The 'Empowerment' of Breastfeeding Has Become a Farce


Model Mara Martin walked the runway during the Paraiso x SI Swimsuit show on Sunday with her actively breastfeeding baby—or, as Good Morning America nauseatingly put it, she’s a “model mom revolutionizing the runway” with “her most valuable accessory.” Ahahahahaha, children as valuable accessories, I hate the world.

The “empowering” show, in the words of The New York Daily News, was the result of an open casting call emphasizing Sports Illustrated’s desire to showcase—say it with me now—all shapes and sizes. It featured “plus-sized women, women with stretch marks, tattoos and cellulite and a Paralympian with a prosthetic limb,” according to Inside Edition.

The decision to feature a breastfeeding mom, however, was apparently spur-of-the-moment. MJ Day, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit editor, told

When I was talking with the girls backstage prior to the show beginning, I saw that Mara’s baby was sleeping and peacefully nursing. I asked Mara if she would want to walk and continue to nurse. She said “Oh my gosh, yes! Really? Are you sure?”, and I said absolutely! I loved the idea to be able to allow Mara to keep nursing and further highlight how incredible and beautiful women are.

Sometimes “further highlight how incredible and beautiful women are” really means “making so many freaking headlines.” And it did—everywhere from The Daily Mail to USA Today. On Monday, Martin responded via Instagram to the media frenzy. “I can’t believe I am waking up to headlines with me and my daughter in them for doing something I do every day,” she wrote. “I’m so grateful to be able to share this message and hopefully normalize breastfeeding and also show others that women CAN DO IT ALL!”

It is so true and correct that we have a long way to go before normalizing breastfeeding. Breastfeeding moms are still getting kicked out of restaurants and malls. They’re being booted off airplanes. We’re comfortable with breasts in a sexy context—say, within the pages of Sports Illustrated—but not so much in the desexualized context of feeding a child in public (i.e., a context that is not about straight men and their boners).

But there has arisen a subset of “normalize breastfeeding” activism that is less about normalizing the everyday lived reality of lactation, and more about normalizing breastfeeding by making it glamorous and aspirational (see: the rise of the celebrity breastfeeding pic). It’s less about advocating for things like suitable pumping accommodations in the workplace—things that meaningfully allow women to “DO IT ALL”—than it is making breastfeeding beautiful and attractive.

I guess it’s nice PR—breastfeeding thanks you, celebrity and model moms—but it also creates a new ideal for which to strive and buy things. That ideal isn’t just one of maternal glamour, but also a degree of Sandberg-esque “leaning in” that is unrealistic for many, if not most, women. (Consider this iconic pic of Gisele Bundchen casually breastfeeding while getting her makeup, hair, and nails done by a team of helpers.) It’s also the kind of empty Instagram activism that makes it seem like we’ve come farther than we really have—and gives the media and brands like Sports Illustrated a whole new way to sell women’s “empowerment” back to us. That’s not a critique of Martin for deciding to walk the runway while breastfeeding—but it is a word of caution about how we frame it.

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