Sisters, Doing It For Themselves

12 03 2008
This post is about celebrating female empowerment, and looking at how by putting power in the hands of young, low income, working class women, you can change the world – one baby at a time.
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Little Angels is a tiny breastfeeding support group, in Lancashire, England, that has a long and powerful reach. It’s a classic story of how young women have connected to other young women, and used every scrap of resource available to them, to create the world in their own image.
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From volunteer status, with no money and only community support, they’ve carved out funding, set up a business partnership, and now lead the way in one-to-one breastfeeding support for every mother who walks out of the local maternity unit. All done for the love of their breastfeeding babies, and a sense of female power and control of the world around them.

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This sense of empowerment and control can be seen in their excellent new breastfeeding awareness campaign – Be A Star:
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These are images of young women aspiring to be themselves: stylish, in charge of their own bodies and their destiny, and taking control. They just happen to also have a breastfeeding baby in their lives too! The mothers range in age from 17 to 23.
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Some might decry the fashion pitch and high production values: surely fashion, make up, glamour, aspiring to be beautiful, are not feminist virtues? Of course they are! It’s doing it on your terms that’s the issue, not what you do.
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Fashion, beauty and glamour are important parts of many women’s world view: part and parcel of how they express themselves in the world. You just need to look at women in war zones, and how they fight for the last smidge of lipstick, or look to gravy browning to pretend they have tights on, to see that access to ‘dressing up stuff’ can be a vital part of self expression. Play and fantasy are important for adults and children alike.
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There is a huge dichotomy here for sure, for one woman’s liberated new lipstick shade, is another woman’s symbol of “Oh my god I’m never going to look that good and I need a new diet and I hate myself”!
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This is always going to be a problem: how to present strong and confident women without making others feel inadequate! How to present style and fashion to women, without enslaving them in images of how they should be. How to allow young mothers to express themselves as true to their own identity, whilst at the same time being mothers!
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I’d argue these photos do a damned good job of balancing all these contradictions, and doing something very much more powerful to boot: dispelling one of our most powerful myths about mothering, formula feeding and breastfeeding.
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How they do this, is quite complex, so I think it’s worth breaking down some components here.
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As I signalled in an earlier post, the Male Gaze is problematic for mothers of breastfeeding babies: they use their body in a way that’s culturally challenging: they feed their hungry babies in daylight, not hidden in the shadows. One element I’ve always felt caused more reaction than not, was that mothers in photos with their breastfeeding babies, always tend to look to the baby, excluding the onlooker. None of these sparky mothers are looking at the baby! Some are looking directly at you, is a powerful and obvious challenge. This is totally not the scenario of weakness and ‘being looked at’ in most glamour and fashion photography (and soft core pornography).

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In a truly wonderful twist of how such things are often presented, it’s the fact that these women are holding breastfeeding babies in their arms, that helps construct how these photos have been taken in their own terms – without sexual exploitation of their bodies. For with a breastfeeding baby in your arms, the ‘cheap and easy’ sexual shot has been completely removed. There are no high zooms on cleavage and breasts here! No seductive glisten on the skin as breasts are pushed, pulled, shaped and prominently displayed as a sign of ‘sexiness’ and availability. These breasts are ‘out of the picture’ and that allows us to view the woman, not just assess her body for overall sexual worthiness via her breast shape! Irony, ya’ gotta love it! šŸ™‚

