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Breastfeeding Images Turn Heads At Any Age

The cover of the May 21, 2012, issue of <em>Time</em>.
The cover of the May 21, 2012, issue of Time.

Musings on attachment parenting abound in response to the most recent issue of Time magazine, powered by a controversially candid cover featuring a mother breastfeeding her 3-year-old. The image unleashed a deluge of opinions, as we reported yesterday.

The Washington Post took up the issue with its own visuals editor, David Griffin. "[A good cover] should always be what contemporary social norms can barely handle," he says.

Can society barely handle breastfeeding, or is it the boy's age that puts some on edge?

In a nod to the power of print, The Los Angeles Times says: "The Time cover shows breastfeeding in an up-close-and-personal kind of way that many Americans have never seen before."

Magazine expert Samir Husni tells the L.A. Times that the image and the issues raised in the article make a powerful concoction. That's all the more necessary when covering a topic as old as time: "It's just a story about breastfeeding. Yet it stops you. It shocks you. This is in your face."

The Time photographer's vision was in fact a blend of tradition with something new. Martin Schoeller aimed for a classic image — Madonna and Child — but he explains in the magazine's "Backstory" article that he also wanted something different:

"When you think of breast-feeding, you think of mothers holding their children, which was impossible with some of these older kids. I liked the idea of having the kids standing up to underline the point that this was an uncommon situation."

So how would the world have reacted if the boy on the cover was 3 months old, instead of 3 years? Public displays of breastfeeding — in person and online — have a history of contention, regardless of the child's age.

In 2000, a study in the British Medical Journal examined the portrayal of bottle feeding versus breastfeeding in UK mass media. As the BBC reported:

"The researchers found bottle feeding was shown on television and in newspapers more frequently than breast-feeding, and was presented as less problematic."

The researchers' conclusion, the BBC says, was that these images "may be a major factor behind the reluctance of many women to breast-feed, despite high profile public health campaigns to try to persuade them to do so."

A mother participating in NPR's Baby Project wrote a blog post in July about her own experiences breastfeeding. While personally comfortable breastfeeding in public, she wrote that there were definite challenges:

"Everyone seems to say breast-feeding is best for the baby, and everyone wants mothers to do it, but no one actually wants to make it easy for us to do it."

More recently, mothers have been taking a stand in favor of breastfeeding in public. In December, moms organized nationwide "nurse-ins" at Target stores, Time's Healthland Blog reported. The protest was held in response to a mother being told repeatedly to use a Target fitting room to nurse her son.

Last Saturday, a woman was asked to cover up while breastfeeding at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, KTLA says. She created a Facebook page about her experience.

Not that Facebook has escaped breastfeeding controversies either, as The Huffington Post pointed out in February:

"In what's become an ongoing quarrel, Heather Stultz and Cece Buehner, founders of a "Respect the Breast" community page about breastfeeding on Facebook, are the latest activists to call out the social network for removing photos of nursing moms."

To which Facebook responded, in part:

"Our policies strive to fit the needs of a diverse community while respecting everyone's interest in sharing content that is important to them, including experiences related to breastfeeding."

The Time cover photo isn't the only image accompanying the article, by the way. Schoeller photographed four mothers who follow the attachment parenting philosophy. Do these evoke a different reaction?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.