Gisele Bundchen’s clueless classist comments

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen was quoted in the September Harper’s Bazaar UK as saying, “There should be a worldwide law, in my opinion, that mothers should breastfeed their babies for six months.”

Bundchen got lots of outraged reactions to her statement, but mostly from women with positive opinions about bottle-feeding, or general dismay at woman-to-woman lifestyle attacks. Very few commenters pointed out the classism in the comment.

One of the exceptions was Canadian blogger Renee Martin, who wrote,

“I do want to talk about the one issue that is not being addressed in many of the complaints about her statements – class. In Canada, a woman has one year paid maternity leave, but this is not a global universal. In the states, maternity leave is often six weeks and it is unpaid. Breast may be best, but because of the way this world is organized, it is not a choice that many poor women are allowed to make. Often women lose their jobs when they take time to express milk. Many places of employment don’t even have a space where this can happen in privacy and relative comfort. If you are a middle manager with an office door that you can close this provides an environment that a factory worker by nature of her job simply will not have. So this idea that you are a bad mother if you do not breast feed, fails to take into account how women/mothers are often in extremely different circumstances due to class.”

Good points, Renee – but Canada’s policies far outshine the American version. Only 8% of US workers get any paid family leave for newborns – and only 5% of those earning less than $15 an hour. One in five of those lowest earning workers can’t even take any unpaid leave after giving birth, according to 2007 Department of Labor data.

So where will Gisele be breast-feeding 8-month-old Bejamin? The Brazilian supermodel and husband Tom Brady spent $20 million on their California dream house – 22,000 square feet for their 5-person family.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Great Recession, so many unemployed people are moving in with their families that there was more than a fourfold increase in overcrowding (more than one person per room) from 2005 to 2008, according to a report sponsored by the Research Institute for Housing America. Ten percent of young adults, ages 18 to 34, said in the Pew survey they had moved back with their parents because of the recession.

The total number of households in the US fell by more than a million in 2008 because of foreclosures and people giving up apartments and homes, mostly to move in with relatives.

The view from a mega-mansion looks a lot different than the view from a relative’s living room couch. And a $25 million a year model, the highest-paid in the world in both 2009 and 2010, has a lot of nerve laying down the law for women who might have to bottle-feed to keep their job.

7 Responses

  1. Amy

    Sorry, I don’t think this one qualifies under classism. I don’t think she was being literal when she was saying “world-wide law” (and since no world-wide legal governing system exists, her choice of words supports the idea that it was more metaphorical). She also didn’t say exclusively breastfeed.

    There’s no class-based reason that women can’t breast-feed for six months. (There may be psychological or medical reasons it’s difficult or impossible, educational reasons that make it more or less likely, but none strictly class-related.) In fact it’s an economically advantageous decision, as it is free, always available, always clean and the perfect temperature, and unless you have complications, it saves time.

    Family leave makes it possible to breast-feed more often, and may make it easier, but is not a requirement, and I’m disappointed that you’re taking a position that leaves people with the impression that it is.

    I begged my employer to put me back on the schedule a week after I gave birth to my second son. (I had no paid family leave at this low-wage job, and my husband had just been laid off from his.) In trying to do me a kindness, my boss insisted I wait another month. I breast-fed that son for two and a half years. I pumped at work for a while, but even if I hadn’t, breastfeeding just when I was home wouldn’t have been difficult. In fact, if you keep a semi-regular schedule, your body will adjust it’s milk production to decrease production for the times you’re at work, and increase for when you’re home.

    It’s antiquated thinking, ignorant of the medical realities of the human body’s capacity to say that working women can’t breast-feed. Instead of criticizing the house this woman lives in, how about we say, “it would be great if every woman breast-fed for six months… here’s what would really help working women do that: more generous family leave policies, and labor laws like the one in New York that states that ’employers must allow breastfeeding mothers reasonable, unpaid break times to express milk and make a reasonable attempt to provide a private location for her to do so. Prohibits discrimination against breastfeeding mothers.'”

  2. Betsy Leondar-Wright
    Betsy Leondar-Wright

    You make a good point about “world-wide law” being obviously fanciful language, not a literal proposal, when there is no such thing, Amy.
    And the New York and workplace policies you mention would definitely make breast-feeding more feasible for more women, which would be great.
    But I’m not convinced that all employers are flexible enough now to make breast-feeding possible. I’ve known women for whom bottle-feed or lose the job were the only choices. So many low-wage jobs are just so rigid these days (I’m thinking of some of the ones profiled in Lisa Dodson’s book “The Moral Underground”).
    My point about Gisele Bundchen was that in meaning well, trying to advance a good cause, she spoke thoughtlessly, without knowledge of the constraints many working-class women struggle with. That’s what I think of as classism. What she did, I’ve done many times, and lots of us who haven’t been low-income mothers have done – we’ve spoken out of ignorance and made it sound easy for others to solve obstacles that we ourselves don’t face. I wish I’d listened and learned more before speaking sometimes; and I wish Gisele had listened and learned more before speaking.