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Some of these mothers are staring you straight in the eye, and that’s a position of power. So much so, that some might actually feel uncomfortable with the ‘eye balling’. That they stare at you, is part of their rebellion. Young female rebellion, refusing to be stereotyped about what it means to be a mother of breastfeeding babies. They are defying your expectations of what you’d see in a poster for a breastfeeding awareness campaign, and defying you to make judgements upon them. This, and other elements of the photos, are only really noticeable when you see the pictures as a set. Take one in isolation, and the rebellion is not so prominent, see them all together on one page, and you can see the theme.
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For instance, the mothers looking away, are not posing themselves for you to look at them, pretending you’ve caught them unawares. They’re enacting their own eyeline shots, to suit their mood. From looking at someone off-photo, to looking out to the far reaches of their own imaginations, thinking about how good they look in this pose! Part of this sense of not caring what you think, even when they are not looking at you, is constructed by the very definite nature of the shots as glam and proud of it. These are staged photographs, and the mothers have worked hard to stage themselves as they want to be seen. You are being offered a privileged glimpse of how they look to themselves in their heads – no stolen glances here. They are making statements up front – here, this is who I am. Take it or leave it.
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And this, I feel, is the crux of why these posters are so powerful – they represent the inner and true voice of the mothers being photographed. Again, looked at as a set, they all show very different things: different clothing styles, different body shapes, different takes on being photographed. The link isn’t even one of high glamour, for the shot of the bowler hatted striped tights mothers is not ‘glamour’, it’s more pop and rock. They are, however, statements of aspiration on being young and famous and special. We may decry the current cultural desire to assign special status via celebrity, but it is a factor in our lives, and it’s wonderful to see the need that people often have – the need to be seen to be a ‘star’ expressed in such a powerful, and affirmative way. You may never be Posh, but you can buy the specs and give the look. And having a breastfeeding baby doesn’t get in the way of that look!
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This will, in its own way, alienate some breastfeeding supporters! If we’ve learned anything in breastfeeding support in the past few years, its that many mothers who breastfed themselves, do think the role of the mother is to concentrate on the baby to all else in the mother’s life, to sit in the bedroom and breastfeed hidden from view, and to not ‘rock the boat’. I imagine these images are going to provoke some negative comments from that quarter! Chin up ladies, if you’re not upsetting someone, you’re dead! šŸ™‚
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I did say there was a dichotomy here, in that dressing the female form in such away can be problematic. I think it’s clear that this ‘dressing up’ has been done by the mothers, for the mothers, and that makes a huge difference. Also, it’s clear that doing this sort of dressing up is important to them. And that’s vital. To suggest that fashion, style and make up can not be an important part of human expression is to deny who we are. But how then, to talk to the young mother who may look at these images and go “Cripes, I even fail at that!”
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The ones who didn’t have access to a professional photo shoot, and who are drowning in feeling they are still not ‘on top’ of this baby stuff?

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‘Well, the first thing I’d ask is… is make up and fashion important to you? For if it is, then I suggest you make sure you have time for it. One woman’s hot soak in the tub with a good book, is another woman’s playing with eye shadow, and another woman’s long walk by the canal. Feminism is about finding your own voice in the plethora of voices being thrust upon you. Some of us like make up. Some of us don’t. Some of us like jam tarts. Some of us don’t! It’s not about what you should look like, it’s about how you want to look for yourself.

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If putting on your make up, and doing your hair, makes you feel good – find time to do it. If it’s not important, don’t feel ‘bad’ because someone else who does like it, sets aside the time to do it! Applaud them, and carry on doing what you need to do to make you feel special. If these pictures gave you a sudden jolt of feeling bad ‘cos you don’t look that good in the morning… do look more carefully at them! Only one of these mothers is skinny enough to be a real model, and she will no doubt have spent her life being told she is too skinny and scrawny to ever be sexy! It will have been a shock to her to discover she was model material. Just like it might be a shock to you, if you overheard others talk about how good looking you are…
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Do what these mothers have done – decide who you are and go for it, and offer no apology for that fact! Stare the world straight back in the eye! Find your own voice, and revel in it! And make that most threatening of statements… and my baby comes too!
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On that, I said these images dispel one of the most powerful myths about formula feeding. And that myth is that in order to be this well turned out, you have to formula feed. For no mother will ‘find the time’ or have the resources for clean, well tailored clothes and fashion. Absolute rot, and these photos prove it. Young Mums who truly have a voice in themselves that relishes fashion, make up, playing with people’s expectations through clothing… can have just as much fun post baby as prior. And that’s an important message for all mothers, not just young ones! Money is the key issue in looking good after pregnancy, for few of us can afford new clothes on a whim. Again, this is part of why this is such as strong and powerful message to a young low income audience in a socially deprived area.
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The notion that formula feeding enables you to ‘be yourself’ as it allows you to separate from your baby and allow you ‘you time’ whilst someone else cares for the baby, is truly invidious and against the best interests of both baby and mother. Quite simply, mothering is not a natural opposition to being young and street smart. Street smart is a state of mind, as much as a sense of style, and these mothers are showing that very clearly!
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And not a droopy saggy milkstained t-shirt in sight! šŸ™‚ So well done Little Angels, for allowing your own voice, to shape such a powerful promotion for your peers.

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And the peer element is vital. We can only speak of who we are, to those willing to hear us. I can applaud these images whilst reflecting that if they were speaking to me, they’d show a woman on a computer, whose child fits into that world. Maybe these images will be a footstep in showing real diversity in the lives of mothers with breastfeeding babies. Heaven knows, we need it! More! Encore! Brava!
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As a final note, as the mother of a male child, I’d like to turn this pseudo-feminist argument that women shouldn’t wear make up and play make believe with their clothing as they ‘dress up’, on the head. For, to me, the issue isn’t whether or not women should have a choice about whether or not they play ‘dressing up… it’s why the men in our lives don’t have that choice. Why are men seen as so strong and dominant, that for them to share in the game, reduces their masculinity? Huh? Every tried to find a male butterfly or fairy costume? And if there are no Daddy butterflies, where do all the baby butterflies come from?
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These posters are for sale for breastfeeding awareness campaigns, and there is a video to follow. Contact Little Angels at the above link, and watch this space!

