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What’s missing in all the praise of Rachel McAdams’s high-fashion breast pump photo shoot

The premise seems to have been “the breast pump, but make it fashion.”

Historically, pumping breast milk has been something working moms do behind closed doors (or in bathroom stalls, cars, Applebee’s supply closets, or wherever they can, really). Yet as the campaign to #NormalizeBreastfeeding has become increasingly mainstream, a growing number of actors, fashion brands, and influencers have been doing their part to bring more visibility to pumping, albeit in a highly stylized way.

Most recently, actress Rachel McAdams, who just had her first child with boyfriend Jamie Linden, was photographed on the cover of the fashion magazine Girls Girls Girls wearing Versace and dripping in Bulgari diamonds, her jacket open to reveal a breast pump.

Girls Girls Girls editor-in-chief Claire Rothstein posted the photo on Instagram, saying that McAdams was (remarkably) six months postpartum during the shoot.

“Between shots she was expressing/pumping as [she was] still breastfeeding,” Rothstein wrote. “We had a mutual appreciation disagreement about whose idea it was to take this picture but I’m still sure it was hers which makes me love her even more. Breastfeeding is the most normal thing in the world and I can’t for the life of me imagine why or how it is ever frowned upon or scared of.” Rothstein then added, “I did not look anywhere near as fabulous as this when feeding/pumping. And that’s ok too.”

Mothers on social media immediately applauded McAdams for normalizing pumping (and looking fly as hell while doing so). “Honestly if I can’t feed my children while wearing heaps of diamonds and designer clothing then i’m not doing it,” one woman wrote, along with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the image was proof that women could truly “have it all.”

The breast pump, but make it fashion

The image of a sleek and stylish McAdams strapped to a breast pump is not the first time this year that the fashion world has made an effort to feature pumps. In September 2018, model Valeria Garcia walked the runway at designer Marta Jakubowski’s show while wearing the Elvie Pump, an as-yet-unreleased hands-free pump (though there’s a waitlist, if you want to get on it) that she debuted at the end of the show by dramatically opening her blazer to reveal the pump underneath her bra cups. Like McAdams’s shoot, the goal of the appearance seemed to be “the breast pump, but make it fashion.”

In an October 2018 interview, Garcia said the brand had approached Jakubowski to hire a real-life mom to model the pump. “I’m really pro-breastfeeding. I fed both of my boys. I never did formula or anything,” Garcia boasted in Harper’s Bazaar. “I was really amazed when I saw the product because it’s really quiet and you can really do whatever you want to do while you’re using it. I thought, ‘People will get the message. You can even do runway with the pump.’”

Garcia modeling the Elvie Pump in Jakubowski’s show.
Getty Images for Elvie

In July 2018, model Mara Martin, a finalist in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit model search, was photographed on the runway breastfeeding her baby, who wore a diaper, noise-canceling headphones, and bikini bottoms.

While the images of Garcia and Martin got some backlash — mostly from trolls who questioned whether it was “appropriate” for a woman to breastfeed in public — the response was overwhelmingly positive, with many applauding the women for showcasing the reality of being a multitasking working mom.

In an Instagram post, Martin echoed this language, writing: “I’m so grateful to be able to share this message and hopefully normalize breastfeeding and also show others that women CAN DO IT ALL!”