  3. Amy

    You’re still making statements that I’m telling you are just not true. I wouldn’t push this if it were simply a matter of opinion, I can respect that other people have a different opinion than my own. But to say an employer HAS to make a job flexible in order for a woman to breast-feed is false. Period. Trust me, there are plenty of breast-feeding women out there who wouldn’t dream of breathing a word to their new employer that they have a small child at home for fear of discrimination. That doesn’t mean you can’t breastfeed. Your body will adjust to produce less milk when you are at work. Pumping at work, for the short time I did it, allowed my husband to bottle-feed with expressed milk, but it was not a requirement to my breastfeeding when I was home. I pumped for maybe a month, I breast-fed that same child for two-and-a-half years. I didn’t have to pump at all in order to breastfeed.

    There are a lot of reasons women don’t breast-feed: There’s not enough support for women who have difficulty, some women may have a problem that’s simple to solve, but without access to a lactation consultant to help them, they assume it’s impossible. We live in a culture where breasts are sexual objects and using them to feed a child is confusing to our senses. We receive various signs of disapproval from some people when we breast-feed in public, from dirty looks to being asked to leave. Women with a history of sexual abuse may not feel comfortable with the sensation. Some of these issues are so deep women themselves can’t identify them. So I never criticize a woman who said they “can’t” breastfeed, even when their reasons, such as because they “didn’t have enough milk,” “their baby was allergic to breastmilk”, and other commonly held myths* including, “I had to go back to work” are really just the result of misinformation, miseducation, and occasionally deflection.

    Also, low-income women and women in high-income households are more likely to stay at home with their young children, than their middle-class counterparts.** But primarily that’s because low-wage jobs don’t cover the cost of childcare, and if they do, it involves acceptance of such sub-standard childcare many women decide it’s not worth it. So in her fancy mansion, staying home with her son, she may have more in common with low-income women than you might think. SAHMs are undervalued at both ends of the spectrum, whether it’s stereotypes of “ornamental” women eating bon bons while a nanny and housekeeper do all the work, or the stereotype of the welfare or low-income mom that’s lazy and lets her kids run around dirty and neglected. (And of course the stereotype of working women who don’t really know their kids. Gee, only one person gets off the hook in these stereotypes–Dad!) This is a perfect opportunity to build bridges across class divides instead of walls.

    Of course saying “it should be a law” is a silly thing to say. Because it’s not how we’d actually get there. We’d get there by educating women on latch techniques, helping when they have difficulty, providing lactation consultants at hospitals and under insurance as part of standard post-partum care. Instead of throwing women out of restaurants for breastfeeding,*** going up to them and saying, “Good for you! What a great thing you’re doing for that child!” And by women like Gisele Bundchen saying, “See these beautiful breasts that I made lots of money with because they’re sensual and beautiful? Well they make milk, feed babies, and that’s beautiful too. Women’s breasts can be both sensual and nurturing, just like women can be, and so the media that just shows us as sexual objects? Listen up. We’re feeding babies and that’s pretty damn awesome too.”

    **Mothers who stay home are concentrated in the top 5% of household incomes and the bottom 25%, says Stephanie Coontz of the non-profit, non-partisan Council on Contemporary Families.

  4. Tim

    I’d also like to point out that Canada isn’t completely free of this problem. Though parents (of all sexes/genders) can take 50 weeks of leave following a birth, that is 50 weeks at 55 percent of their pay. So, the 50 weeks are only available if you can afford to take only 55% of your pay. If you’re living paycheque-to-paycheque, you need 100% of your pay. So, it’s not a breastfeeder’s paradise here either.

  5. “Pumping at work, for the short time I did it, allowed my husband to bottle-feed with expressed milk, but it was not a requirement to my breastfeeding when I was home. I pumped for maybe a month, I breast-fed that same child for two-and-a-half years. I didn’t have to pump at all in order to breastfeed.”

    Amy, it sound like you have a regular job that pays you a salary or at least has regular hours. Many working class women don’t have a regular job. Much shift work is uneven not only in days-of-the-week, but in hours. Some shifts are twelve hours on, twelve off, then twenty-four on and twenty-four off.

    I agree with you that everyone needs to support breast feeding. But what Gisele and you are saying show some amount of blindness about social class issues and motherhood.

    It used to be that poor people breast fed their babies and fed their families brown bread and rich people ate white bread and used formula. Now it’s reversed. Whatever middle and owning class people decide is the best thing for all families to do is usually out of reach for poor and working class families.

  6. Stephanie

    Amy, If you didn’t have to pump while at work to breastfeed, was your child not fed during the day? My guess is that you supplemented with formula or some type of nutrition.

    However, what you are trying to do is generalize your experience to the systemic issues of class that Gisele’s comments raised. If women want to exclusively breastfeed their children and work, they need to have flexible employment. Many women do not. Just because YOU did not need to pump at work does not negate the fact that many women WANT to breastfeed but cannot because of their jobs.

  7. Kat

    So many comments, and why? To dissect a celebrity’s verbal diarrhea? She isn’t a lawmaker. though it’s a real issue, we shouldn’t be analyzing what she said specifically. We should be looking at society. Wheeee!

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