This week, Glamour released pictures to be featured in its September issue of Olivia Wilde breastfeeding her 5-month-old son Otis. Sitting in a diner, clad in a Roberto Cavalli dress nursing her naked infant, Wilde looks gorgeous and at ease. She embodies the public image that has become ubiquitous in the world of celebrity mothers: that not only can you be both a mom and a glamazon, but you can do so while effortlessly breastfeeding your infant.
It's a fantasy and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But when regular women are still being kicked out of public (and virtual) places for breastfeeding, or have to sue their employers for appropriate accommodations in which to pump breast milk for their infants at home, the glamorous fantasy of the publicly breastfeeding celebrity mother can be a slap in the face to the rest of us.
Both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusively breastfeeding an infant for the first six months, but for many mothers that's just not possible. A big part of the problem is the lack of policies in the United States that could help facilitate moms being able to fulfill such recommendations. The United States is still woefully behind the rest of the developed world in providing paid family leave for new parents. According to the World Policy Institute, the U.S. is among such countries as Iran, Liberia and Pakistan in not guaranteeing working mothers options like paid leave or breastfeeding breaks.
Of course there is something to be said for celebs who feel empowered to broadcast themselves breastfeeding, either on the cover of a magazine or via their Instagram account. It's always great to see anyone publicly breastfeeding, even if that person has access to more resources than you will ever have. The more that women breastfeed out in the open, the closer we'll get to removing the stigma many moms still face trying to breastfeed their babies at home or in public.
What's not great is how celebrity culture makes motherhood look effortless and easy, especially when it comes to breastfeeding. In the Glamour interview, Wilde is quoted as saying: "Breastfeeding is the most natural thing." And while it's great that it came easily for her, for many women it does not. We need to stop the myth that breastfeeding is intuitive when it really isn't for many moms. That myth is especially painful when we live in a society that tells us "breast is best" over and over again, but doesn't actually have the kinds of public policies in place that can help make the mantra a reality. The hurdles that new moms face in trying to fulfill the extended breastfeeding recommendations put forth by health experts are something we rarely hear celebrities talk about.
Maybe it's not a celebrities' job to convince us they are normal people. And maybe Wilde doesn't owe us a gory story. And to be fair, she does admit that she doesn't "really look like that" when she's typically breastfeeding, which is certainly refreshing to hear.
We could all stand to see little less fantasy about motherhood and a little more reality. It could go a long way in helping other moms who do struggle to breastfeed feel less alone. Where are the celebs with tales of painfully plugged milk ducts? Or tales of pumping in trailers while on set at movies, or in green rooms before television interviews? Or the stories about how they weren't able to breastfeed at all and had to use formula instead?
Celebrity moms are not just like us. They'll never be. Whether it's the idea that moms who work in offices have it easier than famous moms in the balancing of work and family life, or the notion that breastfeeding is the "most natural thing," celebrity culture builds up a standard that most regular folks will never be able to live up to.
This week marks the 22nd World Breast Feeding week, which is coordinated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action to promote the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers and babies worldwide.
Rather than having to listen to a completely uncritical collective swoon over another celebrity mother who makes breastfeeding look glamorous and easy, let's use this opportunity to take a hard look at what could really benefit most moms who are trying to breastfeed.
Susan Rohwer is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @susanrohwer.