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6 responses

13 03 2008
Barbara

I left a comment on your earlier thread before reading this later one. I wish I had read this before writing to the mother who complained about the cover of LLLG NEWS March/April so I might have drawn her attention to your essay.I don’t think that glamourising breastfeeding is cheapening mothers. These mums are justly proud and are not offering themselves up for male gratification. Little Angels are doing a splendid job.Barbara

13 03 2008
Morgan

Hi Barbara,Just replied to your other comment. The complaint made to you put me in mind of the amazingly negative response to the Alaskan posters, by some quarters of the breastfeeding support community. Some said they would set back breastfeeding awarenss. I’m going to see if I can track them down, and post them for you!

13 03 2008
Morgan

here you go Barbara… http://www.gov.ns.ca/hpp/repPub/Family_Friendly_Pledge.pdfThese ones caused a huge fuss as the two of the mothers had the ‘over the bra’ position!You can’t please everyone…And it was Nova Scotia, not Alaskan! Ancient braincells at work…

14 03 2008
Helen

BarbaraWhen I looked at the March/April ed I couldn’t see that it was a ‘glamour ‘ shot. For some reason, probably because of an article in it, I happen to have March/April 07 New Beginnings out and about[you sub to this don’t you Morgan]The mother is in a v similar pose, similarly dressed but babe is counting freckles on teh breast or someting, and the mum is smiling. I don’t see this as ‘glamour’ either. The news picture only suggests that maybe she has been ‘surprised’ by the viewer who feels uneasy that she has intruded on the sceneThe bf picture I did find disturbing [and this is from memory] is one I saw in teh Rijksmuseum. I have tidied up the book with a reproduction of it, when I remember where it is I’ll let you know. It is a noblewoman dressed classically with a nursing baby, she’s representing charity or some such virtue. Great, no problems there. But in the background is a tiny house, wiht an even tinier woman and infant. It is believed that this is the subject’s baby with her wet nurse. I did tell peole at our meeting this week to have a look at the star site, not heard that anyone has but will metion it when I email everyone next. I presume that teh voiceovers will be run alongside the pictures so that people have the context

17 03 2008
Helen

I’m from The Hub, the social marketing agency that worked with NHS and Little Angels to conceive of the campaign.We developed the concept following receipt of a fantastic client brief (normalise breastfeeding amongst 16-28 year old mums living in deprived areas of Lancashire) and much focus grouping. We Art Directed the shoot with real mums who were, yes, even Chantelle in 5″ heels, breastfeeding their children in the shots, as well as producing radio scripts and outdoor advertising, leaflets etc.We are posting the adverts to the blog (www.beastar.org.uk) in the next couple of days and would be really keen to gain your feedback.Our brief was to normalise breastfeeding amongst young mothers. Following much research, it became clear that influencers were key in the decisions of these mums; the influencers being their parents, their partner and their friends. As you will (hopefully) see, the body copy in the ads is written from the perspective of each influencer group – including, of course, the baby itself which, we would hope, would be one of the key influencers.This campaign is supported by a radio ad running on local stations that have also caused a stir and I aim to link the ad to the blog soon also.As a social marketing specialist (we’ve worked on numerous alcohol, drug, probation and disability campaigns) and a mum of 2, this has been the single most rewarding campaign that I have worked on. Previous campaigns have saved lives, but I believe that this campaign is supporting young women, enabling them to make decisions for themselves and their child that will hopefully continue to be witnessed after they have finished breastfeeding.It has sparked huge debate and, already, within just 1 1/2 weeks of launch, has generated interest wider afield (New York, Australia).Please get in touch if you have any more feedback on the campaign; helen@hub-creative.co.uk.Thanks, Helen.

17 03 2008
Morgan

Hi Helen,This campaign will save lives too. One of the things that is not spoken of in our culture, is that twice as many formula fed babies die than breastfed ones in the first few weeks of life. It’s also unspoken that some batches of formula contains bacterial contaniments that make babies sick… and some die. And many adults die of sleep apnea conditions, that result from lack of breastfeeding. Deaths from lack of breastfeeding are hidden in our culture, as it is not easy to identify them, and not profitable to mention them. But your work on this wodnerful campaign will also save lives – including the lives of some mothers, who will not develop breast cancer as they breastfed just when they needed to the most! šŸ™‚

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