TIME magazine recently ran a cover story about long-term breastfeeding. It depicted a cover photo of a woman standing and staring into the distance, a 3-year-old boy standing on a chair in front of her, attached to her breast. Needless to say, the photo and article caused an uproar. Some people thought it was obscene. Others, myself included, thought it was misleading, to say the least.
It doesn't surprise me that breastfeeding -- not to mention breastfeeding to an age that more naturally suits biology -- has come to the fore in the public consciousness. It fits right in with the resurrection of the war on women, statements by politicians that women should never have been able to vote, laws that force women to share their sex lives with employers and basically anything that says women cannot and should not be able to determine anything about themselves -- most especially their sexuality or anything related to their bodies (unless they are getting their breasts cut off because they have cancer, then it is okay).
All this furor over women breastfeeding children beyond an age our culture has deemed appropriate belies a greater underlying issue. Ultimately, any discussion of breastfeeding as obscene is part of this American cultural hostility against women. Our culture would like to maintain that women's bodies are property and should be available at all times as sexual playthings. Seeing the female body as life-giving and nurturing (i.e., breastfeeding) is a far more powerful message, and certainly not something that can be owned and controlled.
The TIME photo is offensive precisely because it is obscene, but it is not obscene because the young child in it is breastfeeding. Rather, it is obscene because it has taken something that is nurturing (and arguably scientifically best for children and women) and turned it into something salacious and indecent. Nothing about the photo is in any way representative of breastfeeding as it is. It seeks to make breastfeeding seem suggestive and forbidden, something tawdry that should be stopped before it gets out of control, something that should be hidden under a blanket. No matter that breasts are flaunted as sexual playthings in advertising and on magazine covers. In the latter context, breasts are kept in their place. It is the former that touches a nerve because it suggests that breasts might have another, more fundamental purpose, one that doesn't involve breasts as property or women as objects.
Perhaps the editors of TIME intended for the photo to inflame and kickstart further discussion about women's bodies and women's place in our culture. Perhaps they understood that breastfeeding is something so fundamental to being a woman, something as life-giving as the birth process itself, that it should be acceptable in our culture, without question and without blankets. Perhaps they wanted to make it loud and clear just how ridiculous it is to claim this act is obscene. Maybe they weren't just trying to sell magazines. I doubt it, but it is possible.
(In the interests of full disclosure, this article was written while my 2 1/2 year old daughter nursed in my lap.)