It's the Cleavage, Stupid

I was 'mom enough' to resist Time magazine's bait. Until my kids forced the issue.

Did you know that all magazine covers contain the words “hot” or “sex?”

Of course, they don’t.  But my second-grader believes it is true.

Just one glossy Boston freebie lying on our coffee table was used to make her point. While we keep few of the fashion mags and supermarket rags that are the focus of her headline criticism, she sees and hears enough, just from being out in the world. She knows that “sex” not only refers to gender, but to something that she’s too young to feel comfortable knowing about yet. And “hot” often has nothing to do with the weather. 

So, as long as we were onto uncomfortable topics and magazines, I decided to ask my kids for their opinions on the now infamous Time “Are You Mom Enough?” cover photo.

Whether you are tired of being drafted into the “mommy wars,” or couldn’t care less about what’s happening on its front lines, the May 21 magazine – its cover shows a lithe breastfeeding mom standing, her three-year-old son latched on to her breast – has inspired millions of words of commentary in the past three weeks. I thought I was mom enough to stay mum and keep my laptop shut about it, but I believe that what kids think about the image is important too.

My children don’t care about the mommy wars either. And for them, the breastfeeding photo was equally unimpressive. 

[Me] What’s going on here?

[Them] The boy is sucking on his mommy’s nipple.

[Me] Why?

[Them] He’s getting M-I-L-K.

[Me] Is it a good picture or a bad picture?

[Them] In between. 

You see, it’s a bit of a tortured conversation, because, can you tell – these kids already know what breastfeeding looks like. The mom’s pose is a manufactured and immodest one, but “it’s good because he’s covering her nipple.” And, as my older daughter adds, if you could see less cleavage, the picture would be perfectly fine with her.

She’s a tween who’s in no rush to leave childhood, and is squeamish about images of scantily clad women and suggestive poses. She reads the sometimes contorted bodies and piercing stares in ads as simply odd and not attractive. But I wonder if that’s because these images model behavior she thinks will be expected of her later.

So because they have their own sense of what’s public and what’s private in our culture, my girls are more concerned with the fact that this woman’s chest is partially exposed, than with the fact that she’s nursing her child.  

Bottom line: “He’s her actual son and he’s done that before.”

No big deal.

Without intending to, my children and I have made our own public statements about the normalcy of nursing in public. I’ve walked and nursed a toddler in museums, at parties. No skin visible, and often, no one could tell. Once, to quell a yell, I plopped down in the middle of the frozen food aisle at a supermarket. Regrettably, I realized that I was right under the security camera.  (Great. I wave hello. Hi, guys.) Really, would you rather hear my kid cry, or see her nurse? I know how the flight attendants would vote. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go.

Yet, like many viewers of the Time photo, it occurs to my children that the boy nurser might not want to be seen “on the cover of a magazine sucking on his mommy.” Critics of the mother charge that one day, her son will be ridiculed by peers because of his turn as a cover boy. One of my kids began shying away from cameras when she was much younger than the child on the magazine. But perhaps his mother will have normalized both experiences ­– being photographed and nursing in public ­– that he won’t be psychologically damaged at all. Staying out of the mommy wars means I’m giving that mother the benefit of doubt, trusting that she knows her child and wouldn’t intentionally subject him to emotional pain.

In baby pictures, virtually anything they do can be cute. But once out of that stage, our taking of food is hardly a graceful thing – no matter if the vehicle is your hand, chopsticks, fork-and-knife, or nipple. Who among us likes to be photographed while we’re eating, anyway?


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