A resource to inspire, inform and empower parents.

The Sexy Woman Versus The Breastfeeding Mother: A Case Study of Facebook Memes

We’ve all seen those memes that show a breastfeeding mother next to a scantily clad celebrity asking a question such as, “Which one do you think was asked to cover up?” It always seemed like a simple question to me, pointing out the glaring hypocrisy that is life as a woman.

But I’ve come to see that the point as I intended it does not often get communicated clearly. And so I have decided to make it personal. By removing other women from the images and examples and speaking purely from my point of view I hope that I can be clearer.

Abby Theuring, The Badass Breatfeeder, sexy versus breastfeeding.

The photo on the left was taken of me a couple of years before I had my first child. I was deeply in touch with the sexual me, to say the least. I worked hard to be sexually attractive. I got a lot of attention, and I liked it. (It’s not a high fashion gown or my sexiest lingerie, I am not a celebrity on the red carpet or a Victoria’s Secret model, but it will do to make my point.) The photo on the right was taken a few months ago after the birth of my second son. My relationship with my body has changed drastically. I don’t get the same attention I used to, I don’t try very hard to look “attractive” (whatever that means to me).

The me on the left often got a ton of positive feedback from my environment. The me on the right does too, but she is also confronted with direct and indirect messages that breastfeeding is inappropriate or offensive; that being a mother is less valuable than being sexually attractive; that my body shouldn’t be used that way. Both of these photos depict a side of me that is valuable and beautiful. But the photo on the left represents my value as seen by the majority of mainstream society. The photo on the right, even though it’s natural and all that, isn’t valued as much from a greater societal point of view.

When these memes are created the point is to show the hypocrisy of society; how the “sexual” (as defined by the looker) side of a person is highly valued while the mothering side is not. But somewhere along the way the point was lost. Many people took this to mean that the sexual side of a woman was being put down; that it was being put in a negative light. I completely disagree with this. I love that me on the left. She is hot! I want her to come back! I fully plan on finding a place for her in my new life as the me on the right. And that’s just it, we as women are ALL of these things ALL of the time. We are deeply complicated and multi-layered. There is no part of us that is more or less valuable than the other. We are not a collection of parts, we are whole.

I would never want the me on the left to feel shame. I felt proud and confident. I deliberately left half of my clothes at home that day. I intended to look just as I look there. I did prescribe to a culturally accepted and valued form of beauty and I am fine with that. Beauty ideals are culturally bound. I am not a slut, I am not responsible for people’s reactions to me, I am free to express myself however I choose.

I want the same freedom for the me on the right. I want the mothering me to be just as accepted and celebrated. I want to feel confident and proud when I breastfeed my child. It’s very empowering! And feeling sexually attractive is also just as empowering. This does not make breastfeeding sexual or inappropriate.

The sexy photos and women in them endure slut-shaming comments and the mothering photos endure comments about covering up and how no one wants to see that. Then there are other comments that I shouldn’t shame a sexy woman just to stick up for a mothering woman. All of this to highlight how confused we are in this debate; how deeply this question of value runs within each of us.

The reality is that both sides of a woman are equally valuable and our debating and insulting and personalizing are all examples of how we have internalized the message from society that our bodies do not belong to us.

When I have created these memes my intention in showing a sexy celebrity has been to illustrate that this is the ideal woman, the one that we feel we should strive to be, the beauty queen, the one who is highly valued and accepted. The understanding that this woman is being put down is your personal interpretation and yours to own and explore.

It is interesting to me that we can identify that society values sexual women over mothers, but when we speak of sexual women (or the sexual side of each of us) we assume we are putting them down. I do not condone the over-sexualizing of women or sex as a way to control women, but I do not feel that we need to desexualize ourselves in order to gain value for mothering in mainstream society. I do not think we need to assume that sexuality is a dirty thing. Sex is not dirty or shameful.

I believe that the over-sexualizing of women acts as a way for us to be controlled. Society can fuck off. We need to be better at loving all aspects of ourselves so that we can love all aspects of others being confident, proud and empowered by every dimension of our beings.

The more I write the more I have to say. I will stop here for now. Let me know what you think. Your comments are always a beautiful inspiration for me!

Abby Theuring, MSW