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What the Military Really Looks Like: More Than Just Another Breastfeeding Controversy

Brynja Sigurdardottir

Another breastfeeding controversy hit the internet this week, when photos of two Military moms nursing their babies, while in uniform, circulated viral-style and prompted comparisons to defecation, urination and sex (in uniform), from an allegedly ‘outraged’ public. Of course, all the moms I know promptly posted variations on “Awesome! Go mamas!” status updates, along with links to the photos, to their own Facebook walls; and while this full-approval contingent may be a self-selecting group that hardly represents the public-at-large, I think it's worth noting that moms (specifically military-affiliated moms), rather than the general public, were in fact the target audience for the now-famous photographs. They first appeared as part of an on-base, pro-breastfeeding campaign launched by a mom-to-mom support group, aptly named Mom2Mom of Fairchild (Washington) Air Force Base. (The group was started by mom, and military spouse, Crystal Scott).

That the public’s had a problem with photos showing two US airmen breastfeeding (and actually, obviously, these are women, but the military’s official verbiage is about a quarter century behind the rest of the nation) — with one of the moms even tandem breastfeeding her baby twins – is not exactly surprising. Breastfeeding makes much of the American public squeamish (although breasts themselves, as we’ve covered here before, definitely do not). It’s unfortunately still fairly common for nursing moms to find themselves kicked out of restaurants, churches, or even their jobs for feeding their babies on-site, but the law does, by and large, back the moms in these situations. With the release of new breastfeeding guidelines this past year, too, based on a growing body of scientific research that’s again and again shown breastfeeding to be of benefit to babies, communities and even economies, the AAP called upon the communities in which nursing moms circulate to support the practice as well. Still, a certain stigma (and the social and professional challenges that accompany it) against breastfeeding endures. In lieu of a predominantly supportive cultural system, American nursing -- and non-nursing -- moms must largely create their own networks of support… Hence the Fairchild Air Force Base moms group and its outreach efforts.

Showing nursing moms in official military dress, however, was what sparked the real controversy this time around. There are super-specific rules around what a person may and may not do in uniform: eating and drinking while walking, and holding hands, for example, are not permitted. The Air Force doesn’t specify rules around breastfeeding in uniform, but a spokesperson told Yahoo Shine, “Airmen should be mindful of their dress and appearance and present a professional image at all times while in uniform."

The fact is that breastfeeding is a part of the photographed moms’ professional (as in day-to-day working) lives, as it is for many, many working moms worldwide. Breastfeeding moms on Air Force bases are provided with pumping time and breastfeeding accommodations in Child Development Centers, but, according to Scott, "a lot of people think that you can't be a mom and be a soldier.” Yet, many soldiers are moms, and “they breastfeed in uniform all the time -- it's just not something that's usually captured on film."

If eating and drinking while walking aren’t permissible for soldiers in uniform, it seems pretty likely that breastfeeding in uniform also offends whatever super-formal, sense of (superhuman) propriety underlies the official code, even if breastfeeding isn’t specifically covered by it. The branch of the Air National Guard of which the photographed nursing moms are members has stated that any issue taken with the photos on the part of the Air Force has been with their potential use of uniforms as an endorsement of a third-party agenda (which is also officially prohibited), rather than with breastfeeding itself. I actually have to hand it to the Air Force for keeping its cool in the midst of the web and media storm— their official response has been pretty low-key, and has not constituted the ‘outrage’ side of the controversy. Still, the US Military’s expectations don’t seem to be entirely rooted in reality (the Army didn’t even produce a combat uniform for women until 2010, and women have served for half a century); public displays of affection are prohibited for those in uniform, but haven’t we all seen images of soldiers, in uniform, hugging and kissing their loved ones? Don’t we love those images? We do, and we love them because they show us that soldiers are people, too. Well, some people are also moms, some moms are also soldiers, and some moms also breastfeed. (What’s not to love?) For those who can’t quite do the math on that, these recent photos help.

These moms chose to be photographed while nursing in uniform because it is a normal occurrence for them. And because the photographs were intended to reach other military moms, they felt it was important to represent the human side (not to mention the female side) of soldier-hood. Non-military moms in the most flexible of work situations – which a military job is not -- frequently ask themselves whether it’s really possible to take care of one’s professional and parental responsibilities to the extent that we wish, and then, if it is, how? The photographs of the uniformed moms answer those questions at a glance (“yes”, and “like so”), for other mommy soldiers, which is exactly what they were intended to do. I think it’s pretty great that they’ve stretched both military policy, and the public’s perception, regarding the reality and representation of soldiers’ lives, but I can understand why that unnerves people who take the formal, professional protocol very seriously. ‘Outrage,’ however, or comparisons between defecation, urination or sex and breastfeeding, have no business, ever, in this debate.

What do you think of the photos? Do they do what they were intended to do, and more? Are they helpful or harmful to the military’s image? What about breastfeeding’s image? All perspectives are welcome—please share yours!