When I had my first child at 19, I lived to breastfeed in public. I'd grown up amid the Nestle boycott protesting that company's international anti-breastfeeding campaigns, and I'd come of age in Asia and Europe -- where no one gawked at the exposure of a little tit. Back home in the United States, Americans' squeamishness about breastfeeding struck me as both puritanical and anti-children's-health. I fed my baby daughter whenever she got hungry, and I silently refused to move when a waitress or cafe worker asked me to. I continued my quiet nursing sit-in when the manager appeared and told me, "Please, uh, Ma'am, you'll need to do that someplace else."
My grandmother and mother rolled their eyes at my behavior. They figured I was just being a rebellious punk. And maybe that was a part of it. But two decades later I still hear from women -- many of whom were kids back then -- that seeing me breastfeeding in cafes all over town, or on the bus or on the train, had a profound impact on them and influenced their decision to breastfeed their own kids without shame.
My daughter, Maia Swift, is in her 20s now and the art director for Hip Mama, the magazine I've edited and published since she was a still-nursing toddler. And Maia's the one who found artist Ana Alvarez-Errecalde's work online and knew we should feature her in the pages of Hip Mama. "Her photographs are super striking," Maia said. "Her statements about motherhood are powerful."
She reached out to the Barcelona-based artist and selected "Symbiosis," a gorgeous self-portrait photograph of Ana in partial superhero costume breastfeeding her son.
I loved the selection. I thought the image invoked the unrealistic notion of the "Supermom" who can do everything and countered it with the vulnerability of being partially naked with a small child.
I added the tagline "No Supermoms Here."
Ana, in our interview for the magazine, said she thought of the piece as showing the symbiotic relationship between mother and child, "where each being is complete by themselves but they are reinvented and strengthened by the relationships they establish with each other."
None of us thought of the photo as being "about" public breastfeeding.
As I got ready to send the issue to press, I posted the cover shot on my Facebook page as a simple announcement: The beautiful issue #55 of Hip Mama would soon be a reality. This issue features stories on urban farming and milksharing, recipes for lemon-mint cookies and detoxifying lemon-cucumber water, and interviews with artists who are mothers, including our cover star, Ana Alvarez-Errecalde herself.
My social media friends and others cheered the compelling self-portrait. The cover was shared over a hundred times in less than 24 hours. But when some vendors got wind of the planned cover, they said they wouldn't carry the image on their newsstands.
Facebook censors soon joined in and began pulling the image from timelines -- mine included. Initial complaints mentioned "nudity," but when I posted a 1976 Cosmopolitan magazine cover to my timeline, Facebook censors didn't seem to notice the very visible nipple.
I was left to assume that it's the breastfeeding that some people find offensive.
As Mickey Huf of Project Censored said when he shared news of the controversy:
There is no shortage of breast pics on the newsstands, on billboards, and storefronts plastered for all to behold, and they are deemed acceptable, normalized (and promoted because sex sells)...but if breasts are shown for what they are actually for--nurturing children--censors abound. America the Dumb.
And as one distributor told me, I think quite honestly in the context of her business, "This isn't Europe. Open breastfeeding is not okay."
Ana suggested adding a red censorship dot to the cover, ironically drawing even more attention to the supposedly offending breasts.
My first reaction was that we didn't need any newsstand that couldn't handle the breastfeeding. I didn't want to change a beautiful cover. I didn't want even to entertain the ridiculous suggestion that it was in any way obscene. But after talking more to Ana, and to our other contributors -- well, people wanted the issue out there.
We decided that printing an uncensored version for our subscribers and progressive bookstores, and a special "newsstand edition" with the dot for squeamish vendors, was better than allowing the issue to be suppressed.
In the updated issue of Hip Mama, Ana responds to the controversy saying, in part:
Violence towards women begins with the repression of sexuality, the appropriation of childbirth, the interference with all vital cycles and the creation of manipulative roles. A negated mother will also negate her body and her presence to her children, so they will all ultimately conform to our unattended, unloved, and unnourished society.
Some Facebook users mused that breastfeeding was one thing, but breastfeeding an older child (the boy in the photograph is four) was the real showstopper here.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby's life, and continuing some supplemental breastfeeding "for as long after that as the mother and child both wish to continue."
Estimates for the worldwide age of weaning range from about 2 and a half to 4 and a half. In the United States, however, the average age for weaning is 3 months. American attitudes about breasts and breastfeeding have to be at least partially to blame.
TIME Magazine addressed the issue in 2012 with a photo of mother Jamie Lynne Grumet nursing her then-3-year-old son, and added the intentionally incendiary tagline "Are You Mom Enough?"
"I think the TIME cover ultimately helped breastfeeding moms -- but I know it hurt some mothers," Jamie told me when I talked to her about the Hip Mama cover controversy. "The tag line pitted moms against each other and still made attachment parents sound crazy. And that was frustrating, because it eventually did start conversations that lead to more acceptance. I love that the Hip Mama cover is controversial and provocative without that negativity."
Still, Hip Mama's unapologetic cover is too much for some people. Just like breastfeeding still is.
As Ana points out in the updated interview, right now this is about an image of an artist breastfeeding on the cover of a magazine, but nursing mothers face this every day when we try to feed our children in restaurants or in other public places -- we are asked to go into seclusion to feed our kids.