Gisele Bundchen Rebrands Breastfeeding

photo: InstagramWith a single viral photo, Gisele Bundchen may have just forwarded the cause of breastfeeding more than years of effort from groups such as the World Health Organization. On Tuesday, the supermodel posted a snapshot of herself swathed in a white bathrobe nursing her 1-year-old daughter, Vivian, while being fussed over by a manicurist, makeup artist, and hairstylist. It was accompanied by the note, "What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours flying and only 3 hours of sleep #multitasking #gettingready."  

In 24 hours, the picture has received about 100,000 likes on both Instagram and Facebook and generated a heated debate. "Kudos to Gisele for starting the conversation," Ricki Lake, actress and producer of the upcoming documentary film, "Breast Milk", tells Yahoo Shine. "So many women look up to her—she makes [breastfeeding] look effortless. I thought the photo was breathtakingly beautiful." Breastfeeding can use all of the publicity it can get. Despite a huge amount of research touting the benefits of breastfeeding and recommending that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months and then nursed at least part-time for another six or more, only 49% of babies in the United States are breastfeeding at all by the age of 6 months. In some states such as Mississippi (19%), Arkansas (24%), and Alabama (29%), the numbers are even lower.

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The reasons for giving up nursing one's child are complicated, including the challenges for working mothers, lactation difficulties, a lack of information and support, and the ease and availability of infant formula. But breastfeeding also makes some people uncomfortable and faces an image problem. Lake's co-producer, Abby Epstein (the two also worked together on "The Business of Being Born") tells Shine, "In the United States, the attitude toward this issue is adolescent. Women have so many obstacles anyway, and on top of that you are going to stigmatize it? In some other countries, nobody blinks." Over the last year, women have been booted off of planes and out of restaurants and country clubs for nursing their babies. A few days ago, a Connecticut court official (where the right to breastfeed is protected by law) had to apologize to a young mother after a marshal yanked her out of a family court for discreetly feeding her 3-month-old son.

Bundchen’s photo was risky—not only because of the pervasive attitude that breastfeeding should literally be kept under wraps, but also because her stance on nursing and other maternity-related issues have touched a nerve in the past. In 2010, she was widely criticized for opining, “There should be a worldwide law…that mothers should breastfeed for six months.” She later apologized, elaborating, "My intention in making a comment about the importance of breastfeeding has nothing to do with the law…it comes from my passionate beliefs about children.” The same year, after the birth of her son Benjamin, she gratingly quipped, "I think a lot of people get pregnant and decide they can turn into garbage disposals. I was mindful about what I ate, and I gained only 30 pounds."

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Not everyone appreciated her new pose as a modern-day Madonna and Child either. The Daily Mail called her the “ultimate smug mom.” And Denise Albert, one of the founders of TheMoms.com, told ABC News: “For her to put this on Instagram while she’s getting her hair and make-up done is a little outrageous, and I think obnoxious.” Commenting for Elle, Jessica Grose pointed out that, as with most aspects of motherhood, being rich (Bundchen and husband Tom Brady are estimated to be worth at least $80 million) and coddled by a team of assistants makes breastfeeding immeasurably easier. “The mature part of me is thrilled for Gisele that she can have the space and luxury to breastfeed while working and can bring her baby on the job,” she wrote. “The small part of me is green with envy because I live in the United States where maternity leave is a joke and where most women who have 1-year-olds and are still breastfeeding are at the office with a pump attached to their chests like some bizarre medieval torture device.”

But what’s tactically brilliant and also stunningly effective about Bundchen’s latest grenade lob into the Mommy Wars is that, this time, she kept her mouth shut and employed her strongest asset: her looks. There is a reason this former-Victoria’s Secret Angel is the highest paid model in the world (her image is worth a million—actually 42 million—bucks). Despite some media grumbling, the public’s response has been hugely positive. Comments on social media gushingly describe the scene as "beautiful" and "nurturing" and call the supermodel a “super mom” and a "Role Model." Her fans — and she has over 2 million on Facebook as well as 1.6 million Twitter followers — are also extolling her for “normalizing” the act of nursing a baby. “Woo woo breastfeeding mama who just doesn't care!” wrote one commenter on Facebook capturing the overall sentiment. In a time where photographic images and Internet virality are integral to the success of a brand, maybe “breastfeeding, inc.” was just waiting for its perfect poster girl.

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