Why I’m Not Entirely Impressed With The Grihalakshmi Message On Breastfeeding

Posted: March 5, 2018

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There’s a lot of brouhaha over Grihalakshmi magazine’s breastfeeding image, but is it what we SHOULD be focusing on? This author reflects.

A Kerala-based magazine got a model to pose defiantly with a child against her exposed bosom to raise ‘awareness’ on the stigma of breast-feeding in public and people are losing their shit. But of course, the Grihalakhsmi team had to see all of this coming their way and we are all merely pandering to their grand plans to instigate and fan outrage. After all, make hay while the hullabaloo shines right?

Enough has been said about Grihalakshmi’s efforts to normalize the act of breast-feeding and enough has been said about how such partial nudity was not needed to convey a message. What I wish to pontificate on is the message itself. Don’t get me wrong- I am all for breast-feeding and formula feeding and foie-gras style feeding your child with YouTube in the background. As a mother myself, I believe that every woman needs to feel empowered to make the right nutritional choices for her child without worrying about judgment.

What did Grihalakshmi aim for, with the messaging?

grihalakshmi breastfeeding

Image Source: Grihalakshmi

To whoever conceptualized this grand visual of a half-naked mother unabashedly feeding her baby while sporting a sindoor and mangalsutra to prove her ‘married’ status, I wish to ask – What did you wish to achieve out of this image ? Is it- Men, please don’t stare? Or mothers- please don’t care?

Let’s talk about the former- staring men. We’re in a country with possibly the highest density of sleazeballs unable to control their hands and penises. Isn’t the expectation of ‘Don’t look at a naked breast if there’s a child feeding on it’ just a tad too unrealistic?

Then there’s the second aspect of mothers not caring. When I see this model (Gilu Joseph) facing the camera, clearly unfazed by parts of her beautiful body laid out bare, I admire her and yet I wonder- How many Indian mothers will actually do this? If Grihalakshmi is claiming that they wanted to create awareness about breast-feeding so more mothers will feel less shameful about it, shouldn’t they have considered what the average mother seeks when she wants to feed her child?

Too often we get caught up with these campaigns that sensationalize a concept without really outlining outcomes. There is the intention to create controversy and they ride along its success, dividing opinions, getting lawsuits filed, raking in moolah because hey- There’s no such thing as bad publicity right?

We need to ask the right questions as an audience

As an audience, we need to nitpick and ask the right questions instead of getting sucked into this brouhaha.

At the end of the day, we are still Indians who cringe when we see young couples indulge in excessive public displays of affection and fidget when we’re watching a movie with our parents and intimate scenes pop up. That’s just who we are. And such bold campaigns might inspire a certain strata of women but this idea means nothing if we aren’t making better demands.

There are very real issues in this area that need addressing:

  • the need for better lactation support for inexperienced new mothers,
  • provision of discrete feeding areas in public places,
  • inadequate nutrition for mothers in rural areas,
  • the need for breast-milk banks,
  • policies to support breast-pumping at work etc.

These are the real deterrents to breast-feeding for Indian mothers. While Gilu Joseph’s expression and body-language is powerful, in a culture where mothers view feeding their children as a private and possibly spiritual affair, this has alienated a lot of mothers from the intention of the campaign.

I would have appreciated a more nuanced approach to this visual which showed a degree of self-consciousness because that is the reality. As a mother who has breastfed in toilets, under stairwells and even amidst a clamoring crowd at Thirupathi after waiting in a queue for hours, I have had good and bad experiences. Men have stared, men have looked away respectfully, women have come and formed a little fort around me to ensure privacy. As my little girl suckled hungrily and I felt my hardened ducts releasing milk into her gummy mouth, I eventually ceased to care about my surroundings and onlookers. Because here’s the iron-clad truth about motherhood, if you want to do something for your child, you will find a way to do it without waiting for the rest of the world to make it easier for you.

While we are all fighting each other on this spectrum of deciding what constitutes modesty in breast-feeding and whether the nudity for this magazine cover was warranted or not, I wish to tell all you lovely, strong-minded women out there- Do not get sucked in to this debate. It is ridiculous to place the onus on magazines and media to champion such an important cause when their intentions are not completely selfless. Instead of sparring with each other on ideologies, let’s use such opportunities to have meaningful conversations. Let us pledge to abandon labels and judgment and look at the bigger picture.

Featured Image: Grihalakshmi, Unsplash

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