A close-up portrait of Aisha, an 18-year-old girl who had her nose cut off by the Taliban (2010). The famous O.J. Simpson mugshot, with his skin significantly darkened (1994). A pregnant rape victim from South Sudan (2016). ‘Is God Dead?’ in 1966 in bold red font, and a smiling Ellen DeGeneres came out declaring “Yep, I’m Gay” in 1997. TIME magazine does not shy away from controversial covers. So why, then, was the cover of Jamie Lynne Grumet breast-feeding her son in May 2012 any more shocking than the others?
The article it represented was about the American paediatrician Dr. Bill Sears and his philosophy of ‘attachment parenting’. A cover portrait of a largely unknown old man, however, does not sell magazines. A beautiful young woman nursing does. Not only does it sell, it gets people talking. But really, one has to ask why? Why does a mother feeding her child cause such emotive responses?
Firstly, it’s important to note that breastfeeding is not widely seen in the media. It is one of the invisible aspects of mothering, along with post-partum bellies and other more graphic side effects. The yummy mummies going jogging after dropping the kids at school, or wearing pastel shades with young babes in their arms, do not show the side of mothering fraught with ambivalence, exhaustion and mess. The post-feminist baby is perfectly plump, we just don’t want to see how it came to be so.
Secondly, the shock factor arises from the fact that Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son are not conforming to what a mother and child ‘should’ look like. She is 26 and her son is three (the text at the bottom tells us so). She does not cradle her baby and gaze at him as most mother and child images show. There is no soft lighting, no Madonna references, no short depth of field. Any parent knows that it is not transgressive to nurse a child, and nursing mothers often stand, walk around, or lie down to feed – but to show this is an altogether different matter. It is the lack of conformity to an ideal that the photographer knew he was going for, the photo editors who commissioned the piece hoped for, and even the mother was well aware of. They knew this would be a provocative act, cover or not. The fact that the photographer, Martin Schoelle, was asked to pull out of another job in order to do this one suggests the magazine’s awareness of the controversy it would cause.
Of the very few pictures of breastfeeding mothers in the media, the more iconic ones are of course of celebrities. These include Angelia Jolie for W magazine in November 2008. Reportedly shot by Brad Pitt seven weeks after the birth of their twin children, Jolie is smiling benignly at the camera and cradling her baby on the cover, as if virtuous proof of good mothering. She is no longer really Angelina Jolie at all – but a generic perfect mother and part of the celebrity mother and baby phenomenon which has done much to perpetuate unrealistic myths around motherhood and has become a vital part in the construction of today’s maternal guilt.
The TIME photograph by Martin Schoelle does its fair part in this maternal guilt, but uses different tactics. It shows a young blonde woman standing looking directly to the camera. She has agency and appears entirely at ease. Her nursing son is standing on a chair in order to reach his mothers breast. Its visual signs and signifiers are a semiotic extravaganza. The mother is young, slim and pretty, and counters any clichés of ‘hippy parents’ who are thought to practice extended nursing and attachment parenting. The son is a little plump and wearing characteristically macho army pants. He does not gaze at his mother as common representations of nursing show, but stares straight at the camera. The stool is there as a devise to extenuate his height. There is a touch of Norman Rockwell nostalgia about his face. TIME Lightbox ran some ‘behind the scenes’ pictures, in which classical and iconic paintings adorn the walls of the studio as if influencing the photographer. In addition other mothers were shot to emphasise different ‘types’ of women who practice extended breastfeeding, though they are not diverse at all: all are white, young and slim, and dressed the same in dark colours as if to highlight their figures.
Extended breastfeeding is only one element of attachment parenting. This means that the mother will nurse until the child naturally weans like all animals do. She does not time the act according to government guidelines or doctor’s orders. The breast is best philosophy is a strong one, but not without it problems. Not only does it make women who cannot, or chose not to, subscribe to it feel bad about themselves, but it also has to be done for the ‘correct’ amount of time. What that ‘correct’ amount of time is, is completely arbitrary and depends on who you ask – six months (UK), one year (USA), two years (World Heath Association). Too short a time and you risk not being a good enough mother, too long and you are indulgent. Another case of damned if you do and dammed if you don’t.
So all these swirling, confused and emotive feelings come right along with a picture like this. Add to that American puritanical notions of women’s bodies and decency, and the uproar the cover caused was somewhat predictable. By day two, the cover was featured on 18 late night TV shows across America. Morning segments included The TODAY Show. Online, the cover was on every major news website and parenting blog. ‘TIME Magazine’ and other related keywords for the cover were the top four out of five search terms on Google that week, and on Twitter the day after its release ‘Time Magazine’ was trending in the US by mid-morning and worldwide by noon. That is a pretty impressive reaction to a photograph of a mother breastfeeding her child.
There was vitriol, venom, celebration and confusion. There were even accusations of molestation and abuse. It seemed everyone had an opinion. As with all photographs, and especially those in magazines, the text that accompanies it is key, and it is here where judgment and guilt weigh in. The tagline ‘Are You Mom Enough?’ insinuates that mothering is some kind of endurance test or a competition where mothers either succeed or fail. This added fuel to the fire of the media-led ‘mummy wars’ which see working mums pitted against stay at home mums, breastfeeding against babies who are bottle fed, and other such binaries in parenting aimed at making already vulnerable women feel worse about their decisions. The TIME tagline fed into this culture and was not at all empathetic to the very real pressures and issues of nursing, which beyond the physicality of the act, include enough paid maternity leave, nursing facilities in the workplace (so that new mothers do not have to pump in the toilets), room to store milk and public places in which to nurse. All this without mentioning the weird and confused societal reactions to these things. Needless to say none of which was covered in the interview, which concentrated on biographical information about Dr Sears and was not really useful for mothers who may be looking for impartial information on extended breastfeeding, as one may have expected from such a cover.
So what happened to Jamie Lynne Grumet after being thrust into the limelight? She used the attention to garner support and attention for her charity work for clean water in Africa. The controversy faded almost as quickly as it rose and the following week there was another cover. A couple of years after the media storm images of nursing mothers are still not common, and when we do see them they adhere to sanitised norms. For TIME this was a missed opportunity to further or broaden the stilted cultural conversation about breastfeeding in any helpful way. Instead the magazine continued to perpetuate the limitations of a commercial, white, male gaze. So societal reactions to nursing remain confused and retrograde and social media sites desperately try to get their image policies straight. There are great claims about photography being able to change the world, or at least influence opinion. If only that were true.
Susan Bright is a curator and writer based in Paris.