Social media is abuzz over actress Olivia Wilde, who posed breastfeeding her infant son Otis in photos taken for the September issue of Glamour Magazine. Although the artistic photos received a glowing reception from Wilde's Twitter followers, an onslaught of negative comments ensued as they went viral. The backlash reflects our culture's skewed view of femininity, which ultimately stigmatizes the most natural maternal behaviors. Despite all of the attention on breastfeeding, the controversy distracts from the important issue of creating meaningful policy changes to support families, including women who are trying to breastfeed.
Wilde addressed the heart of her message on Twitter, posting, “Thanks @glamourmag for knowing there’s nothing indecent about feeding a hungry baby.”
One stunning image of Wilde partially exposed nursing her unclothed infant son inspired some to call her "my hero." Still many others accused her of being inconsiderate of onlookers, calling her actions "disgusting" and admonishing her to "just please be discreet" and cover herself in public. One medical expert went so far as to suggest Wilde was inflicting psychological harm on her own child.
Wilde honestly shared the beauty and intimacy of her experience, telling Glamour, “Breastfeeding is the most natural thing....I don’t know, now it feels like Otis should always be on my breast....Being shot with Otis is so perfect because any portrait of me right now isn’t complete without my identity as a mother being a part of that.”
This week marks the 22nd World Breastfeeding Week. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), in collaboration with WHO and UNICEF, promotes the health benefits of nursing in 175 countries around the world as "key intervention for improving child survival... improv[ing] newborn care, and reduc[ing] neonatal mortality." The message is especially critical in developing nations, where breastfeeding actually reduces the risk of malnutrition and disease.
While applauded for championing maternal health around the world, Wilde is now seen in America as one of the Hollywood celebrity moms who "glamorizes" breastfeeding—a shallow media-driven perception that seems out of touch with reality.
Although naturally beautiful, breastfeeding is hardly glamorous. It is doubtful that any woman who has experienced breastfeeding would view Wilde as any different, a loving mother.
Wilde herself did not seem to focus on the glamour. "I certainly don't really look like that when I'm [typically] breast-feeding," she acknowledged in regard to the Robert Cavalli dress and Prada heels worn in the photo shoot. "And there's usually a diaper involved."
Both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusively breastfeeding an infant for the first six months of life. Yet, in America, social stigma and lack of policies to support mothers remain major factors that hurt breastfeeding outcomes. In addition to these systemic and cultural barriers, breastfeeding does not come easily to every woman and in some cases is not possible.
Even for the most successful nursing mother, breastfeeding is a commitment that is almost certainly exhausting, occasionally painful, and at times alienating. Devoting her body to provide her child's sustenance is a loving sacrifice that comes with sacred reward. Whether for three months or three years, breastfeeding is a labor of love.
A mother of young children needs self-care while nourishing, bonding, nurturing, and imprinting with love, but she is bombarded with expectations and judgments that cause her to question her very worthiness.
The early decisions and struggles of motherhood are often a deeply spiritual journey in acceptance and letting go.
Within our mainstream American culture, we trivialize the maternal experience through disrespectful social debate and stigma. Our collective consciousness reinforces messages that quiet the spirit of the mother and separate her from her child, who still desperately needs her. Our misguided attitudes ignore the critical importance of attachment, which helps children become secure, resilient, compassionate individuals in society.
No matter her situation or circumstances, all mothers are vulnerable and in need of unconditional loving support. Halting our tendency to doubt, judge, criticize, or condemn, we must show genuine human compassion.
"These are the moments a mother lives for," Wilde noted. "Breastfeeding should not be taboo—and bottle feeding should not be judged—it's ALL fun for the whole family."
Olivia Wilde is every mother. While the images are stunning, her words are just as powerful. Hopefully, her statement helps spark action that supports mothers. In both public discourse and in public policy—whether breastfeeding or not, covered or not—we must respect every mother.