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Heather Cabot

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Breastfeeding and the Big Screen

Posted: 09/17/08 12:50 PM ET

Angelina is. Halle Berry is. So are Jessica Alba and Christina Aguilera. Open up any celebrity gossip mag these days and along with reports of baby bumps, you're bound to find a "who's who" of breastfeeding. And it's not just People and US Weekly covering the new nursing beat, there are lots of baby blogs highlighting starlets who "pump in style"...while shaming those who are not.

With all of these celebrity moms publicly discussing their decisions to nurse, it's easy to assume Hollywood is embracing the message that "breast is best." But according to new research by an Ithaca College academic, today's moviemakers have some catching up to do when it comes to portraying breastfeeding as a positive and routine aspect of motherhood. Professor Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis found that while it is more common today than 30 years ago for movie audiences to see breastfeeding scenes, when it is depicted, the act is still often sexualized - with the focus on breast size rather than nourishment or the bonding between mom and baby.

"Some viewers may be able to wade through the multi-layered messages about breasts and breastfeeding found in these movies, while others may simply be left with impressions that reinforce confusing, discouraging, or negative attitudes about nursing," writes Rubenstein-Gillis in "Reel Milk," an article published in the October issue of Mothering magazine.

In researching the piece, Rubenstein-Gillis surveyed 150 films from the last few decades that contain scenes of nursing mothers or plot lines that refer to nursing from Pretty Baby (1978) to Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) to Meet The Fockers (2004). As a social worker and assistant professor of health promotion at Ithaca, the mom of two sought to understand how the movies play into mainstream attitudes about breastfeeding. What she found is that Hollywood reflects much of the ambivalence about nursing in society today.

"American women continue to be harassed and kicked out of restaurants, museums, and swimming pools for nursing their babies, despite the overwhelming evidence that breastfeeding is the ideal way to nourish children early in life. Hollywood films illustrate and often validate these mixed messages, and moviegoers continue to be informed by them," she concludes. She suggests that moviemakers consider taking a public health stand by being more mindful of how they depict breastfeeding. In her report, Rubenstein-Gillis also lists a number of films that she believes have done a good job of presenting lactation as natural and run of the mill, including, Baby Mama (2008), Training Day (2001) and Crossing Delancey (1988).

You don't have to be a lactivist to appreciate Rubenstein-Gillis' findings or her perspective. I personally did not nurse my twins. I have written about feeling somewhat deficient for not being able to do so and have ranted here about some of the inappropriate pressure put on me by others who did not respect my privacy. But I do agree that since the entertainment industry and celebrity culture remain so influential, it would seem really constructive for filmmakers to think more about the way they present breastfeeding and to depict it in a way that reflects what it is really all about -- the health and well-being of baby and mother.

What do you think? Do you think entertainment industry can change attitudes about breastfeeding? Or should try?

Please check out my ezine and weekly email The Well Mom for more thoughts and inspiration on motherhood and the pursuit of wellness in mind, body and spirit.

 

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