Got (Breast) Milk?

The act of breastfeeding has been used as a powerful image of propaganda, but can it also be an image of empowerment? 

A trend has arisen on social media in recent years for celebrity mothers to post photos of themselves breastfeeding. The purported intention is to celebrate women’s bodies and to normalise breastfeeding. They join a long tradition: images of staged lactation for the public eye are not new and have been used as a propaganda tactic since ancient Rome. They have not, however, always been empowering.

According to Roman legend, the city’s founders were the fratricidal twins Romulus and Remus, the sons of the war god Mars. Abandoned at birth by their power-hungry great-uncle, they were miraculously saved by a kindly she-wolf, the sacred animal of Mars. The she-wolf provided milk for the babies, mirabile dictu. Even the Roman historian Livy was sceptical of this particular tale and provided another explanation, which revolved around the alternative meaning for the word lupa: it could mean ‘she-wolf’, or it could merely mean ‘prostitute’. Regardless, at some point, the statue of the Capitoline she-wolf had the nursing twins strategically positioned underneath her, in a brilliant staged lactation propaganda motif. Whenever in Rome’s history the twins were added, the image was meant to convey power – the power of Rome over all others.

The wolf in the statue looks distinctly uncomfortable, maybe even surprised. The twins, on the other hand, are eagerly nursing and one of them is half-standing to get to the teat. They do not look like helpless newborns. Despite their size next to the much larger wolf, they look to be in control of the scene. Of course, that is exactly how the Romans imagined themselves. Rome may have started out as a small backwater village – and even at its height, it was only one large city in a massive empire – but none of that mattered. Just like the twins, the Romans wanted to convey an image of themselves as always in control of their empire. The best anyone else could hope for was the role of the she-wolf – a powerful ally that would willingly nurture its rulers, even if uncomfortable while doing so. And this nurturing aspect was, of course, gendered. The rulers (the Romans) were always male, while the ruled captive provinces were always personified as female in Roman art. Furthermore, captive provinces such as Gallia, depicted on coinage or other commemorative Roman art, often have their breasts prominently on display. The implication is clear: their function was to support and nourish the empire, one way or another.

Famous long after antiquity, the statue of the tired she-wolf nursing the plucky twins received a renewed level of popularity in Mussolini’s Italy. Mussolini sent out full-scale replicas to a number of cities across the world as a symbol of friendship. (He must have felt particularly happy to send one to the city of Rome in Georgia.) The statue’s message of domination persisted.

Valerius Maximus, a mediocre Roman politician and historian writing in the early first century, told a different tale of breastfeeding. A father – he wrote – was imprisoned and sentenced to die by starvation. Unable to stand by and allow him to suffer such a horrible death, his daughter, a nursing mother, visited him each day and breastfed him in secret. Eventually, the guards suspected something was amiss and spied on her. But, rather than being punished, once the truth was discovered the daughter was celebrated as the paragon of filial piety and the father was released.

This story, to whose protagonists later tradition assigned the names of Cimon and Pero, was so popular in Valerius’ Rome that a painting of it adorned the temple to Pietas (Piety). For the Romans, the story exemplified the pious devotion of a daughter to her father – it is only right that a daughter should risk her life and use her body to save her father. By implication, the daughter would have been guilty of his death had she not saved his life when she knew she could. European artists, from the Renaissance on, were no less fascinated with the emotional appeal of this motif, which they renamed Caritas Romana (‘Roman Charity’). A relief version of this scene is carved above the old entrance to the city prison in Ghent. A public lactation scene may have looked a bit odd at the entrance to the city’s prison, and the message it provided was not one of women’s empowerment. The daughter’s obligation to her father, in the eyes of the Romans as much as the Renaissance painters, was absolute.

There is another staged breastfeeding scene, which has been popular in art since the Middle Ages – Mary nursing the infant Jesus, or, in Italian, Madonna del Latte. The image of Mary breastfeeding the Son of God is meant to remind the audiences of her role as the intercessor for all of humanity. She is the epitome of nurture, kindness and self-sacrificial love. It is impossible to see this image without imagining another part of the story – Mary weeping for her crucified son. It is appropriate, in fact, that Michelangelo named his statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus Pieta – Piety, the same concept as that which the ancient Romans associated with Pero’s nursing of her father.

But Mary, just as the other women and she-wolves in these artistic displays of public lactation, is not the author of these portrayals. And maybe that is the key difference between these images and the recent photographs. These are produced by the mother herself, presented as she would like to be. But, when there are so many such images, are these photographs truly liberating, or are they just another instance of public lactation as an instrument of co-opting women’s bodies for a cause?