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Wow! WHAT A NIGHT! Words can’t even describe how amazing I feel after being picked to walk the runway for @si_swimsuit. Anyone who knows me, knows it has been a life long dream of mine. I can’t believe I am waking up to headlines with me and my daughter in them for doing something I do every day. It is truly so humbling and unreal to say the least. I’m so grateful to be able to share this message and hopefully normalize breastfeeding and also show others that women CAN DO IT ALL! But to be honest, the real reason I can’t believe it is a headline is because it shouldn’t be a headline!!! My story of being a mother and feeding her while walking is just that. Last night there are far more deserving headlines that our world should see. One woman is going to boot camp in two weeks to serve our country (@shauntness), one woman had a double mastectomy (@allynrose), and another is a cancer survivor, 2x paralympic gold medalist, as well as a mother herself (@bren_hucks you rock) Those are the stories that our world should be discussing!!!! Just thinking about all that was represented there... I desperately need to give the most thanks to @mj_day for this. She supported me in what I did last night. Without her support this wouldn’t even be discussed!!!! She and the entire Sports Illustrated family are the most amazing and incredible team to have worked with. THANK YOU for letting all 16 of us be our true selves, strong beautiful women!!! Because of you, my daughter is going to grow up in a better world, where she will always feel this way!!!!!! Lastly, to every single woman that rocked that runway with me. Be proud. I know I am of you! You all have inspired me in ways unimaginable. I love you all!!! #siswimsearch

A post shared by MARA MARTIN (@_maramartin_) on

What the coverage of Garcia’s and Martin’s runway appearances and McAdams’s photo shoot failed to mention, however, is that the reality of pumping for most mothers is anything but glamorous. In fact, for most working mothers in the United States (one of the few industrialized countries that does not have guaranteed maternity leave), pumping can be cumbersome, laborious, and often unhygienic.

The benefits (and challenges) of breastfeeding

Scientific research indicates that breastfeeding is correlated with a number of health benefits, from babies having higher IQs to mothers having a lower risk of developing breast cancer. While there’s some debate as to whether these benefits have been overhyped, the consensus in the medical community is overwhelmingly that breastfeeding is good for both moms and babies.

As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) now officially recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed babies for at least six months. This “breast is best” messaging has led to a spike in breastfeeding rates, and an estimated 83.5 percent of babies are now breastfed immediately after birth, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

But because the United States does not guarantee maternity leave, many mothers have to return to work immediately after giving birth, which can significantly disrupt the breastfeeding relationship. In fact, an estimated 25 percent of new moms go back to work within two weeks of giving birth, whether their bodies have recovered from a grueling labor or not. (The recommended recovery period for new moms, by the way, is about four to six weeks.)

There are also crucial class and race elements at play here, which rarely are brought up during conversations about the benefits of breastfeeding: Low-income mothers are more likely to be negatively affected by the lack of mandated maternity leave, and are thus less likely to exclusively breastfeed than their higher-income counterparts. Black mothers in particular have lower breastfeeding rates than white or Hispanic women, due in part to the fact that they are less likely to have jobs that provide sufficient maternity leave.

In the absence of mandated maternity leave policies, breast pumps have largely been marketed as a way for working mothers to keep up their supply when they return to their jobs — basically, a way for them to “have it all,” according to a 2014 Pacific Standard piece on exclusive pumping. And this marketing has largely been successful. Since the introduction of the Medela breast pump in 1991, the market for breast pumps has quadrupled, and is expected to be worth $3 billion in 2022.

There is, however, one problem with this marketing tactic: It doesn’t reflect women’s reality.

Getty Images

The reality of pumping at work for American mothers

In truth, for many, if not most, American mothers, the reality of expressing milk at work is anything but the glamorous, badass experience depicted in images like McAdams’s photo shoot.

Although the 2010 Affordable Care Act requires all US employers to provide new moms with “reasonable break time” and a clean and hygienic place to express milk, there are a number of loopholes: If a company has fewer than 50 employees, for instance, it does not have to comply with the law, and hourly employees are usually not protected.

According to one survey of 550 new mothers, only 45 percent had access to a lactation room that wasn’t a bathroom, and almost 50 percent said their decision whether or not to breastfeed was affected by their postpartum career plans.

And that’s not even considering the many companies that simply don’t install a lactation room on premises, or the companies that do have lactation rooms but actively discriminate against working mothers or punish them for taking pumping breaks. In fact, workplace lactation discrimination lawsuits have also risen 800 percent over the past decade, indicating that while working mothers may now be more comfortable advocating for their rights, America still has a long way to go for pumping to gain widespread acceptance in the workplace.

