Wednesday, December 07, 2011

This is how I feel (Not Safe For Work)

In a previous post, I asked you how an image made you feel. This image, to be exact:

Almost everyone I have discussed this with have had strong reactions to it. Not necessarily negative or positive, but strong. For me, I had a very strong reaction- some positive, some negative, but mostly it just felt like my thoughts were going a mile a minute.

My very first thought was "man, that is a tiny baby." Then my thoughts started wandering to adoptive breastfeeding, and from there, surrogate breastfeeding/wet nursing. The racial connotations of the term wet nurse/nursing triggered very mixed emotions for me  At the same time, I was so excited to see a picture of a black woman breastfeeding, as that remains a major race-related health disparity. I loved the image of black and white, together, doing the most natural thing on Earth in caring for a baby. I also appreciated the lack of sexualization of this image... it's a very non-sexualized image that, to me, conveys the normality of the breast as nutrition for infants rather than the breast as a sexual object. And honestly, I thought the image was very artistic- presented in such a way as to make the focus on breastfeeding--- and the natural, caring, life-giving nature of that act--- rather than the persons participating in the act. It didn't feel like a clothing ad at all.

However, when I shared this with friends of different races and genders, I was surprised by the feedback. First and foremost, many of my black friends said that this image made them think back to the way slaves were made to act as wet nurses for their masters. Let that sink in a moment.

One friend polled 10 friends of different races/genders and responded that her black friends did point out the connection to slavery/ wet nurses, and all but one black friend were upset by the image ("WTF"), considered it offensive, or at best provocative but pointless.

Even before receiving that feedback, I questioned if I would have had the same reaction to the image if the adult and baby were not different races. I looked around and found this image... the closest I could find in terms of composition, minus the racial differences.

And you know what? For me, this image did not stir up as many thoughts and emotions. Sure, I still found it to be a beautiful, non-sexualized image of a wonderful, natural part of parenting... but without the racial differences, the idea of adoptive/surrogate breastfeeding and wet nursing did not even enter my mind. Without the racial differences, the image did not seem suggestive, provocative, or nearly as thoughtful.

In the end, I don't know if I've come to any big conclusions about the first image, but I did grow quite a bit... specifically in my knowledge of wet nursing/surrogate nursing (did you know it is making a comeback in the US, and is a sign of class in China? I didn't.) I think I also opened my mind more to adoptive breastfeeding (although I still believe that it was not the right choice for us when Anna came home.)

Moreover, it has made me think about how history and stigma play a role in breastfeeding. This article suggests that the role of black slaves as wet nurses as well as the stigma that breastfeeding is for "poor people" has contributed to the continued low rates of breastfeeding among black women. Although anyone who does a quick Google Images search for "breastfeeding" will quickly see that breastfeeding is for white women. This makes me sad.

Others raised the issue of "shock" advertising and whether cropping the image to be "headless" was dehumanizing and the generalized use of race or breastfeeding or breasts to sell a product. I won't get into that, because I don't really think that played into my thought process very much. But I do like a term that United Colors of Benetton used when discussing this ad (which won awards in Europe) and their other ad campaigns: shared humanity.

That sums up this image for me.

The sharing of humanity, of life, of that which is good.

When I heard that phrase, I decided I liked this image.

How about you?

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