women to sex objects and is far more about whether or not men will deign to have sex with you and not about whether or not you feel desire yourself.)
These photos are not about reducing women to sex objects—or reducing women to mothers, either. They are about making a statement against reducing women at all. These are photos where women are deliberately combining many aspects of their lives—their jobs, their sexuality, their motherhood, their taste in clothes and tattoos, their love of the mountains—and saying that all these things can exist in one woman. It’s a statement about women being full human beings. It’s a rejection of a long line of images that imply that working women are frigid, sexual women are childless, or mothers have no lives outside of children, and instead arguing that women shouldn’t be reduced to these tight little roles at all.
Again, there’s no doubt that being told that you can be whatever you want is often read as being told that you need to be all things to all people, and look flawless while you do it. Wilde herself emphasized to E! that the photo of her in Glamour is more an artful fantasy of beauty and perfection than a reality. “I certainly don’t really look like that when I’m [typically] breastfeeding,” she explained. “And there’s usually a diaper involved.” The point of the celebrity and fashion industry is to put a veneer of perfection and beauty on everything, mostly so you feel the need to buy the products being advertised in hopes you’ll look that beautiful yourself.
But at least the fantasy version of womanhood, while still aspirational, is getting closer to what real women aspire to in their own lives: not to be silent sex objects, but to be women who have families, careers, sexualities, and internal lives of our own worth respecting. We’re always going to have celebrity and fashion media foisting impossibly beautiful fantasies on us, but at least those fantasies have something to do with the lives that we really want to be leading.