Photographer and founder of Girls Girls Girls magazine Claire Rothstein this week shared an image of actress Rachel McAdams, taken behind the scenes on a recent photo shoot.

In the picture, McAdams sits on a bed, cross legged, staring down the barrel of the camera. She wears deep red lipstick, black pants, a strappy black bra, a jacket slung around her shoulders, and a chunky diamond necklace. Oh, and she is expressing breastmilk.

Rothstein shared the picture with the following caption:

Social media has ignited with comments applauding McAdams and Rothstein (as well as some respectable Regina George jokes). I mean, pumping breastmilk in diamonds is JUST FUCKING MAJOR. It’s FIERCE and EMPOWERING and NORMALISES BREASTFEEDING. Except… McAdams is not breastfeeding. She is expressing breastmilk, and that is not the same thing.

While it’s important to acknowledge the efforts of mothers to provide breastmilk for their baby – and expressing is bloody hard work – it’s also important to acknowledge the differences between feeding a baby expressed breastmilk from a bottle, and putting a baby to the breast. For example, there is evidence that milk composition is different when pumped compared to consumed by baby direct from the source. And research shows that babies who are bottle fed expressed breastmilk have a higher body mass index than babies who are exclusively breastfed. And while some women opt to pump because they don’t want to breastfeed, most mothers say that they don’t enjoy pumping, and for good reason – the oxytocin ‘hit’ of breastfeeding is more intense, and milk production is more efficient, when a mother is actually holding her baby.

So why are so many mothers pumping their milk? In the USA, the main factor is obvious – lack of paid maternity leave. It is telling that in America, where health insurance status is dependent on employment, and one in four mothers will return to work ten days after giving birth, most insurance companies will provide a breast pump free of charge as part of their maternity cover. Even mothers who are able to stay with their babies for longer often rely on a breast pump at some point; when women are experiencing breastfeeding difficulties, in the absence of adequate professional or peer breastfeeding support, it is easier to hand a mother a pump than to invest in getting to the bottom of her nipple pain.

In the USA, where McAdams and Rothstein are based,  a 2017 study found that more than 85% of mothers express their breastmilk at least sometimes. The same study found that at least 5% of mothers “exclusively pump” breastmilk – meaning that their babies receive breastmilk only from a bottle, never at the breast. This means two things: first, the majority of mothers who see this photograph are going to feel some kind of familiarity with the situation, and second, breast pumping is already well and truly normalised.

So if most mothers already express breastmilk, what is this picture actually normalising? What power is McAdams supposedly wielding? I’d say that the message that this picture is communicating is not ‘normalise breastfeeding’, but ‘normalise the sexual objectification of breastfeeding mothers’.

For what McAdams and Rothstein have confected here is a photograph in which the object of the male gaze also happens to be lactating. The pump may be novel, but everything else is familiar – the vacant pornified stare, the harsh flash (a la Terry ‘the creep’ Richardson), the suggestion of spread legs, the high end luxury fashion and jewels draped over flesh. That McAdams is pumping milk in the picture is not even necessarily remarkable in fashion and glamour photography, an industry in which cultural taboos are just shoots waiting to happen, and where almost exactly the same photograph (and gushing commentary about normalising breastfeeding) has already been done, this time featuring Lydia Hearst:

If we say these photos are ’empowering’, what power are we actually talking about? Women are groomed from infancy to believe that our power lies in our sexual currency; in that context, widening the spectrum of women who are allowed to be objectified to include mothers, is about as radical and liberating as moisturiser ads which tell us that chubby or wrinkly or dark-skinned women are pretty and fuckable ‘too’.

 

What this photo of McAdams really speaks to is the fact that in a culture which prizes women for their sexual appeal and availability, women who become pregnant and give birth are seen as gross or deviant, particularly if they then prioritise their relationship with their baby over what men looking at them might think or want. And you can’t be a MILF with a baby actually attached to your breast – just as the normalisation of pumping has ‘freed’ mothers to get back to being economically usable the workplace as soon as possible, it also ‘frees’ mothers to return to centring the sexual desires of men. #bringingbackthewoman #life

Because in these discussions, this always comes up, let me be crystal clear: I am not criticising McAdams (or any mother) for expressing milk, for combining motherhood and work, for leaving the house without her baby, for exploring what it means to be sexual and a mother. I am, however, asking that we step back from the actions and feelings of individual women to examine the context in which those actions and feelings occur. Who benefits from the separation of infants and mothers? From innovations in breast pumping technology? From the sexual objectification of lactating women? If something is ’empowering’, who is giving that power and what is that power good for? Hint: if it’s a trending hashtag, it’s probably not good for women.