If you ask me, this cover is not of a woman breastfeeding, but of one who is declaring her determination to be comfortable while breastfeeding, thereby reinforcing her commitment to breastfeed her baby. I think this difference is important. Breastfeeding is a very intimate act; it is highly physical. If the mother and child are well, happy, and don’t have issues that may make this feel like a chore or hard to do, then it is very highly pleasurable too. As a woman who has breastfed continuously for 9 years with just a short break of a few months during my second pregnancy, I can say this: breastfeeding is also ‘breastfeeling’, so your attention is on the act, and you really don’t want to focus on anything else, especially irritating stares. It is as pleasurable as lovemaking. Many years later (my daughters are 25 and 20 this year), when I remember the act, my nipples rise, tingling. Breastfeeding was also play time, when the little one played with her mum’s breast with her tiny fingers feeling and squeezing it; and my younger one was especially playful, twisting her tiny body in sheer pleasure, and sometimes, remaining still and then naughtily sinking her little tooth into the nipple, rolling her eyes up to check the reaction from her mum! So when we traveled, I always carried a big, opaque duppatta with which I made a ‘tent’ over our heads that covered us completely. We would be sitting in a corner seat in the train, and having fun, she sitting on my lap (and later the tent would be big enough for the three of us, myself, my six-year-old, and one-year-old, the former listening to a story, and the latter happily suckling). We would sing, tickle, do what not. Demanding the freedom to breastfeed without being too bothered about modesty and in public without anyone staring, for me, then, is demanding the right to such intimate pleasure in public. In that sense, this should have been one of the afterlives of Kerala’s Kiss of Love protests.
The raging controversy over the cover of a breastfeeding woman looking up with no shame about her exposed breast has, quite expectedly, sent conservative fools in Kerala into a raving frenzy. The case against the model and the conservative breast-beating going on now must be dismissed summarily as useless bullshit.
However, I must say that I had very mixed feelings about the cover and the defense offered for it by many. For many arguing in its defense seem to be saying that all one needs is gratefulness for the effort to open up the issue and the space gained, and all else raised isn’t really worth the trouble. Even this intelligent piece in the Ladies Finger slides into such complacency.
However, the sartorial codes of the model make me feel very disconcerted. Sharanya Gopinathan, in the above piece, argues that Grihalakshmi caters to largely savarna women probably. But no, savarna women are not the demographic majority, and they are possibly not the dominant section in the magazine’s readership. But savarna culture is pervasive in Kerala, cutting across caste and faith, and the cover clearly panders to it. The model’s huge sindoor — mark you, wearing the sindoor is a very recent import from the north to Kerala, the demure-looking sari, and the girl-next-door look was probably calculated to make up for the exposure of the breast. So we have a young woman who announces through her sindoor that she is married — legally and customarily penetrated, to adopt a Foucaldian way with words — and modestly dressed, that she belongs to the elite, evident in her professionally-groomed looks, and also tells the world that she is determined to breastfeed no matter how much the lechs stare. Intended or not, it brings to the mind too readily the dream-girl of the Hindutva modernist vanguard: the educated woman, maybe even a corporate professional, with looks that fit that environment, who is determined to mother well and indeed stay close to her biological ‘essence’, and of course whose maternity has not been allowed to affect her slim body and maidenly-looking breasts. The idea, I think, was to say that such a woman can and should be brave enough to fend off irritating stares — but it backfired with the conservatives, apparently, who are not ready to concede any quarter. Breastfeed she must, remember her womanhood, she must, look pretty and stay slim she must — and demand no open breastfeeding.
When will we see the image of a woman you see in the bus stops every day in Kerala, harried, sweaty, with her budget-beauty parlour looks and less-than-chic sartorial choices sitting in a bus shelter perhaps and immersed in feeding her infant, her not-perfect breasts bulging out un-prettily, caring nothing at all for what the world thinks? She can of course be imagined as staring back defiantly, but the glow of pleasure is what should animate her being and fill her with courage. Normination to be a good biological woman and mother. Not the developmentalist commitment to produce healthy babies. What ultimately counts is the space of intimacy between a mother and her child, which is physical, which involves pleasure — and we need to demand that women should be able to create it everywhere.
And why on earth are we waiting for Grihalakshmi to lead? Thankfully, third wave feminism in Kerala is devoid of prudishness and values pleasure — and among our third gen we have a great many artists — poets, painters, photographers, of many genders! We should be able to assert that what is at stake is breastfeeling, not just breastfeeding. Let us reduce ourselves to neither those who sneak in a litany to biological motherhood through their seemingly radical cover, nor with those who want to see nothing but physical nourishment in breastfeeding.