There are so many challenges associated with pumping in the workplace that it is often cited as one of the reasons for exclusive breastfeeding rates dropping off after the first few months of a baby’s life: The experience can be so frustrating that many moms will just stop nursing altogether, WHO recommendations be damned.

And for many new mothers, pumping, for lack of a better term, sucks. It’s uncomfortable (for many moms, it’s actively painful), it’s awkward, it’s inefficient, and it’s cumbersome to lug a giant breast pump to and from work every day. Pumping engenders so many negative feelings in new mothers that there are regular hackathons to build better breast pumps, and a photo shoot depicting a new mom kicking and punching her breast pump a la Office Space went viral last year.

“The dreaded pumping sessions are some of the worst parts of breastfeeding,” Mia Gorrell, the photographer behind the shoot, said in a blog post. “Taking your top off or using a bra with two holes in it, you are a prisoner to the machine that sucks milk out of your breasts multiple times a day. To say you feel like a cow being milked is probably the most accurate description.”

Some breastfeeding advocates have argued that breast pumps provide a Band-Aid solution to a much larger systemic problem: the lack of mandated maternity leave in the United States and, by extension, the lack of respect our society affords mothers in the workplace.

A handful of activists have taken this argument even further, suggesting that breast pumps are far from the feminist panacea they’ve traditionally been marketed as and gloss over the reality of working mothers’ lives. Marketing materials for hands-free, next-generation breast pumps like Evie and Willow, for instance, tend to feature badass supermoms expertly juggling conference calls with cooking dinner; the implication is that hands-free breast pumps give working mothers more free time to fill up with their career and mothering duties, when frankly, they’re already pretty tapped out as is.

“The idea that women can just cram more tasks into every hour, simultaneously pumping, filing expense reports, and dialing into a conference call, has real allure,” working mom of two Annaliese Griffin wrote for Quartz. “[But] the difficulties of being a working parent, particularly when you’re nursing, cannot be solved by consumer choice alone.”

Breastfeeding stigma is still prevalent — and powerful.

Getty Images/Tetra images RF

It’s not a small thing that A-list celebrities like McAdams are using their tremendous platforms to normalize images of breastfeeding. Even though breastfeeding rates are rising, and the public health community highly encourages mothers to breastfeed (to the extent, some argue, of shaming them into doing so), stigma around public breastfeeding is still very real and prevalent.

It’s not hard to find viral stories of women being shamed at restaurants or concerts or airports for nursing in public, including from celebrities like Mila Kunis. And until fairly recently, breastfeeding photos were likely to be flagged on social platforms like Instagram for violating user guidelines prohibiting nudity. (In 2015, Instagram started allowing breastfeeding photos following user backlash.)

Breastfeeding and pumping are normal, natural, totally asexual things that many mothers do, and it is important to depict them as such. But there’s arguably a distinction between doing that and depicting pumping as something glamorous and liberating, which is likely at odds with the reality of most women’s lived experiences.

“There has arisen a subset of ‘normalize breastfeeding’ activism that is less about normalizing the everyday lived reality of lactation, and more about normalizing breastfeeding by making it glamorous and aspirational,” Tracy Clark-Flory wrote for Jezebel after Martin, the Sports Illustrated model, went viral. “[It’s] less about advocating for things like suitable pumping accommodations in the workplace—things that meaningfully allow women to ‘DO IT ALL’—than it is making breastfeeding beautiful and attractive.”

And ultimately, McAdams’s photo shoot falls squarely in this category. Were it to be truly subversive, she might’ve been shot not with dramatic eye makeup and a cropped designer jacket, but in sweatpants and an ugly nursing bra at 3 in the morning blearily watching Netflix, or desperately trying to eke out one more ounce in a cramped supply closet before a business meeting.

Diamonds and Versace may look a lot cooler, but for celebrity moms to truly help normalize breastfeeding, it may be more helpful to showcase the reality of what breastfeeding looks like first — or, better yet, to advocate for better policies to support nursing moms.

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